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      Ask Not for Whom the Phone Rings

    Bill Arkin
    By William M. Arkin
    Special to
    Monday, October 11, 1999

    One contradictory sight in Yugoslavia is that of people jabbering on cellular phones as they go about seemingly uninterrupted lives. The cell phone network – unlike electric power systems, bridges, civilian radio and television operations, heating plants and gasoline supplies – was spared in NATO's 11-week bombing.

    After a trip to Yugoslavia this summer, on which I carried my own cell phone lifeline, I was curious about the seeming omission.

    I discovered at least four theories as to why the telephone system was preserved, but lurking behind them all is a U.S. government operation called Matrix, which has as its goal the overthrow of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

    As part of Matrix during the war, sources say, the CIA called Milosevic's cronies on their cell phones or faxed them on their fax machines and urged them to put pressure on the Yugoslav leader to accede to NATO's demands. Thus it was in the CIA's interest to keep that network operating.

    Hardly a Bag Man Type

    A second, more complicated theory has proponents among Yugoslav and industry sources. It centers on Bogoljub Karic, the majority owner of Yugoslavia's mobile phone company, Mobtel, and one of Yugoslavia's wealthiest men. Karic is chief of a business family of four brothers and a sister who have profited from the Yugoslav kleptocracy in the last decade.

    Yugoslav sources say Karic has a reputation for urging more moderate policies on Milosevic, and he was an intermediary in the Jesse L. Jackson-organized release of three captured U.S. soldiers.

    But Karic was also a Serbian government minister without portfolio at the time, and as such he was one of 308 prominent Yugoslavs on a list of Milosevic cronies and war criminals banned by the European Union.

    On May 21, two months into the NATO bombing, Karic and his wife were detained while trying to enter Cyprus. NATO spokesmen said he was there to draw money from secret accounts, and he was promptly sent back to Belgrade.

    Was this Milosevic's bag man, or was he the most prominent antiwar voice that the CIA had identified in the Yugoslavian hierarchy?

    Who's Calling the Shots?

    Then there is the business theory: European sources in the telecommunications industry argue that Italy has financial interests in the network and thus pressured NATO not to bomb it. The Pentagon denies any such prohibition.

    It also seems likely that taking out the heart of the cell phone network would have entailed enormous "collateral damage." Cell phone coverage in Yugoslav is almost exclusively concentrated in major cities, where scores of base stations are on the tops of civilian office buildings.

    In the same industrial zone, a half-dozen other civilian factories were damaged, suggesting that the attacks were sloppy rather than diabolical.

    All this does not explain why the switches in Serbia, the computer control centers for the entire network, were not bombed. Here the speculation seems to be that cell phones, used by about 100,000 subscribers in Yugoslavia and concentrated among the elite, were an attractive eavesdropping target for the National Security Agency. It was thus better to leave them intact than destroy them.

    Cell phone experts in Europe say that intercepting the Yugoslav digital Global Standard for Mobile phones is difficult but possible and that a lot of signals have to be processed to extract targeted calls.

    Off Target

    Which brings us to Matrix. The program originated with a December 1998 White House meeting at which Robert S. Gelbard, the president and secretary of state's special adviser for Kosovo, was put in charge of an umbrella strategy to undermine Milosevic.

    In April, the New York Times reported that factories and refineries were being chosen as targets specifically because they were run by Milosevic cronies. Legend has it that the CIA told company directors before and after specific bombing runs that more would come if they didn't impel Milosevic to accede to NATO's demands.

    In early May, British Undersecretary of State John Spellar seemingly confirmed Matrix targeting when he cited Jugopetrol (the state-run gasoline monopoly) and the Bor Copper Plant as examples of lucrative enterprises controlled by Milosevic cronies. Both were extensively bombed.

    There were also reports of attacks on tobacco factories in Nis and Vranje in the south, neither of which had a conceivable military function.

    But here's the rub: I visited both factories in August. Although the DIN Factory in Nis was extensively damaged by bombing, it sits adjacent to a military barracks and near an airfield, both actual NATO targets on the nights the factory was hit.

    What is more, in the same industrial zone where DIN is located, a half-dozen other civilian factories were also damaged, suggesting that the attacks were sloppy rather than diabolical. A Washington source who has closely followed the unfolding of Matrix agrees that industrial objects such as Jugopetrol that were targeted would have been bombed regardless of any covert plot.

    Still Going

    Whether the sites were bombed or not, both sides were closely watching the cell phone system during the war. At one point, the network in and around Kosovo was shut down when one of three Belgrade phone switches cut the power to the south. This happened after reports began circulating that the Kosovo Liberation Army was using cell phones to contact NATO for bombing runs.

    Today that Kosovo network, still controlled from inside Serbia, is up and running. So when Bogoljub Karic resigned from the Serb government in August, it was only natural that some saw the Yugoslav baron distancing himself from Milosevic as evidence of covert dealing and special considerations.

    The NATO commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, denies any special emphasis (or consideration) in targeting during the war, even going as far as saying that had any such Matrix operation existed, he would have stopped it. But Pentagon and intelligence sources insist that Matrix was real, even if they deny that Karic is a U.S. asset.

    My "government obligations have inflicted severe damage to my business and my activities," Karic wrote in his resignation letter. Nonetheless, one of his primary interests, the Yugoslav cell phone system, remains intact.

    William M. Arkin can be reached for comment at

    © Copyright 1999 Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

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