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IT SEEMED AS ROUTINE AS PUNCHING UP a favorite station on the car radio--the simple push of a button. But this time it would kill them. Before lifting off from southern Turkey, bound for northern Iraq on April 14 of last year, the pilots of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters activated the "friend-or-foe" system designed to identify them to other U.S. aircraft. They set it to frequency 42. That was the setting prescribed in the top-secret "air-tasking order" they received from the Air Force each day they ventured into the part of Iraq policed by U.S. aircraft.

About an hour later, two U.S. F-15 fighter jets took off from another Turkish base, bound for the same Iraqi "no-fly zone." They too had an air-tasking order, but with a fatal difference: they were told to set their friend-or-foe system to frequency 52. When the fighters, under orders to shoot down any Iraqi aircraft they encountered, saw two helicopters on their radar screens, their sophisticated electronics failed to identify the choppers as "friendly." After a hurried, heart-pounding attempt to confirm their suspicions visually, the fighter pilots fired two missiles that destroyed the two Army Black Hawks and killed all 26 people on board.

This lethal snafu is likely to aggravate charges that the Air Force has tended to distort and cover up information in its investigation of the incident as well as other accidents involving military aircraft. Senior Army pilots flying in Iraq on the day of the shoot-down discovered the coding glitch after they were called as expert witnesses at the court-martial of Air Force Captain Jim Wang. A top officer aboard the AWACS reconnaissance plane coordinating U.S. aircraft in the region, Wang was cleared last week of all charges in connection with the shoot-down. As the Army pilots watched the proceedings unfold, they were stunned to see entered into evidence declassified Air Force documents that showed the Black Hawks were supposed to switch to a second frequency when entering Iraq. "They were flying on the only code they were given," says Army Captain Michael Nye, who flew missions over Iraq for nine months. "They'd still be alive if we'd been given both frequencies by the Air Force."

The official Air Force investigation into the shoot-down declared both helicopters were on the wrong frequency but never explained why. The Army pilots said they had kept to a single frequency until five days after the shoot-down, when a revamped Air Force tasking order finally told them to change to a second frequency when entering Iraq. "I'm furious about it," says Chief Warrant Officer Ken Holden, who spent eight months over Iraq. "The Air Force set the stage for this accident to occur."

Wang's acquittal means that no Air Force officer will face anything but the mildest penalty. "This mishap was not the result of any one individual's actions," Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall says. "The conduct of numerous officers and the system itself contributed."

Some military officers are worried by what they see as a growing and dangerous lack of accountability in the military. "There is less and less risk to careers when you screw up now," says John Shanahan, an ex-vice admiral who is director of the Center for Defense Information. "The guys at the top should be held accountable--somebody has to pay for these things."

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