Outdated Map Faulted in China Embassy Attack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 10, 1999; Page A1
In mistakenly targeting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade Friday night, U.S. intelligence officials were working from an outdated map issued before China built its diplomatic compound several years ago, American and NATO authorities said yesterday.
"The tragic and embarrassing truth is that our maps simply did not show the Chinese Embassy anywhere in that vicinity," a senior NATO official said.
It was the CIA, officials said, that initially misidentified the site, but there was no explanation from the agency yesterday about how such an error could have occurred. Privately, several senior officials outside the CIA expressed disbelief that the location of the intended target – the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement – apparently had not been verified by sources on the ground in Belgrade.
At the same time, responsibility for the blunder was said to extend beyond the CIA. Describing a targeting process that has numerous levels of review built into it, government officials said members of the Joint Staff, the U.S. European Command and NATO all signed off on the target after failing to detect that the address they were given was wrong.
"They all have a variety of means of checking on a proposed target, and none of them seemed to come up with an objection to this one," said one official with knowledge of the incident.
The erroneous B-2 bomber attack, which dropped several satellite-guided bombs on the embassy, killing four people and injuring 20 others, marked the latest in about a dozen strikes that have gone awry during the 6½ weeks that NATO has been pummeling Yugoslavia from the air. The mistakes have had varying causes, with no evidence of any pattern, officials said yesterday.
But they all have involved U.S. aircraft. And while the incidents amount to only a minuscule percentage of the more than 18,000 combat missions flown and 9,000 bombs and missiles fired, NATO officials from several countries acknowledged that the succession of accidents is having a damaging effect on public confidence in some alliance countries.
Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's top military commander, yesterday reaffirmed his confidence in the target selection process. He termed the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy "an anomaly" and insisted the allied air campaign would continue to intensify, although there were no new attacks on sites in Belgrade yesterday.
"We're not going to let an incident like this deter us from doing what we think is right and necessary," the four-star American general said on ABC's "This Week." He called NATO's effort "the most precise, effective and collateral damage-free air operation ever conducted."
Unlike previous mishaps that involved pilot error or weapon malfunction, the attack on the Chinese Embassy stemmed from faulty targetting information provided by the CIA and uncorrected by defense authorities, officials said. The bombs hit exactly where they were programmed to go, but the instructions were wrong.
Officials said the CIA had been gathering information about the Yugoslav supply and procurement directorate for years, focusing on arms deals. The headquarters of the directorate is a block or two south of the Chinese embassy and is on the same street, Tresnja Tveta.
The embassy was opened there three or four years ago. The map used by the CIA was prepared by the Pentagon's National Imagery and Mapping Agency at a time when China's embassy was in downtown Belgrade, miles from its current site.
Behind the embassy is a large, low building resembling a warehouse. This appears on the earlier map and may have been mistaken for the directorate. In any case, administration officials said yesterday that the CIA, in listing the directorate for attack, thought it was providing the coordinates not for a warehouse but for the directorate's headquarters.
Military authorities at the Pentagon and in Europe, responsible for most of the target planning, then scrutinized the neighborhood around the site, assessing the potential for civilian casualties in the event something went wrong. But they worked from overhead photos of the vicinity, not from maps, officials said.
It was not evident from the pictures that the proposed target was an embassy, said one official involved in the process. With vacant lots surrounding the site, defense authorities concluded that the prospect of unintended damage to other properties was worth the risk.
"There are double- and triple-check procedures," the NATO official said. Even so, no one apparently sought to verify that the site was what the CIA said it was.
The official noted that any recent tourist map of the Yugoslav capital shows the Chinese embassy at its current location. In fact, the official added, a number of U.S. diplomats had attended social functions at the new Chinese Embassy in recent years, including the defense attache, whose job it is to provide the Defense Intelligence Agency with up-to-date maps of the city.
This is not the first time in recent months that an incomplete U.S. defense map played a part in a military air accident resulting in the deaths of civilians. Marine Corps aviators, whose jet cut the wire of a cable car in Italy in February 1998 and sent 20 people plunging to their deaths, also were found to have been flying with a map that bore no sign of the cable.
In a joint statement issued late Saturday, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and CIA Director George J. Tenet acknowledged that "faulty information led to a mistake in the initial targeting" of the Chinese embassy. "In addition, the extensive process in place used to select and validate targets did not correct this original error."
But the two officials concluded that "a review of our procedures has convinced us that this was an anomaly that is unlikely to occur again."
In remarks yesterday, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea and other alliance officials repeatedly turned aside questions about whether anyone might be dismissed or reprimanded for the planning failures that led to the embassy bombing. Asked also about earlier bombing mishaps, several senior Pentagon officials said they knew of no disciplinary proceedings being brought against any of the aircrews involved and doubted such action would be warranted.
The Pentagon has yet to provide a full accounting of all these previous accidents, which taken together have killed more than 150 civilians, according to Yugoslav media reports.
In early April, when a laser-guided bomb aimed at a telephone exchange in the Kosovo capital of Pristina fell instead on a residential community, officials blamed either a mechanical malfunction in the weapon, or cloud or smoke interference of the laser beam that directed the bomb to its target. Such interference also was cited as the possible reason a bomb, intended for an army barracks in the Serb town of Surdulica on April 27, went astray and hit a housing area.
An attack April 12 on a train crossing a railroad bridge near the Serb town of Grdelica was attributed to the unexpected appearance of the train after a missile was fired at the bridge. The same explanation was given when, on May 1, a U.S. warplane blew up a passenger bus on a bridge 10 miles north of Pristina.
Officials said poor timing in the release of a cluster bomb over the Serb city of Nis last Friday may explain why the bomb, meant for an airfield, ended up blasting a hospital and outdoor market. The attack occurred through cloud cover, which raised some eyebrows at the Pentagon among officers who contend such unguided munitions are best dropped when the pilot can clearly see the target. But the decision to attack in cloudy weather most likely was made by senior commanders, balancing the risk of mistakes against the demands of pursuing the air campaign, officials said.
Graham reported from Washington, Pearlstein from Brussels.
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