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Bosnia: What the CIA Didn’t Tell Us


A pair of photographs changed the course of the war in Bosnia. They were presented to the United Nations Security Council on August 9, 1995, by the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright. The first picture was taken by an American U-2 spy plane as it flew over an area near the Muslim-controlled town of Srebrenica shortly before July 11, the day when the town, a UN-declared “safe area,” fell to the Bosnian Serb Army. The photograph showed an empty field. The second picture, taken after the safe area fell, showed the same field, splotched with freshly turned earth—the mass graves containing thousands of Srebrenica men murdered by the Serb nationalists. This was dramatic evidence of a horrific Serb atrocity. It embarrassed the European governments and members of the Clinton Administration who had been resisting military intervention, and prepared the way for their acquiescence in the large-scale use of NATO force against the Serbs.

That story is well known. What is not well known is that the US government could have made equally dramatic revelations much, much earlier—if it had wanted to do so. During the late spring and early summer of 1992, some three thousand Muslims in the northern town of Brcko were herded by Serb troops into an abandoned warehouse, tortured, and put to death. A US intelligence satellite orbiting over the former Yugoslavia photographed part of the slaughter. “They have photos of trucks going into Brcko with bodies standing upright, and pictures of trucks coming out of Brcko carrying bodies lying horizontally; stacked like cordwood,” an investigator working outside the US government who has seen the pictures told us. In 1993, US officials allowed members of a United Nations Commission of Experts on War Crimes in Bosnia (the precursor organization to today’s International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague), to inspect this evidence. But they were forbidden to make it public—or even to keep or copy it—because, they were told, to do so would jeopardize the classified methods by which it was obtained. Unlike Albright’s pictures, the photographs of the blood bath in Brcko remain unpublished to this day.

The contrast between the two episodes says much about the role US intelligence agencies have played—or failed to play—in exposing, preventing, and prosecuting war crimes during the last four years of combat and atrocities in Bosnia. US intelligence in Bosnia has suffered from a near-total lack of agents, or “human intelligence.” But thanks to what are officially called “national technical means,” US intelligence agencies have been able to “see” or “hear” a great deal of evidence about the most heinous atrocities in Europe since Stalin died. These means include cameras mounted on U-2 planes and spy satellites; video recorders in the Defense Department’s brand-new “Predator” drones; microphones and long-distance antennae used by the National Security Agency to pluck radio and telephone traffic out of thin air; and RC-135 “Rivet Joint” aircraft that can snatch up battlefield communications. “The former Yugoslavia is the most listened to, photographed, monitored, overheard, and intercepted entity in the history of mankind,” a former State Department official who handled classified information from Bosnia during the first, and bloodiest, year of ethnic cleansing told us—only somewhat hyperbolically.

Apart from a few highly publicized disclosures like Albright’s, however, US intelligence has mostly sat on the mountain of raw evidence it accumulated. The story is one not so much of a cover-up as of squandered potential, a failure born of inaction. Wary of deepening American involvement in the conflict, neither President Bush nor, until quite recently, President Clinton consistently made the documentation of ethnic cleansing a high priority “task” for the US intelligence agencies. Still less did they demand that the agencies tell the world all they knew.

Left to follow their own conventional instincts, the US intelligence community consistently viewed images and heard recordings not for their potential value as criminal evidence, but rather in order to piece together and analyze intelligence “products” bearing on such military issues as threats to UN peacekeepers and NATO aircraft. Current and former intelligence officials told us that sharing information with international human rights investigators was viewed not as a morally urgent matter, but as a potential threat to jealously protected “sources and methods.” A particular problem was that the Department of Defense, which controls the most sensitive sources of imagery and signals intelligence gathering and analysis, was deeply reluctant to do anything that might intensify public pressure for greater US military involvement. A senior intelligence official currently working on Bosnia said his colleagues were told that “the Pentagon was the bottleneck. There was a lot of information piling up; but there were not enough people working on the thing.”

Albright’s pictures themselves were only found after she made a special appeal to the intelligence agencies for more information about possible atrocities following the fall of Srebrenica. Even then they might have gone unnoticed if not for the initiative of a lone CIA analyst who spent a night in early August 1995 comparing aerial reconnaissance pictures of the Srebrenica region taken before the town fell to the Serbs with pictures taken afterward. Other damning photographs, showing groups of hundreds of prisoners from Srebrenica assembled in fields near the fallen enclave, were also shown by Albright to the Security Council in closed session but have not yet been made public. Witnesses said these men were massacred shortly after they were photographed. The pictures were later given to the War Crimes Tribunal. But even at that point “the US was not willing to provide all of its intelligence on the subject” to the Tribunal, according to a recent report by the National Defense University’s Institute for National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

To be sure, US intelligence had to supply information needed by Western military forces in the region—a point underscored when the failure to spot Serb anti-aircraft positions led to the shooting down of the American fighter pilot Scott O’Grady. Even the most aggressive hunt for evidence of rights abuses would not necessarily have produced absolutely clear evidence of who ordered which crimes. “Nobody sends detailed, lengthy orders to create massacres,” a former high-ranking intelligence official told us. Serb forces, our intelligence sources say, appear to be aware both of the NSA eavesdropping and the aerial reconnaissance; they occasionally tried to thwart it by sending out false messages on lines they knew were being tapped, or by moving troops and equipment just after U-2 overflights.

The Clinton Administration can rightly argue that it has done more than any other Western government to press for the disclosure and punishment of war crimes in Bosnia. Still, when we compare what US intelligence could have added to the world’s knowledge of what happened in Bosnia with what it actually did add, it is hard to disagree with Ambassador Albright’s assessment of the record: “I alternate between being impressed with what intelligence can do,” she told us, “and depressed at how slow it can be making it all happen,” i.e., in making information available when it can do the most good.


Since the beginning of the war, US intelligence has been chronically late in its reporting on human rights abuses. On August 2, 1992, in a front-page story in Newsday, Roy Gutman documented the existence of Serb-run concentration camps in northern Bosnia. The reports outraged the world—as did even more horrifying TV footage from inside the camps. The Bush Administration, however, was desperate to avoid a risky European involvement during an election year. It resisted the use of the term “genocide,” and dispatched State Department officials to testify that the United States had no direct intelligence to verify the appalling news accounts.

According to a senior intelligence official, what little the Central Intelligence Agency did know at the time was coming from Newsday and other papers, and from television. US satellites and spy planes had long been used for surveillance of Communist Yugoslavia, and they were still in service at this point. (It was apparently because of this that the photographs of Brcko were taken.) These overflights, however, were mainly used for military intelligence purposes. The information they yielded about concentration camps before the Newsday stories were published remained “scattered around, fragmentary,” because no particular effort had been made to analyze these images and signals for human rights evidence, a former State Department official told us. The CIA began its first fairly systematic hunt for signs of concentration camps and mass graves only when President Bush, attempting to forestall bolder military measures, promised to ask the US intelligence agencies if they could confirm what had been reported in Newsday. At that point, a senior intelligence official says. CIA analysts “went back over the [U-2] photos.”

The effort appears to have been limited but revealing. According to a State Department official, “by the third week of September we had a very large, comprehensive list of camps, with descriptions, places, information on inmates, conditions, maps.” But most of this data was kept secret. “It wasn’t even turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross for three months,” the official told us. “No reason was given. They [i.e., the State Department] only turned it over after The New York Times said we had it, and the ICRC called and said hand it over…. We actually had reports, we knew, that senior Serb camp commanders and military figures were worried for a little while because the US had made a proposal for a war crimes tribunal in the fall of ‘92.”

On taking office in 1993, President Clinton ordered increased U-2 flights over the former Yugoslavia, according to a former senior intelligence official. The pictures were to be transmitted directly to a ground station in Italy for processing, saving hours over the previous procedure, which involved first flying the film to Great Britain. At about this time, too, the former Yugoslavia became a subject of increased interest for the National Security Agency. The NSA’s spying was relatively productive, since the Serb nationalist forces had only limited ability to disguise—“encrypt”—their communications. “If it ain’t scrambled, we’re listening to it,” a military intelligence officer told us. Another former top-level intelligence agency administrator said that if the Bosnian Serbs or their Serb paymasters in Belgrade wanted to pass secret orders to avoid American detection, “they would have had to use a messenger with a cleft stick.”

Yet the principal objective of this aerial and electronic surveillance was still to monitor the military balance among the warring parties and potential threats to Western forces. According to a senior intelligence official, at most five CIA analysts worked on the “general issue” of atrocities, while many more analysts were assigned to other matters, such as studying the politics of the conflict among the three parties, the military aid given by the Serbian government to Bosnian Serbs, and the impact of UN-imposed economic sanctions against Serbia.

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