U.S. Evidence Enhances Case Against Milosevic
By William Branigin
The day before an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for President Slobodan Milosevic, the U.S. government turned over long-sought classified information that implicated the Yugoslav leader personally in the chain of command responsible for crimes against the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The trove of secret information, delivered last Friday, included videotapes that neither the tribunal nor the U.S. government has yet disclosed, the officials said. The following day, Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, signed arrest warrants for Milosevic and four top aides. The indictment on which they were based was confirmed by a tribunal judge two days later and made public yesterday.
The classified material helped buttress the indictment's charge that "beginning in 1999 . . . the accused planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted in a campaign of terror and violence directed at Kosovo Albanian civilians," the officials said. Tribunal investigators were aware that the United States possessed the information and had specifically requested it.
"It was something they very much wanted," said an official familiar with the transaction.
The last-minute delivery was part of a persistent tug of war over classified evidence that has frequently put Washington at odds with the tribunal. It also highlighted a struggle by competing interests within the U.S. government.
Since last year, a secretive war crimes bureaucracy here has been compiling evidence of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, poring over satellite imagery, studying the results of electronic eavesdropping and cross-checking everything with the accounts of refugees. That effort accelerated dramatically after NATO began a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia March 24.
Other governments, notably the British, have also given the tribunal classified information, and numerous private human rights and relief groups have flooded it with accounts from thousands of the 780,000 Kosovo refugees who have been driven into exile in neighboring states. Many of the groups now are recording the accounts on standardized forms that are then fed into a computerized database, allowing tribunal investigators to quickly identify and interview good potential witnesses.
In response to insistent requests by Arbour, and after overcoming some reluctance in U.S. intelligence agencies, the government in recent weeks has provided classified material that has helped document massacres cited in the indictment, officials said. Among the material is overhead imagery from satellites or U.S. reconnaissance planes and other unspecified information from "national technical means," a rubric that includes electronic intercepts by intelligence-gathering equipment carried aboard satellites or planes such as the RC-135 "Rivet Joint" surveillance aircraft.
The U.S. material is collected by the Interagency Balkan Task Force, an intelligence unit housed at the CIA that also includes representatives of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the State Department's intelligence and research bureau.
"What we provide is often never seen in a courtroom because it's the basis for further investigation," said David Scheffer, head of the State Department's war crimes office, in an interview before the indictments were announced.
This information is provided under a tribunal rule that promises governments that their classified material will be used only as "lead evidence" to guide investigators and will not be disclosed publicly without authorization.
Although the State Department has pressed for public disclosure of some evidence to help make its case about war crimes before world opinion, the tribunal itself has urged that much of the U.S. material it receives be kept secret for fear of alerting Serb authorities to "crime scenes" that they can then try to clean up. Examples include imagery of mass graves that the tribunal hopes eventually to have examined by forensic experts after the conflict ends.
"We have reports that Serb forces have burned bodies exhumed from mass graves in an attempt to destroy forensic evidence," Scheffer said at NATO headquarters last week. He said "mass executions" have been reported in at least 75 Kosovo towns and villages and that the United States estimates that 225,000 Kosovo men are "unaccounted for."
To help examine "the most significant crime scene on the European continent since World War II," the FBI has offered to send a large forensic team to Kosovo once it is safe to do so, Scheffer said.
Although the U.S. government and the tribunal for months have painstakingly sought to compile proof of Milosevic's role in the alleged war crimes, human rights groups have said his "command responsibility" has long been evident from the planning that went into the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians.
"The coherence and similarities of the witness accounts reveal the deportations from Kosovo as part of a systematic policy in which the modus operandi, participants and objectives can only have been pre-planned," the French group Doctors Without Borders said in a recent report.
Villages typically are shelled or targeted by sniper fire to pin residents indoors, then Serb forces go house to house to order people to evacuate, often throwing grenades inside if the occupants are reluctant to leave. Once the villagers are gathered together, men are often separated from their families. Empty villages are systematically burned, and the refugees are forced out along predetermined routes.
The Yugoslav army, police from the Serbian Interior Ministry known as the MUP and masked paramilitary groups act in close concert in these operations, refugees have reported.
Some of the material transferred to the tribunal documents "the integrated nature of the operation," with the different forces "operating under a unified command structure" headed by Milosevic as chairman of the Yugoslav defense council, said Jon Western, a former government war crimes analyst.
"Milosevic was directly responsible for putting in place those commanders who subsequently engaged in the atrocities," he said. Among those installed since late last year were the Yugoslav armed forces chief of staff and the commander of the Third Army Corps that has been operating in Kosovo.
"Based on everything I've seen, it's pretty clear this entire ethnic cleansing campaign was planned six months to a year before," said Patrick Eddington, a former CIA analyst.
To date, however, U.S. authorities have had difficulty identifying the perpetrators inside Kosovo. Many of the attackers have worn ski masks, and there have been conflicting reports on the involvement of paramilitary groups under notorious Serb commanders who were active in Bosnia.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company