April 19, 2000

Embassy Bombing:
Accidentally on Purpose

One could almost have written the article oneself. It was entirely predictable that, one year after the fact, the New York Times would publish a mammoth mind-numbingly boring piece blaming-while, of course, at the same time really absolving-everyone in the US Government for last year’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The Times reporters will have us believe that they conducted a painstakingly thorough research of the matter and reached the same conclusion as the Clinton Administration: The bombing of the Chinese Embassy was not a deliberate act. "None of the people interviewed at the Pentagon, CIA, the State Department and the military mapping agency, or at NATO offices in Brussels, Mons, Vicenza, Italy and Paris said they had ever seen any document discussing targeting of the embassy, nor any approval given to do so. No one asserted that he or she knew that such an order had been given. The bombing resulted from error piled upon incompetence piled upon bad judgment in a variety of places." Well, that’s a relief! The culprit was a "mid-level" career CIA officer. His identity remains unknown, though-we are relieved to learn-he has now been dishonorably discharged from the agency. In addition, six of his supervisors have been reprimanded. But there were "systemic" failures galore. The article is liberally peppered with words like "systemic," "misstep," "mistake," "error," "accident."

The Times story faithfully parrots the Administration line on everything even down to the obligatory kicks at NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark who was forced to take the rap for the failure of the Clinton-Albright mass-murder project. According to the Times, the first "misstep" was made by Yugoslavia. It was so damn small that that the Pentagon was having difficulties coming up with enough targets to bomb. What the Times, of course, omits to mention is that this "shortage" of targets led within days to NATO shamelessly going after schools, hospitals, buses, marketplaces, old-age pensioners’ homes. In any case, the Times will have us believe, that there was a mad scramble inside the US Government to find more objects to bomb. So along came the CIA with a "target" of its own. Why don’t we hit the headquarters of the Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement? This is the ministry in charge of Yugoslav army procurement. So important was this target that, until the CIA came along, no one had thought of hitting it. The trouble is, no one knew where it was. This is pretty astonishing. The Clinton Administration had been planning to bomb Belgrade since 1993. Belgrade is not a large city. It would have had to know the address of anything remotely worth destroying. Besides the building is listed in the telephone book; its address is on its web site.

It turns out, however, that there was a reason why no one had bothered trying to locate the Federal Directorate. It was not very important. The CIA was not interested in Kosovo. The ministry had to go because—supposedly—it was involved in smuggling missile parts to Libya and Iraq. Ah, Libya and Iraq! All that’s missing from the story now is North Korea. So a hapless "mid-level" CIA official tried to find the Directorate. (It is not clear whether the idea of blowing up the building was his, or only its misidentification). He had the address. All he needed was a street map. He got on to the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and asked for a map of Belgrade. "Using it and two tourist maps," the Times writes, "the officer tried to pinpoint the headquarters, equipped only with its address." "Equipped only" with an address and three maps! I wonder how any of us ever find our way anywhere? "The NIMA map, produced in 1997, shows major buildings and geographic features. It does not specify street addresses, but it identifies major landmarks" I have yet to come across a map that specifies "street addresses"; most maps list street names and major landmarks.

A week ago the Times had informed us that "Armed with only an address, 2 Bulevar Umetnosti, the officer who was dismissed used an unclassified military map to try to pinpoint the building’s location, based on a limited knowledge of addresses on a parallel street. The officer, who wrongly assumed Belgrade’s street addresses were numbered as uniformly as, say, Manhattan’s, ended up targeting the Chinese Embassy, which is on a frontage road nearly 1,000 feet from the supply directorate that was the intended target." So not only does "mid-level" not know how to look at a map, he tends to assume that cities around the world are all like Manhattan! He "locates" the building and his colleagues happily sign off on it. The building, as we know, turned out to be the Chinese Embassy. "[W]hen agency officials talked about the proposed target in at least three meetings, they spent more time discussing whether they could legally justify the attack under the international rules of war than they did about the location of the headquarters itself." That’s what makes America such a great country! Where else would Government officials agonize for hours over the "legality" of striking some target? It’s so comforting to know that the world is exactly the way Hollywood and the New York Times tell us it is.

Clearly, the Administration decided that the CIA would have to take the rap for the bombing. It’s a convenient target since it was peripheral to the Kosovo project and its activities are usually shrouded in mystery. Obviously, the Agency would not have gone along with this legedermein had it not been thrown a bone. "When Mr. Tenet dismissed the officer blamed for targeting and disciplined six others," writes the Times, "he singled out another for praise. That officer, also not identified, raised questions about the target. In the days before the bombing, he called analysts at NIMA and at the NATO headquarters in Naples to express doubts." So the CIA is pretty damn effective after all. "Mid-level" was just a bad apple.

Missing from the dreary Times verbiage is even a remotely plausible explanation of how it was possible for "mid-level" to have confused the Chinese Embassy with the Federal Directorate. The two buildings do not have the same address and are not particularly close to each other. The satellite imagery clearly indicated that the proposed target looked like, well, an embassy, not a government building. As the Times reported last May, "People in Belgrade said that it was difficult to confuse the Chinese Embassy with the intended target, the Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement. The Chinese Embassy is a marble structure with blue mirrored glass and flies the Chinese flag. The directorate is housed in a white office building. That building is several hundred yards away, on the other side of a major thoroughfare, Lenjinov Bulevar." In addition, the ministry had never been located at the site of the Embassy. And there is no way in the world that the US Government does not know the location of the Chinese Embassy in every country in the world, particularly in so critical a country as Yugoslavia. The US Government routinely monitors the communications traffic of the Embassies of its adversaries. Throughout the bombing, one can be pretty sure, the US was keeping close track of what was going on in the Chinese Embassy. (By the way, if destroying the Directorate was so important why was it not bombed after the Chinese "blunder"? Would it not have been advisable, if only to save face?

Last November the British newspaper, The Observer, reported that its investigations had led it to conclude that the bombing of the Embassy was deliberate. The United Sates Government suspected that the Chinese were using their Embassy to transmit Yugoslav army communications. They were also suspected of monitoring the cruise missile attacks and passing on the information to the Belgrade government. We cannot be sure if this is is quite what happened. We can be sure of one thing though. It did not happen the way the US Government and the New York Times tell us it did. There was no way NATO did not know that it was the Chinese Embassy it was striking that night.

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George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Wednesday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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