As aid to Colombia mushroomed in the late 1990s, an ugly feud broke out over combat helicopters, the largest line item in the Clinton administration’s $1.3 billion Colombian aid package. Colombian police and army commanders, Republican Party leaders, the administration’s drug czar and the State Department all joined the battle over which aircraft to send to Colombia and which branch of the Colombian security forces should fly them. Dueling aerospace companies United Technologies and Textron spent more than $30 million in lobbying and campaign contributions to influence the outcome—which affected more than $400 million in sales.

It wasn’t a trivial dispute. The two helicopters in question—United Technology’s Black Hawk and the Huey II, or Super Huey, made by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., a subsidiary of Providence, R.I.-based Textron—had differences with life-or-death potential. The Black Hawk could carry 24 troops; the Super Huey 11. The Black Hawk could fly farther, carry heavier loads and reach altitudes of 20,000 feet, high in the Andes where opium poppies grow; the Huey could reach 16,000 feet. The Black Hawk was quieter than the Huey. It was also tremendously more expensive—$13 million each, compared to the $1.8 million it cost to upgrade a used Huey to a Huey II.

The helicopter war angered congressional conservatives who might otherwise have supported Plan Colombia. Reps. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., then the chairman of the International Relations Committee and Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, were so disappointed with delays in shipping the helicopters to Colombia, as well as with the Clinton administration’s eventual decision to send most of the Black Hawks to the Colombian army, rather than the Colombian National Police, that they have withheld their support for aid to Colombia. “I think it’s abominable to have to wait that long. [The CNP] need these Black Hawks, and they need them now,” said Gilman at an October 2000 congressional hearing.

As a former New York assistant state attorney general who saw many drug cases cross his desk, Gilman was a true believer in the Andean counternarcotics cause and a passionate supporter of Gen. Rosso José Serrano, the chief of the Colombian National Police from 1994 to 2000. During his 1998 congressional campaign, Gilman received $4,000 in contributions from United Technologies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He got $5,000 in 1998 and $10,000 in the 2000 cycle from Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the P3 Airborne Early Warning aircraft, a surveillance plane used by the U.S. Customs Service for interdiction of drug flights. Interdiction, as it happens, was one of Gilman’s peeves during the helicopter war—he charged that the Clinton administration wasn’t spending enough to block flights and shipments of drugs into the United States.

From 1996 to 2000, United Technologies spent at least $17.9 million on lobbying and $1.2 million on campaign contributions. Its home state delegation received much of the largesse. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who had been one of the sharpest critics of Reagan-era interventions in Central America, voted to support Plan Colombia. Dodd received more than $38,000 in campaign contributions from United Technologies from 1995 to 2000. The other Connecticut senator, Democrat Joseph Lieberman, got $33,500, and was the biggest single recipient of United Technologies gift-giving during the 2000 election campaign.

“I think Plan Colombia is a misnomer,” Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch told The Hartford Courant at the time. “It should be called Plan Connecticut.”

Dodd has a record of “constituent service” on behalf of the Black Hawk manufacturer. In 1990, the company had landed a contract to sell 200 helicopters to Turkey. United Technologies turned to Dodd when the Export-Import Bank turned down the company’s request for a loan guarantee to help finance the deal. Ex-Im Bank is barred from financing military sales. Dodd wrangled a one-time waiver for the Turkish deal, according to The Hartford Courant, then went on to amend the State Department’s 1992 authorization bill to allow it to guarantee financing of arms exports to NATO countries. Lieberman supported Dodd’s amendment, and even authored his own version as a backstop. Neither passed. Dodd had already authored a bill to allow Ex-Im Bank to finance military sales in 1991, which also died on the Senate floor, though aides say the sales were limited to Greece and Turkey. Dodd’s wife, Jackie Marie Clegg, whom he married in 1999, has worked for Ex-Im Bank since 1993, becoming its vice president in 1997, a position she still holds.

Following a Dodd visit to Colombia in 1999, the Colombian government ordered six Black Hawks. On June 21, 2000, Dodd introduced an amendment on the Senate floor on behalf of himself and Lieberman that would have given the Pentagon, in consultation with the Colombian military, the right to determine what the “most effective” aircraft would be for Colombian drug-fighting. The amendment, an apparent effort to foil Texas legislators’ efforts to push sales of the Huey to Colombia, failed, but the Black Hawks, which had been written out of Plan Colombia, went back into the final package.

Meanwhile, 22 House members from Texas who supported the Hueys sent a “dear colleague” letter to top lawmakers in 2000 trying to get more Hueys included in the bill. Bell Helicopter Textron is located in the Fort Worth district of Republican Rep. Kay Granger, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Majority leader Dick Armey and Rep. Martin Frost, a Democrat, fought on behalf of the Hueys, according to a report in Legal Times. Granger and Frost each received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from Textron from 1995 to 2000, while DeLay and Armey got $7,000 and $6,000, respectively.

Earlier shipments of helicopters to Colombia had gotten caught up in legal and political disputes over the decertification of the government of President Ernesto Samper, whose 1994 campaign allegedly had been funded by drug dealers. In 1996, the Colombian government had set aside more than $100 million to purchase up to 12 Black Hawks outfitted with machine guns for the Colombian army, and the administration approved the sale on the basis that, as a cash sale, it would not conflict with decertification.

In a February 2000 hearing, then-drug czar Barry McCaffrey called Black Hawks “the best helicopter on the face of the Earth; the next time you see me, I’ll probably be peddling them, I hope.” Despite that, McCaffrey dismissed the Republican legislators’ obsession with the sophisticated aircraft. “You can’t just send machinery,” McCaffrey told the hearing before a subcommittee of Gilman’s International Relations Committee. “You’ve got to train the crews. The hardest part is getting the maintenance system set up . . . . the lead time on learning to fly a Black Hawk helicopter is an 18-month proposition. So when we get ahead of ourselves, when we send six Black Hawks to the Colombian army, which we did several years ago . . . I flew in there and looked at them painting over the $100,000-plus radar-reflective paint job so they could get ‘Ejercito de Colombia’ [“Colombian Army”] on the tailbone . . . The Colombian National Police do not have a system to support a sudden infusion of Black Hawks, period. It doesn’t exist.”

Funds were allocated in the fiscal year 1996 foreign appropriations bill to upgrade 12 Huey helicopters to the specifications of the Huey II, providing new minigun systems for the police. However, there was initial confusion over how the aid could continue under decertification, and about $35 million in counternarcotics assistance slated for helicopter parts, ammunition and training was delayed for 18 months, to the outrage of Gilman and other lawmakers. Michael Skol, a State Department veteran who left government to set up his own lobbying and consulting firm, attributed the delay to decertification. He told The Washington Times that it “engaged all the lawyers and, therefore, caused the delay because it took time to figure out how to give military assistance for anti-drug purposes to a decertified country.”

The group of congressmen that supported the Colombian police pressed for additional Black Hawks and other equipment. The State Department was skeptical: in a March 26, 1998, letter to Gilman, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Barbara Larkin called the purchase of Black Hawks “neither cost effective, nor tactically wise. To contemplate the replacement of the entire CNP UH-1H force with Black Hawks would be financially reckless for both the U.S. as the purchaser and Colombia as the operator.”

However, in October 1998, Clinton signed an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that included funding for six UH-60 Black Hawks for Colombia at a total cost of $96 million. A congressional staffer called the proposal “unusual” because it was not voted on in the appropriations committee and not attached to any bill for an initial vote on the House floor. Congressional sources point to this aid, which was added to the omnibus spending bill of 1999, as the precursor to the U.S.-backed military component of Plan Colombia. The half-dozen Black Hawks were apparently the same helicopters whose misuse McCaffrey described in such detail to Gilman’s committee.

The much larger final helicopter package for Plan Colombia, approved in June 2000, was an example of “splitting the difference,” as a congressional aide described it. It included 16 Black Hawks and 30 Huey IIs for the Colombian military and two Black Hawks and 12 Huey IIs for the Colombian National Police. The bill also included funding for operation and maintenance of 18 Hueys that were delivered to Colombia in 1999. The new Black Hawks were worth more than $234 million, the Hueys $81 million. United Technologies had spent $18 million lobbying Congress on a range of issues over the previous four years. Textron spent $10.3 million over the same period; the company retained Charles “Tony” Gillespie, a former ambassador to Colombia, as a lobbyist.

Delays in delivery of the helicopters have been frequent, prompting Gilman and Burton to charge that the State Department’s narcotics control division lacked the experience to expedite such hardware transfers. At an October 2000 press briefing, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Rand Beers said the administration would send 14 instead of 16 Black Hawks to the Colombian army, promising that the Hueys would all be in Colombia by January 2001. Beers said at an October congressional hearing that the first shipment of Black Hawks would be delivered by July 1, 2001, because that “is the earliest possible date that Sikorsky can supply the helicopters.” In May 2001, Beers said the final Black Hawks wouldn’t be arriving until November. As for the 30 Huey II helicopters provided to the Colombian military, they present their own set of problems. The Colombian military does not have the necessary infrastructure to maintain the helicopters, according to a GAO report.