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DCI Statement on the Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing

DCI Statement on the Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Open Hearing

July 22, 1999


Mr. Chairman, Dr. Hamre and I are here today to explain how a series of errors led to the unintended bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7th.

We will try to describe to the best of our ability – in this open, public session – the causes of what can only be described as a tragic mistake. It was a major error. I cannot minimize the significance of this. The ultimate responsibility for the role of intelligence in this tragedy is mine. I’ve told my own people that we will not hide behind excuses such as stretched resources or time pressures. It is precisely when the pressure is intense--life or death decisions are being made--that the President and the American public expect us to provide the best intelligence in the world. Clearly, in this case we failed to do that.

But before we tell how this happened, I think it is important to provide some perspective. Dr. Hamre will tell you that the United States and our allies flew thousands of sorties and struck many hundreds of targets over 78 days with very few errors. America’s success, in this as in previous conflicts, owes much to the extraordinary work of our intelligence services. The specifics of our contributions cannot be made public Mr. Chairman, but as this committee knows, we provided our forces detailed knowledge of the enemy, his intentions, his dispositions, and his weapons.

Mr. Chairman, the nature of warfare has changed. When cities were struck in past wars, none doubted that civilians, embassies, hospitals, and schools would be in harm’s way. Today, our ability to strike precisely has created the impression that sensitive sites can be safe in the middle of a war zone. Our desire to protect innocents in the line of fire has added an enormous burden on all of us that we accept. It is our job to do our best to ensure that only appropriate targets be struck.

I think it is useful to note that this episode is unusual because the CIA does not normally assemble, on its own, target nomination packages containing the coordinates of specific installations or buildings. The targeting support typically provided by CIA is usually at the strategic and planning level, such as analytical judgments on the kinds of targets that are the most important, commentary or specific information concerning targets selected by the military or others, and information that assists the military in identifying future targets.

In addition to describing how this mistake happened, I will also outline the corrective actions that we are taking within the government to ensure that – as far as humanly possible – that there is no repeat of this type of incident.

The attack was a mistake. Let me emphasize, our investigation has determined that no one -- I repeat no one -- knowingly targeted the Chinese Embassy. Speculation to the contrary is simply unfounded. No one, at any stage in the process, realized that our bombs were aimed at the Chinese Embassy.

There were three basic failures. First, the technique used to locate the intended target – the headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement (FDSP) – was severely flawed. Second, none of the military or intelligence databases used to validate targets contained the correct location of the Chinese Embassy. Third, nowhere in the target review process was either of the first two mistakes detected.

The unintended attack happened because a number of systems and procedures that are used to identify and verify potential targets did not work.

Chronology of Events

To help understand the circumstances which led to the mistaken bombing, let me offer a brief chronology of events.

In March of this year, U.S. intelligence officers began considering the FDSP headquarters as a potential target for NATO ALLIED FORCE strike operations. The FDSP was a legitimate target given its role in support of the Yugoslav military effort.

We had the street address of the FDSP headquarters as "Bulevar Umetnosti 2" in New Belgrade. But military forces require precise geographic coordinates to conduct an attack. During a mid-April work-up of the target, three maps were used in an attempt to physically locate the address of the FDSP headquarters: two local commercial maps from 1989 and 1996, and one U.S. government map produced in 1997. None of these maps used had any reference to the FDSP building. None accurately identified the current location of the Chinese Embassy.

Please keep in mind that the location of the Chinese Embassy was not a question that anyone reasonably would have asked when assembling this particular target package. This package was intended to strike the FDSP headquarters and nowhere else.

In an effort to pinpoint the location of the FDSP building at Bulevar Umetnosti 2, an intelligence officer used land navigation techniques taught by the U.S. military to locate distant or inaccessible points or objects. These techniques are known as "intersection" and "resection." They can be used for general geolocation, but should not be used for aerial targeting because they provide only an approximate location. Using this process, the individual mistakenly determined that the building which we now know to be the Chinese Embassy was the FDSP headquarters. The true location of the FDSP headquarters was some 300 meters away from the Chinese Embassy. This flaw in the address location process went undetected by all the others who evaluated the FDSP headquarters as a military target.

A critical lesson that emerges from this event is that particularly when providing targeting nominations in urban areas, it is important to provide an accurate appreciation of our confidence in the location of a target, and the evidentiary basis for how that location was determined.

The incorrect location of the FDSP building was then fed into several U.S. databases to determine whether any diplomatic or other facilities off-limits to targeting were nearby. We try to avoid damage to sensitive facilities like embassies, hospitals, schools and places of worship and look to see what risk to them a nearby strike might pose. Moreover, satellite imagery of the target provided no indication that the building was an embassy—no flags, no seals, no clear markings.

Location of Chinese Embassy

Multiple databases within the Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense all reflected the Embassy in its pre-1996 location in Belgrade. Despite the fact that U.S. officials had visited the Embassy on a number of occasions in recent years, the new location was never entered into intelligence or military targeting databases. If the databases had accurately located the Chinese Embassy, the misidentification of the FDSP building would have been recognized and corrected.

Why wasn’t the Chinese embassy correctly located? It is important to understand that our ability to locate fixed-targets is no better than the data bases, and the data bases in this case were wrong. Further, it is difficult—actually it is impossible--to keep current databases for cities around the globe. The data bases are constructed to catalog targets not non-targets. In general, diplomatic facilities--our own being an exception because of the need to plan for evacuation--are given relatively little attention in our data bases because such facilities are not targets. Military targets are the top priority because of the danger they pose to our own forces.

In this context I would add my belief that too much public emphasis has been given to the fact that the 1997 U.S. Government map did not reflect that the Chinese Embassy had moved. This criticism overstates the importance of the map itself in the analytic process. Maps of urban areas will be out of date the day after they are published. What is critical is having accurate data bases.

We have subsequently found maps which show the correct current location of the Chinese Embassy although there are others, including some produced after 1996 by the Yugoslav government, which do not.

Some of our employees knew the location of the Chinese embassy. But keep in mind that we were not looking for it. None of these individuals was consulted as the target was selected and reviewed and, as a result, we lost the opportunity to learn that the building targeted was not the FDSP headquarters. We have also found one report from 1997 that gave the correct address of the Chinese Embassy but that information was ancillary to the focus of the report and unfortunately the address was not entered into the data base.

Late Concerns About the Target

Very late in the process, questions were raised by an intelligence officer as to whether the building targeted was in fact the FDSP headquarters or might be some other unidentified building. At no time was there any suspicion that the building might be an Embassy. This officer had become aware of the nomination by chance, and remembered having seen information a few years earlier that the FDSP building was located a block away from the location identified. Although the matter had nothing to do with his usual responsibilities, this officer registered his concern and sought to clarify the facts by contacting, or attempting to contact, other working level officials who were involved in the preparation of the nomination package.

On Tuesday, 4 May--three days before the bombing occurred--this officer telephoned an officer responsible for the target at the Joint Task Force NOBLE ANVIL in Naples. He told him that he believed the FDSP headquarters building was a block away from the identified location and said that he was trying to resolve this discrepancy. That evening, he obtained information that tended to confirm his belief that the building had been mislocated. Due to a variety of circumstances, this officer was unable to relay this information before departing for training 6-7 May. At that time this officer was unaware that the FDSP headquarters was on the target list.

On his return to his office on Friday afternoon, 7 May, the officer learned to his surprise that the FDSP building was on the target list for bombing that night. He attempted without success to re-contact the officer in Naples with whom he had spoken earlier in the week concerning the "discrepancy." He raised his concerns with another officer at Naples and learned that the aircraft was already en route to the target. He tried to convey his concern that the building targeted may not have been the FDSP headquarters. Those in Europe state that they believed that he was trying to convey that while it might not be the FDSP headquarters, it was still a legitimate FDSP target. While recollections differ of exactly what was said and what was heard, there is no doubt that no one knew that the facility in question was an Embassy. The strike took place shortly thereafter.

Throughout this series of missed opportunities, the problem of identification was not brought to the attention of the senior managers who may have been able to intervene in time to prevent the strike.

What Went Wrong?

At this point, I would like to identify the principal shortcomings that caused this accident to take place.

First, the approach used to determine the location of the FDSP headquarters was inappropriate for targeting. There were three meetings at CIA that reviewed the target nomination. The method of identification was not briefed, questioned, or reviewed. Therefore, the initial misidentification took on the mantle of fact. The absence of discussions on this matter resulted in a target package that contained no cautionary language on the location of the FDSP headquarters. Absent cautionary language, reviewers at EUCOM and the Joint Staff mistakenly assumed the location was accurate. This made it unlikely that they would focus on the need to re-validate the target’s identification.

Second, within CIA there were no procedural guidelines for the officers involved in targeting to follow, and there was little senior management involvement in guiding the targeting process. Although our military support organization had been involved in targeting matters, they had not previously been involved in the approval of target nomination packages unilaterally proposed and wholly assembled at CIA. This occasion was precedent-setting.

No institutional process existed within CIA for ensuring that all resources were brought to bear on the FDSP nomination.

Third, reviewing elements at EUCOM and in the Joint Staff did not uncover either the inaccurate location of the FDSP headquarters or the correct location of the Chinese Embassy was the result of both data base shortcomings and procedural errors. The data base reviews were limited to validating the target data sheet geographic coordinates with the information put into the data base by the NIMA analyst. Such a circular process did not uncover the original error and made us susceptible to a single point of data base failure. While collateral damage assessments were performed and indicated there were no sensitive facilities in the area, these assessments were based on incomplete data on the location of those sensitive facilities.

Individuals in both CIA and the DoD who knew the correct location of the Chinese Embassy should have been consulted.

Fourth, the critical linchpin for both the error in identification of the building and the failure of the review mechanisms is the inadequacy of the supporting data bases and the mistaken assumption the information they contained would be necessarily accurate. The misidentification of the targeted building as the FDSP headquarters would not have occurred had the data bases had the correct location of the Chinese Embassy. All the data bases that contained information on the Chinese Embassy placed it at its original, pre-1996 location some four miles away. Thus, the question of possible damage to the Embassy was never a consideration.

U.S. officials who had served in Belgrade were aware that the Chinese Embassy had moved sometime in 1996. The information, however, was not entered into the data bases we rely on for our targeting and mapping. In this context I would add my belief that too much public emphasis has been given to the fact that the 1997 NIMA map did not reflect that the Chinese Embassy had moved. This criticism overstates the importance of the map itself in our analytic process. Maps of urban areas will be out of date the day after they are published. What is critical is having accurate data bases.

Data base maintenance is one of the basic elements of our intelligence effort, but it is also one that has suffered in recent years as our workforce has been spread thin. Some have suggested that this failure is the consequence of resource shortfalls. A more fundamental problem is not the absolute level of resources, but the application of resources at our disposal. We have diverted resources and attention away from basic intelligence and data base maintenance to support current operations for too long.

  • Data base production and maintenance has been routinely accorded a low priority and often overlooked in production planning and scheduling.
  • Data base production is often the first activity curtailed when resources are tight.
  • Data base production is widely viewed as low visibility, unrewarding, and unappreciated.
  • Leadership attention and emphasis on data base production is infrequent, episodic, and essentially reactive.

Corrective Actions Taken

We are continuing our in-depth review of this tragic incident. Based on our initial findings, it is clear that this mistake occurred not because of just one organization, or because of one individual. Nevertheless, I am evaluating our performance in this instance to assign individual responsibility and identify procedural reforms.

Our goal is to ensure that such a mistake does not happen again. To this end, we are implementing corrections to prevent such mistakes in the future.

In addition, the following near-term corrective actions are already being implemented:

  • DIA and NIMA have established rapid response procedures for critical database updates.
  • We are strengthening our internal mechanisms and procedures for selecting and validating targets and we are increasing the priority placed on keeping databases current.
  • The Community and other government agencies will explicitly report whenever foreign embassies move or are built. This information will then be forwarded and incorporated into our intelligence and military databases.
  • In future conflicts, we will contact other governments to help identify and locate their facilities.

Experience tells us that humans err. Knowing that, we constructed elaborate procedures to check and double-check our work. In this specific case, the checks and balances failed. The President of the United States has expressed our sincere regret at the loss of life in this tragic incident and has offered our condolences to the Chinese people and especially to the families of those who lost their lives in this mistaken attack

Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:57 PM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:09 AM