Why the Chinese embassy was bombed

A senior intelligence official says the CIA team in charge of choosing targets has no recent Belgrade experience.

Published May 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As NATO and the United States continue to deal with diplomatic fallout from Friday's Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Salon News that the CIA team in charge of choosing Yugoslav targets does not include any agents or experts with recent on-the-ground experience in Belgrade.

Speaking on condition of anonymity Tuesday, the official said that no CIA officer with an up-to-date, walking familiarity with the Yugoslav capital was on the targeting team when China's embassy was mistakenly bombed Friday, killing three occupants and injuring 20 more. Nor, apparently, does the CIA have clandestine spotters in Belgrade helping verify targets picked from maps and satellite photos.

The issue has taken on added gravity because the CIA has admitted it used a partially updated 4-year-old street map and "educated guesses" to select the target, which was thought to be a Yugoslav arms agency. In this case, the maps did not show that China had vacated its old property and built a new embassy elsewhere in 1996, even though American officials, from the U.S. ambassador to the semi-public chief of the CIA mission, frequented the embassy for events. The U.S. embassy in Belgrade was closed and its staff evacuated March 24.

As the primary intelligence agency among U.S. civilian and military information-gathering organizations, the CIA takes the lead role in supplying targets to NATO planners. In response to a question Monday, a senior CIA official said the CIA alone had selected the mistaken target.

The bombing tragedy, along with recent espionage revelations, has severely strained U.S. relations with China. It has also threatened to derail a possible solution to the Kosovo conflict proposed last week by the G8 nations.

Asked whether any CIA personnel with recent Belgrade experience were consulted on the bombing, the official, who often explains the spy agency's policies to reporters, told Salon News, "In connection with this particular decision targeting that building, I would not make that assumption -- no."

"In this case," he added in a second conversation seeking clarification, "it did not include someone who had been in Belgrade very recently."

Neither the CIA's recent chief of operations in Belgrade, nor any of its Belgrade-based spy handlers, who have walked the capital's streets and frequented its offices, art galleries and cafes, as well as its embassies, were assigned to go over the selected targets, he said. No one at the CIA with an eyeball familiarity with Belgrade is working on the target list.

"In this instance the answer is no," the official repeated on condition of anonymity. "This was a case where the people who identified that target had not recently been to Belgrade."

Asked whether the CIA would change the composition of its targeting team as a result of the mistake, the spokesman declined to answer.

It could not be learned whether other U.S. military and intelligence agencies excluded Yugoslav experts from their targeting teams. But other agencies involved in the targeting review process, from the Pentagon to NATO, failed to catch the CIA's initial error, the official pointed out.

"It was a team effort in the sense that there were a number of opportunities to correct this error and it didn't happen," he said. "There have been a number of suggestions laying the blame squarely at the CIA. There's a pretty elaborate review process between target selection and hitting the target, and it can be fogged at any stage of the process.

"The bottom line is that there's plenty of blame to spread around," he said.

Indeed, its been widely noted that American diplomats, who left Belgrade on March 24, knew where the Chinese embassy was: They had attended functions there over the nearly four years since it had moved from its old location to the new one, which was hit by $2 billion U.S. B-2 bombers. Chinas embassy was a major focus of American interest in Belgrade, as it is in other countries. Its embassies routinely host senior U.S. officials, from the American ambassador down to CIA agents using non-official cover, such as businessmen. Any one of them might have called attention to the CIA targeting teams error.

The mistake flabbergasted many intelligence veterans.

"My God!" said one retired intelligence hand. "In my time," he said, "we were required to go out and take pictures of the Chinese embassy. We didnt rely on maps."

But Frank Anderson, a retired senior CIA official who helped quarterback Washingtons proxy war against Russian troops in Afghanistan, said the absence of Belgrade experts on the CIAs targeting team was not only possible, but "likely."

The CIA's targeting team is "assuming the people who walk the streets of Belgrade are already there or otherwise engaged" in making the final targeting decision, he said in a telephone interview. "They think they dont need it [in the room]."

"I would guess on most things like that theyre going to assume that the basic intelligence is right there in their data base" Anderson said. That would be fine, he added, "if all their data was current, which it wasnt."

Meanwhile other analysts are poking holes in the official explanation of the mistake.

"According to old maps of Belgrade and numerous sources inside and outside Yugoslavia, four years ago the current site of the Chinese Embassy was a vacant lot in a residential area," reported Stratfor, a commercial Web site offering independent military analysis.

"Now the NATO statement that there was no pilot error and the admission that an old map was being used are completely incompatible. If we are to believe both these claims, then we must assume that the [intended] target was a vacant lot."

But satellite photos would have shown pilots that the lot was not now empty, the Stratfor analysts said.

"They would probably have noticed that the empty lot now had a large building on it" before dropping their laser-guided bombs, Stratfor reported. "The old map theory is preposterous."

Late Tuesday, a senior intelligence official began changing the official story, telling the Associated Press that satellite data had indeed contributed to the mistake. Photos showed the targeted Yugoslavia arms agency and the Chinese embassy looking remarkably similar through lenses parked in space.

Defense Secretary William Cohen also told reporters late Tuesday that steps would be taken to avoid repeating the mistake, the second of its kind recently. U.S. Marine pilots in Italy blamed old maps for causing them to hit a ski cable in 1997.

"First, the State Department will report to the intelligence community whenever foreign embassies move or when new embassies are built," he said. "Second, the intelligence community will strengthen the internal mechanisms and the procedures for developing target information. This will include new procedures for updating maps. Third, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency will establish new rapid response procedures for updating critical databases for no-strike targets."

There was no word whether intelligence agents or others with recent Belgrade experience would be included in the process.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

MORE FROM Jeff Stein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------