WASHINGTON – The Bush administration appears increasingly focused on undertaking a risky military rescue of three Americans held hostage more than four years by drug-trafficking leftist rebels in Colombia.
Current and former U.S. officials say the government has failed to engage in routine negotiations or take other diplomatic steps of the kind used in similar hostage situations.
Additionally, the Justice Department refuses to consider exchanging the Americans for two Colombian guerrillas held by the United States.
The administration denies neglecting avenues to safely free the three men — contract workers Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell, who were captured in February 2003 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"I'm deeply concerned about their fate," President Bush said in an interview with RCN TV of Colombia on Wednesday, before leaving on a five-nation trip to Latin America. Bush visits Bogota, Colombia's capital, on Sunday.
Addressing the FARC, Bush said: "Give up these hostages. You're making it clear to the world the kind of people you are when you take innocent life and hold them hostage. And it's very sad for the families here in America."
The hostages' families have nearly lost hope of seeing their loved ones alive.
"My father has not been here to see me grow up," Lauren Stansell, the 18-year-old daughter of hostage Keith Stansell, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The government is just letting them sit there."
The Northrop Grumman Corp. contractors were on what U.S. officials describe as a drug surveillance mission over Caqueta, a rebel stronghold and cocaine-producing region in Colombia's southern jungle, when their plane crashed on Feb. 13, 2003.
Gonsalves, 34, Howes, 53, and Stansell, 42, were captured almost immediately. Officials say two other men on the mission, an American and a Colombian, were killed by the rebels. The three surviving hostages have been heard from only once.
Over the past seven years, the U.S. has pumped $4 billion into Colombia to combat the FARC and bring down the world's largest cocaine industry. The 15,000-strong peasant army, whose principal source of income is the drug trade, has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States.
Speaking on condition of anonymity over the past two months, current and former U.S. officials said the administration so far has failed to:
—Deploy Foreign Emergency Support Teams to Colombia. The Washington-based special squads are made up of counterterror experts and crisis workers from the departments of State, Justice and Defense and the 16-agency intelligence community. They are routinely deployed when a U.S. citizen is taken hostage overseas.
The State Department said the teams were not deployed because there wasn't enough information about the hostages' location or whether they were alive.
—Aggressively gather intelligence in Colombia about the physical and mental health of the three men, where the FARC might be holding them, how frequently they are moved and other information that would help the administration decide how to proceed.
Intelligence resources are limited in Colombia, the officials say, because of the administration's focus on disrupting terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
In a Jan. 23 letter to Northrop Grumman, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the administration had "increased resources devoted to this issue in Bogota," including "fully leveraging all intelligence and available national resources."
The letter also seemed to indicate the U.S. was leaning toward a rescue attempt. Hadley said he wanted to "reiterate our commitment to rescuing our American citizens and update you on our efforts to bring them home safely."
Northrop Grumman vice president James F. Pitts wrote back, urging the government to work on diplomatic efforts.
"With four years having passed since the kidnapping, and given the inherent dangers in a military rescue, it is critical that other options be pursued," Pitts wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by the AP.
—Regularly send FBI negotiators to Colombia to work with third-party intermediaries — such as the International Red Cross or the Catholic Church — who might appeal to the rebels. The United States generally does not negotiate directly with terror organizations.
FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said the negotiators were in Colombia shortly after the hostages were captured and have since provided guidance to U.S. and international officials. FBI negotiators and investigators, as well as agents in Bogota, "have been engaged in this case since the beginning," Kolko said, declining further comment.
Although the FARC has said it would consider including the three contractors in a larger prisoner exchange, the Colombian and U.S. governments have ruled out a swap.
Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell are among an estimated 62 political prisoners being held by the rebels. There have been no demands for ransom. The Colombian government is holding about 500 of the rebels. The United States has two rebels in custody — Nayibe Rojas "Sonia" Valderama, a FARC financial officer, and Ricardo Palmera, a FARC spokesman who also is known as Simon Trinidad.
Asked about the possibility of swapping Valderama and Palmera for the Americans, officials across the administration said that would be too big a concession to a terror group.
This week, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who oversees Western Hemisphere affairs, said the U.S. would "be very happy" if Colombian President Alvaro Uribe could negotiate a humanitarian accord that would result in the hostages' release.
Uribe has made it clear he doesn't want to negotiate a prisoner exchange and advocates a military rescue as the only hope of freeing the hostages — something that, until recently, U.S. officials were reluctant to support.