CIA Explains What Went Wrong
May. 11, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The CIA had the right address when it proposed that NATO bomb a Yugoslav munitions bureau. But the agency couldn't correctly locate that address on a map of Belgrade, and the point it selected turned out to be the Chinese Embassy.
Two grim-faced U.S. intelligence officials delivered that extraordinary message to lawmakers in a closed-door session and then to reporters Monday as the diplomatic storm between Beijing and Washington swirled all around.
``It was the right address applied to the wrong building,'' one of the officials said. The other said, ``None of the fail-safes worked.''
They met reporters on condition their names not be used.
Defense Secretary William Cohen cited two key errors made by the CIA and missed by the Pentagon and NATO strike planners.
First, the spy agency failed to correctly pinpoint the target, the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement, on its maps. The directorate was a few hundred yards down the street from the site actually bombed.
``Second, the building that they did target turned out to be the Chinese Embassy, but their maps incorrectly located the embassy in a different part of Belgrade,'' Cohen said.
The CIA was working with a map dating to 1992 and made by the Defense Mapping Agency, a Pentagon organization now called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The map shows individual buildings in Belgrade but no specific street numbers. And despite two updates to the map done in 1997 and 1998, the map still showed the Chinese Embassy in its former location in the old section of Belgrade.
The Chinese moved their embassy in 1996. The U.S. diplomatic mission in Belgrade was aware of the move, but a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the mission officials did not consider it their responsibility to notify U.S. and allied strike planners.
As a result, the allied ``no strike'' list, a tally of churches, schools, hospitals and embassies that NATO strives to avoid as it pounds away at Yugoslavia, was outdated.
This paper error turned into disaster when the CIA, in recommending a strike on the procurement directorate, made a mistake when it tried to extrapolate the location of the arms directorate. The agency used known street addresses nearby, along with aerial imagery that showed a walled compound that fit intelligence information about the directorate's function as an arms supplier and exporter.
A missing ingredient was an agent on the ground in Belgrade actually looking at the prospective target because no agent was available.
A single B-2 bomber loaded with satellite-guided bombs attacked the compound Friday night.
A senior intelligence official described confusion, then shock and dismay at CIA headquarters and the Pentagon when they first learned that the Chinese Embassy had been bombed. The initial guess was that a bomb or missile had gone astray.
When the news that the embassy had been struck broke Friday night, ``We started looking, 'Where's (the Chinese Embassy) at?. Oh my gosh, it's the target,'' the intelligence official said.
After the strike, bewildered CIA officials still could find no document in their files giving the correct location of the Chinese Embassy, even though it was common knowledge in Belgrade and among the diplomatic community.
The incident has raised questions about the CIA's role in target planning. Knowledgeable U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the agency only occasionally picks targets. One of the few instances that gained attention occurred last summer when the CIA recommended an attack on a target in Sudan that turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant and that may or may not have been involved in chemical weapons production.
John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists said U.S. intelligence is lagging in developing the kind of building-by-building information strike planners need in today's combat environment.
``Our style of war increasingly involves targeting individual buildings,'' said Pike, whose Washington-based group follows intelligence issues. ``I don't believe our intelligence community is currently focused on that requirement.''
But intelligence experts said the business of identifying and locating a specific building in enemy territory is far more complex than it sounds. In places like Baghdad and Belgrade, the CIA and Pentagon must constantly update lengthy databases showing potential targets and places to avoid. Cohen announced new steps to do a better job at this tedious but critical work.
Based on the reaction from Capitol Hill, the CIA may parlay one of its worst mistakes into a budget increase.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the bombing ``a serious intelligence failure,'' but he said it is ``indicative of what happens when you ask too few people to do too much.'' Years of intelligence budget cuts, he said, ``have stretched our people to the breaking point.''
Despite the difficulties involved, even military professionals were aghast at the error.
``It's incredible at this stage of the game that they don't have up-to-date maps,'' said Bernard Trainor, a retired general and co-author of a book on the Persian Gulf War.