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 Unlike Albright’s pictures, the photographs of the blood bath in Brcko remain unpublished to this day.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.
The CIA, under new director James Woolsey, did organize what was until quite recently its only major effort at collecting human intelligence about atrocities in Bosnia. Agents in Europe interviewed survivors of the concentration camps. The CIA agents were accompanied (at Albright’s insistence) by FBI sketch artists who tried to reconstruct likenesses of alleged torturers, rapists, and murderers—a rare, and valuable, instance of cooperation between the CIA and the FBI.
Three months later, the CIA completed a study of ethnic cleansing which drew on the refugee accounts, press reports, and aerial reconnaissance imagery to document the destruction of some 3,600 Bosnian villages, as well as the murder and expulsion of tens of thousands of people, mostly Muslims. CIA experts on explosives determined which mosques and villages had been deliberately destroyed—as opposed to damaged by fighting. The report placed the blame for “ninety percent” of the atrocities squarely on Serb forces, and suggested strongly that the campaign had been planned by top Serb leaders in both Bosnia and Serbia proper. “By December of  we had the story on Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing down pretty well,” a senior intelligence official told us. He reflected the pride shared among analysts who felt they had managed to push the CIA to do more than the minimum.
But the highly classified report was never made public. Its essential findings were leaked to The New York Times in March 1995 by Clinton Administration officials who were dissatisfied with the passivity of Administration policy. The officials believed that the report should be made public; one told the Times it was only being kept secret because of “a quiet minifirestorm of negative reaction in the Pentagon among people who see it as an effort to bring Americans into the conflict.” Not until August 9, 1995, amid the appalled international reactions to the Srebrenica disaster, was the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence, John Gannon, permitted to present a much-abridged version of the report—in testimony before Congress that coincided with Albright’s briefing to the Security Council.
In any case, the main achievement of this work by the CIA, creative and comprehensive as it was, was merely to confirm officially, and to amplify modestly, a story that had already been documented in detail by the press, by relief agencies, and by independent human rights organizations, whose information the CIA itself acknowledged. For example, M. Cherif Bassiouni, the DePaul University law professor who headed the United Nations Commission of Experts on War Crimes, had already compiled refugee accounts and other evidence which documented beating, torture, rape, and mass murder in nine hundred prison-camp facilities that processed five hundred thousand people. He also confirmed the existence of one hundred and fifty mass graves. His unclassified report, about the size of five telephone directories, was delivered to the UN Security Council in May of 1994. Bassiouni told us that US intelligence denied his requests to declassify satellite and U-2 imagery, communications intercepts, and reports on paramilitary groups so that he and his commission could cite them as evidence.
On the more consequential and, for the intelligence agencies, more delicate question of sharing information with the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, American intelligence was not much more forthcoming. The Tribunal, which began its work on November 19, 1993, over the private objections of Britain, France, and Russia, was initially given inadequate funds and it was slow to get organized. As a result, an intelligence official told us, the Tribunal lacked proper facilities for storing classified material, and its staff faced delays in obtaining US security clearances. However, the American intelligence agencies’ own penchant for secrecy was mainly responsible for the slow delivery of data to the Tribunal. Handing classified information to a multinational agency went against every tradition of the spy business. “Sharing information with international organizations is something which as far as I know is very new,” we were told by a Clinton Administration official familiar with the issue. “Friendly governments, yes. But that’s where there were reciprocal arrangements. Here there’s nothing reciprocal. We’re not getting anything back from this.”
There was no shortage of rationalizations for this position. The experience in Somalia kept cropping up. The CIA and other intelligence organizations were still angry about the treatment of classified information they had provided to non-American forces attached to the US-led UN peace-keeping force. US officials charged, for example, that secret US plans to attack the forces of the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed were deliberately leaked to Aideed by Italian troops in July 1993. Under Woolsey, CIA lawyers even questioned whether it would be legal to provide information to the Tribunal, since the 1947 National Security Act denies the CIA “police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers.” According to a former senior official, that obstacle was overcome by determining that the agency itself would not be prosecuting criminals, merely assisting another organization that was.
Richard Goldstone, the distinguished South African jurist, became chief prosecutor of the Tribunal in July 1994. He approached the US intelligence agencies for help immediately, but it took months before he and they were able to agree on a policy on declassification. The US agencies said that in order to protect their sources and methods, only sanitized versions of their reports would be made available, with the names of informants often deleted. The declassification process turned out to be a tortuous one. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research was the American intermediary in US dealings with the Tribunal. But only one junior official was assigned to sift through the vast accumulation of material on possible crimes. And little of what was provided was of much probative value. In September 1994, for example, the CIA gave the War Crimes Tribunal a thousand pages of the refugee testimony its agents had gathered in Europe. But it was so diluted in the declassification process as to be almost useless to the prosecution.
Finally, Goldstone felt he had to complain. In an October 30, 1995, letter to the US Embassy in The Hague, he said that the “quality and timeliness” of information provided by the US was “disappointing”—most of it was from open sources. He was particularly upset that the US had failed to hand over aerial reconnaissance photos that might help locate mass graves, and he demanded answers to twenty-five specific questions related to ongoing investigations. Goldstone’s letter was quickly leaked to the press, and intelligence officials were privately exasperated—some saw the prosecutor as a bit of a grandstander who didn’t understand a national intelligence service’s primary responsibility to its own government. A senior intelligence official told us that Goldstone’s “expectations might be too high about what intelligence can deliver, given what his purposes are versus what the functions of intelligence are.”
In fact, Goldstone’s letter was partly prompted by disturbing hints that US intelligence might actually have had advance knowledge of the Serb attack on Srebrenica in July 1995 and failed to do anything to prevent it, or the massacres that followed. According to an October 12, 1995, article in the leftist Berlin daily Tageszeitung, the NSA had made recordings of conversations three weeks before the attack on Srebrenica, in which General Momcilo Perisic of the Yugoslav National Army staff in Belgrade planned the assault on Srebrenica with General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb Army commander who is under indictment for war crimes. Tageszeitung said that the sources for its story were United Nations officials in Geneva and a “high-ranking officer of a West European NATO country” who had been based at the United Nations peacekeeping force’s headquarters at Zagreb during the final days of Srebrenica. Two stories in Newsday also cited Bosnian officials as confirming the existence of such intercepts, along with a Western European diplomat and an American diplomat in Sarajevo, and a “senior US official.”
High American officials in Washington insisted to Goldstone, and to the press, that the story was not true and that the United States had no prior knowledge that the Serbs planned a massacre at Srebrenica. “We make mistakes,” a senior intelligence official says, “but we don’t withhold information and let people get killed. That was a bum rap.” Even before the Tageszeitung story, however, the Dutch government had approached Washington privately about the same issue. Facing a scandal over accusations that Dutch peacekeeping troops stood idly by in Srebrenica as Muslims were raped and killed, the Dutch Defense Minister, Joris Voorhoeve, had been concerned by reports that the US had failed to share its intelligence on Serb preparations for a slaughter.
This, too, was denied—by Defense Secretary William Perry, who spoke personally to Voorhoeve while the two men were at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Williamsburg, Virginia, last September. “The US intelligence community lacked detailed information of a Serbian intention to commit atrocities,” noted a report drafted for Perry by the Defense Intelligence Agency in preparation for this meeting (and which was read to us by a US official). “A review of intelligence prior to 10 July does not reveal any tangible evidence of an intent to completely take control of the enclave.”
To this day, however, the matter remains one of the murkiest of the war. Nothing the Clinton Administration has said, publicly or privately, quite amounts to a flat denial that the US had intelligence indicating well in advance that some sort of Serb assault on Srebrenica was coming. (Indeed, intelligence officials told us that CIA analysts had “indications” in the spring of 1995 that the Bosnian Serbs were going to launch an attack in Eastern Bosnia.) Noting the abundance of qualifying adverbs and adjectives in the DIA report (e.g., “detailed,” “completely”), a former senior intelligence official told us: “That’s what they call shaving the baloney pretty thin.” A US military intelligence source who had access to the raw data coming out of Bosnia confirmed the existence of intercepted conversations about Srebrenica between Belgrade and Mladic. “There’s about a week’s worth,” the source says, “and basically it’s Belgrade asking, ‘Hey [Mladic] you’re not going to Srebrenica, are you?’ And [Mladic] says, ‘Of course I am. I’m not done yet, I’m hitting Gorazde and Zepa, too.’ “
While this description of the intercepts is consistent with US denials of prior knowledge of Serb intent to commit a massacre, it also suggests that, at a minimum, US analysts failed to read obvious signs that Mladic wanted to take the entire Srebrenica enclave. As early as July 8, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic had predicted that Mladic intended to overrun Srebrenica and commit “genocide” against its inhabitants. But until Serb troops were almost in the main streets of the town, US intelligence analysts still described the gathering storm only in mushy, hedged language. An unnamed Pentagon official told The New York Times the day before the town fell: “We don’t think the city is falling. It’s under considerable stress. Our belief is that this is in retaliation for the [Bosnian] Government offensive around Sarajevo, and designed to generate refugees, intimidate the UN and discredit the Government.” “The phrase [the CIA] used was ‘shave the enclave,’ ” says a US diplomat.
American officials, the Times reported, assumed the Serbs wouldn’t try to take Srebrenica for several reasons: it would involve house-to-house fighting, it would risk NATO air strikes, and they would have no means to deal with refugees. According to an intelligence official, American spy planes had photographed a large number of buses being assembled by the Serbs in eastern Bosnia—the very vehicles, it turns out, that would later be used to transport the women and children of Srebrenica to government lines near Tuzla, and the men to the slaughter. But the buses were spotted well north of Srebrenica, near a town called Bijeljina, and intelligence analysts surmised that they were to be used for the transport of Serb troops, the official said. In all of this, US intelligence proved completely wrong—and Alija Izetbegovic proved tragically prophetic.
The Srebrenica debacle, the Dayton peace accords, and Goldstone’s letter have combined to force the US intelligence community to profess a new attitude toward secrecy. After Goldstone held meetings with John Deutch, the new director of Central Intelligence, and Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, the Clinton Administration promised the Tribunal that its access to classified US information would be expedited. Goldstone has agreed to new arrangements with Deutch and Perry under which approved members of the tribunal staff can look at documents and pictures in their still-classified form. Goldstone says he is now “satisfied” with the cooperation he is getting from the US, according to US officials and to other sources close to the prosecutor (Goldstone himself, who will step down in October and is said to be reluctant to criticize US intelligence until the new agreement has been given a chance to work, declined our repeated requests for an interview). In early March, after ABC News broadcast a report of confessions from Serb officers who participated in the Srebrenica massacres, aerial photographs of dozens of corpses lying at the alleged sites were made available by the CIA to Albright, and by Albright to ABC—in plenty of time to be broadcast in conjunction with her own visit to Bosnia on March 22.
Still, both the intelligence agencies and the Tribunal are paying the price for the inaction of the past. So much material has accumulated that it will be immensely difficult if not impossible for analysts at the National Photographic Interpretation Center and the NSA to sift all of it for war crimes evidence now. “It’s not like hitting a button and things come flying down the chute,” a senior intelligence official told us. As recently as mid-January, Goldstone’s staff was still complaining about delays in getting classified material from the US, the official said.
Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is so concerned about preventing any more stone-walling by the intelligence community that he made a fact-finding trip to The Hague during the first week of April. Specter wanted assurances that US spy agencies are transferring data to the Tribunal quickly enough to allow Goldstone to begin “Rule 61” hearings (the international equivalent of a grand jury proceeding) against more suspects. The senator told us that, indeed, the situation has improved since his last visit to The Hague in January, although he remains worried that “overhead observation” by America’s eyes in the sky is still not reaching investigators quickly enough to allow Goldstone’s staff to identify the sites of suspected mass graves and protect them from tampering. Specter, who argued for American cooperation with the Tribunal in a series of still-classified letters to the CIA, Pentagon, and State Department, told us he blames an “institutional bureaucracy” at the Department of Defense for past delays.
That foot-dragging continues today—albeit in different form. A US official told us the CIA and the Pentagon have dispatched a new contingent of intelligence agents to Bosnia and that their “central rationale” will be the hunt for evidence of past war crimes and to ascertain the current whereabouts of indicted war criminals such as Mladic and Bosnian Serb “president” Radovan Karadzic. But if any such information has indeed been accumulated, it hasn’t made much of an impression on US-led NATO forces in Bosnia, who have actually permitted Karadzic, an indicted war crimes suspect, to pass through their checkpoints. The arrest of alleged war criminals is an explicit goal of the Dayton accords, but “our soldiers aren’t really looking for these guys,” a senior US commander told The Washington Post in early March. “Half the soldiers wouldn’t know Mladic if he walked right up to them.”
To many US military officers, a mission to arrest Karadzic or Mladic sounds dangerously like the failed manhunt for Aideed in Somalia. Commanders also argue that the nervous peace could be shattered if the Bosnian Serb leaders are actually arrested by NATO. “People are very afraid of this issue,” Specter says. “When you deal with the Pentagon dragging its feet, you’ve got a thousand different reasons. Mostly it’s sensitivity about what’s going to happen if we get hold of Karadzic and Mladic.”
In view of the Aldrich Ames scandal, the CIA’s association with a Guatemalan colonel who apparently covered up the murder of a US citizen, and the disappearance of billions of dollars from the National Reconnaissance Office, one almost hesitates to call for yet another investigation of the US intelligence community. Nevertheless, unanswered questions about its performance in the Balkans linger: What, exactly, did the US know about the coming disaster at Srebrenica, and when did it know it? Are there “live” video pictures of the slaughter, taken by the cameras carried by Predator drones? And what is known by European governments such as Germany, Britain and France, which have their own sophisticated eavesdropping capacity?
The US intelligence agencies should look hard at the moral issues raised by their secretive conception of their mission, on the one hand, and, on the other, the need for the world to know in a timely way about terrible crimes against humanity. Just what national concerns, or related worries about divulging the agencies’ “sources and methods,” should take precedence when it may be possible to prevent genocide? In fact, highly sensitive US intelligence has been used in the past to dramatize other crimes. To justify its air strike on Libya in 1986, the Reagan Administration released NSA wiretaps of Libyan agents giving the order for the bombing of a West Berlin disco, which killed two American soldiers. Secret sources became identifiable to the Libyans and others as a result of this decision. But there was no discernible lasting damage to American intelligence. Several senior former intelligence officials told us that most of the secret visual information from Bosnia now in possession of the Defense Department and the CIA could be made public without seriously compromising the secret methods of intelligence-gathering.
As the Libya example suggests, though, the intelligence agencies do not bear the sole burden of responsibility. One veteran CIA official puts it this way: “An administration that wants to act will do so on the flimsiest of information. And an administration that does not want to act will deny the validity of even the most respected blue-ribbon intelligence assessment.” In Bosnia, until all too recently, no administration really wanted to act.
—April 11, 1996
May 9, 1996