Cohen: Accidental Embassy Bombing Won't Halt Allied Force
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 11, 1999 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said NATO's Allied Force air campaign will continue despite mistakes that led to the May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Speaking at a May 10 Pentagon news conference, Cohen detailed both the mistakes leading to the accidental bombing and the measures taken to prevent a recurrence.
He said a U.S. plane attacked the wrong target because the bombing instructions were based on an outdated database. The intended target was the Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement, a key part of Yugoslavia's military machine. Instead, the bomber hit the Chinese embassy, killing three and injuring 20, according to news reports.
Cohen said the first mistake was the failure of planners to locate the correct building. Second, he said, the building they targeted turned out to be the embassy, which their maps inaccurately said was in a different part of the city.
All embassies in Belgrade are on a "no-strike" list along with churches, schools, hospitals, mosques and certain other areas. The Chinese embassy moved to its current location in 1996.
Satellite imagery used in targeting contributed to the accident, a senior intelligence official noted. The planners were looking in the overhead images for a large, fenced compound, which both the Chinese and Yugoslav buildings are. They picked the wrong building, but because they also didn't know the target is near an embassy, none of the other usual alarms sounded, he said.
Had the Chinese embassy and Yugoslav supply directorate been properly located, the checks and balances mission planners use would have called up the no-strike list. Targeters would have looked for ways to strike the supply directorate without endangering the embassy -- and maybe scrubbed the mission if that proved impossible or too risky, officials said.
"We've been very successful with that approach in the past," the intelligence official said.
The United States has taken steps to prevent another such accident, Cohen said. "First, the State Department will report to the intelligence community whenever foreign embassies move or when new embassies are built," he said. "Second, the intelligence community will strengthen the internal mechanisms and the procedures for developing target information. This will include new procedures for updating maps. Third, 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."
Senior intelligence officials said the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Imagery and Mapping Agency maintain the mapping databases. "There is a mountain of information that must go into these databases," said one official. "We've looked through our records and can find nothing detailing the move of the Chinese embassy. The preliminary conclusion is we did not receive the information."
Another official said the agencies might have received the information about the embassy move, but it was not added to the database properly. He called the bombing a tragic accident.
Cohen said that even with the changes, "in combat, accidents will happen despite our best efforts to prevent them." He said people should remember why NATO is fighting over Kosovo in the first place.
"We want Yugoslavia to stop killing the Kosovar Albanians," he said. "We want them to withdraw their troops and to let an international peacekeeping force with NATO at its core into Kosovo so that more than 1 million displaced Kosovars can return to their homes and villages and live in peace and security."
He said the Yugoslavs have been quick to publicize NATO bombing errors they claim have killed about 200 civilians. "But Milosevic has said nothing about the 4,600 Kosovar Albanians that his forces have executed in the last two months," he said. "He has said nothing about the more than 1 million people he has driven out of his country and into the hills, and he has said nothing about the thousands of houses his forces have burned. Silence cannot cover up his brutality."