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Balkans Special Report

  Intelligence Analysts Misread Outdated Maps

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 1999; Page A17

Thinking they were picking a Yugoslav arms agency for attack, U.S. intelligence analysts not only relied on outdated maps but also misread them and, in a series of blunders, ended up mistakenly supplying the coordinates of the Chinese embassy that was hit by American bombs last Friday, officials said yesterday.

Two senior intelligence officials, looking grim, provided reporters with a more detailed picture of the erroneous B-2 bombing, describing an error that began with educated guesses by the CIA about the location of the target. The error was compounded, they added, when the misidentification went undetected because government maps and electronic databases used in a review by Pentagon and NATO authorities still showed the Chinese Embassy in another part of Belgrade, miles from the address it moved to in 1996.

To guard against similar failures, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen announced a tightening of procedures for updating U.S. defense maps and intelligence records to account for changes in the location of foreign embassies and other facilities of critical interest in a military operation. Among the new measures, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, will be a requirement to cross-check the location of proposed targets with analysts who have firsthand knowledge of the sites.

Cohen said that embassies are on a "no-strike" list in NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia. If the Chinese Embassy had shown on U.S. maps and been properly entered in intelligence databases, he said, the CIA's misidentification of the embassy site would have been caught and corrected.

"This tragedy happened because a number of systems designed to produce and to verify accurate data failed," he said at a Pentagon briefing. "One of our planes attacked the wrong target because the bombing instructions were based on an outdated map."

For the United States, the B-2 bombing, which killed three people and wounded more than 20, has become the most embarrassing and troublesome of about a dozen faulty strikes in the nearly seven-week-old air operation. It has sparked a diplomatic crisis with China and disrupted international moves to negotiate an end to the conflict with Yugoslavia, just at a time a Russian mediation effort was beginning to gain momentum.

But even with the fixes that Cohen said would be adopted, a high-ranking military intelligence officer told reporters the possibility remains for errors in targeting.

"I don't think anyone can say we can fix it so that it'll never happen again," the officer said.

The CIA had intended that NATO hit the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement, in view of what U.S. officials said is the directorate's role in supplying weapons to the Yugoslav Army and exporting munitions.

The CIA had the correct address of the directorate's headquarters in Belgrade, the officials said. But on the map that agency analysts were using to determine the directorate's geographic coordinates, the streets have no numbers and the buildings no labels.

Knowing the addresses of some other buildings on the map, the analysts attempted to infer which remaining building in the area would match the address they had for the arms agency. They ended up settling unwittingly on the Chinese Embassy, which is situated about 200 yards away from the arms agency.

"It was the right address applied to the wrong building," one intelligence official said.

The map used by the CIA was a 1997 revision of one first issued in 1992 by the Pentagon's National Imagery and Mapping Agency. In 1992 the map showed the Chinese Embassy correctly in Belgrade's old quarter and no building where the embassy is now. The 1997 revision showed a building at the site of the embassy but did not identify it as the embassy. It continued to depict the Chinese Embassy as a red rectangle with a flag in its former location across the Danube River, although it had moved the year before.

U.S. diplomats based in Belgrade had even visited the new embassy but never notified those who maintain U.S. intelligence and military databases that it had moved. Included in the steps Cohen announced yesterday was a requirement that the State Department report to intelligence agencies whenever foreign embassies move or when new embassies are built.

Cohen also said intelligence agencies will take unspecified measures to "strengthen the internal mechanisms and the procedures for developing target information," including "new procedures for updating maps." And he said the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency "will establish new rapid response procedures for updating critical databases for no-strike targets."

CIA analysts also consulted aerial photographs in selecting the site, but nothing in the photos suggested the building being targeted was in fact an embassy, the intelligence officials said. While the embassy and arms agency look distinctly different on the ground, they are both large, five-story structures similar when viewed from the air.

Cohen took pains to refute suspicions in China and elsewhere that the United States intentionally struck the embassy.

"Frankly, it defies all logic, all rationale, on the part of anyone to conclude that we would deliberately target the Chinese embassy," the secretary said. "We have tried very vigorously to promote a better U.S.-Chinese relationship."

But asked about Chinese demands that whoever was responsible for the targeting error be held accountable, Cohen sounded noncommittal.

"I think we have to wait for the outcome of the investigation . . . and then we'll take whatever measures are necessary at that point," he said.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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