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Secretary of Defense Cohen's News Briefing on Chinese Embassy Bombing

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
May 10, 1999

SECRETARY COHEN: Good afternoon. I've just briefed President Clinton on the series of errors that led to the unintentional attack against the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. I'd like to bring you up to date. I'll review the steps that we're taking to prevent such mistakes in the future and our plans to continue strikes against Yugoslavia until NATO's conditions for stopping the Serb killing in Kosovo are fully met.

Before starting, I'd like to stress again that NATO and the United States deeply regret this incident, this accident, and the loss of life that it has caused. President Clinton has apologized to President Jiang and to the Chinese people. As my statement will make clear, NATO had no intention of hitting the Chinese embassy. This tragedy happened because a number of systems designed to produce and to verify accurate data failed.

What happened? Well, our initial investigation is still very preliminary in nature. In simple terms, one of our planes attacked the wrong target because the bombing instructions were based on an outdated map. The correct target was the Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement, a key part of Yugoslavia's military machine.

There were several mistakes made in identifying and locating this target. First, they failed to correctly locate the target on their maps. The Procurement Directorate was near the building they had targeted. Second, the building that they did target turned out to be the Chinese embassy, but their maps inaccurately located the embassy in a different part of Belgrade.

This is important, because if a map had correctly depicted the location of the Chinese embassy, two things would have happened. We would have known that we had improperly located the Procurement Directorate, and NATO would have disapproved the target, because embassies are on a list of no-strike targets.

The United States has taken several steps to prevent such a mistake from happening again. First, the State Department will report to the intelligence community whenever foreign embassies move or when new embassies are built. 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 data bases for no-strike targets.

In a moment when I finish, two senior members of the intelligence community will provide more details to you on background. But taken together, these changes are designed to prevent similar tragic mistakes in the future. But I have to be open and direct with you; in combat, accidents will happen, despite our best efforts to prevent them.

It's important to focus on why NATO is fighting over Kosovo in the first place. We want Yugoslavia to stop killing the Kosovar Albanians. We want them to withdraw their troops and to let an international peace-keeping force with NATO at it's core into Kosovo so that more than one million displaced Kosovars can return to their homes and villages and live in peace and security.

The Serbian government has been very quick to publicize the NATO bombing errors that have killed about 200 civilians, according to their statements. But Milosevic has said nothing about the 4,600 Kosovar Albanians that his forces have executed in the last two months. It has said nothing about the more than one 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.

NATO is going to continue its campaign until the ethnic terror stops in the killing fields of Kosovo. NATO has conducted some 18,000 sorties, some 4,036 strike sorties, and about a dozen incidents of unintended casualties have been involved. We've damaged and we've disrupted key strategic targets such as command and control and integrated air defenses. In recent weeks NATO has also eliminated more than one third of Yugoslavia's Army artillery, armored personnel carriers and other forces deployed in Kosovo.

We are currently moving more planes into the region to intensify our attacks, which will continue until NATO's goals are met. With that, let me take your questions. Charlie.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Senator Shelby said today that a 1992 map was used in flying this raid. If that's true, could I ask -- you said what happened here -- why was a 1992 map used? Number two, the Chinese are demanding that those directly responsible for this be punished. Do you think they will be punished, fired or, in fact, resign over this?

SECRETARY COHEN: First, let me say that you will be given a more detailed briefing at the conclusion of my presence here at the podium in terms of which maps were used. But there was an original 1992 map that was subsequently updated in 1997, and then again in 1998 it was again reviewed for the possibility of conducting an operation. So it was 1992 and looked at again in 1997 and again in '98. None of those maps indicated that it was the Chinese embassy that was being targeted. The Chinese embassy on all of those maps was located in what was called Old Belgrade. But, again, you'll get more briefing on that.

As far as responsibility or culpability, we are in the -- again -- preliminary stages of this investigation. If there is culpability to be found, then we could consider appropriate action at that time.

Q: Secretary Cohen, under the conditions that you've pointed out, one of them is the withdrawal of Serb troops. Yugoslavia said today that it's ordered some withdrawal of troops. One, have you seen any evidence that any troops are withdrawing from Kosovo; and, two, if they do begin to withdraw, will they be allowed to withdraw, or will they be bombed on their way out?

SECRETARY COHEN: As you indicated, only one of the five conditions that NATO has laid out purportedly would be complied with. We've indicated in the past that he must comply with all conditions. He must pull his forces out; he must allow the ethnic Albanians to return -- the Kosovar Albanians to return and live in safety and security. He must allow the international peacekeeping force. He must allow and permit autonomy to be granted to the Kosovars.

So, if he is committed to all of those conditions and then starts to withdraw his forces consistent with that commitment, then, of course, NATO could consider a bombing pause at that time, as President Clinton has pointed out. But simply saying he's going to withdraw part of his forces is completely insufficient. Secretary Albright has indicated it will be a half measure and that would be to say the least --

Q: The soldiers would still be subject to attack?

SECRETARY COHEN: We intend to continue our campaign until such time as Milosevic agrees to the conditions laid down by NATO.

Q: And to follow up, Mr. Secretary. Do you see, or have you been informed that there is, in fact, even a partial pull-out of his troops out of Kosovo? And, two, if there is even a partial pull-out, do you think this is a case of him flinching, a legitimate pull-out or is it perhaps a propaganda ploy to try and drive a wedge into NATO, which is upset over the Chinese bombing?

SECRETARY COHEN: I am not aware of any troops being pulled out; it may be that they have retrenched in some respect; I'm not aware of that, and I wouldn't want to try and divine what is going on in Milosevic's mind, whether it is tactical in nature, seeking to try and drive some wedge between the NATO allies.

I have been on the phone talking with my allies constantly, my counterparts constantly in the alliance, and they have all indicated that NATO must continue. And so, there is still strong unanimity that we must continue this effort until such time as the conditions are met.

Q: Is that with regard to all of his forces, or is that negotiable?


Q: Does he have to withdraw all forces, or is that negotiable?

SECRETARY COHEN: We have made it clear he must pull all of his army forces out of Kosovo.

Q: In apologizing, does the President of the United States and other officials of the United States -- do you, sir, also express regret, contrition or sorrow as well as an apology? And the second part of the question is whose planes actually did the (inaudible)?

SECRETARY COHEN: First of all, the President has apologized; the Secretary of State has apologized. I've indicated we deeply regret what has taken place with the loss of Chinese lives. We hope that they will understand that this was, in fact, accidental. It was not intentionally targeted as a Chinese embassy.

The building was targeted, but it was not understood to be the Chinese embassy, and, frankly, it defies all logic, all rationale on the part of anyone to conclude that we would deliberately target the Chinese embassy.

We have tried very vigorously to promote a better U.S.-Chinese relationship. I have indicated to the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and others that I intended to continue our military-to-military contacts, that I had intended to travel to China in the near future and had to cancel my trip recently because of what was going on in Kosovo.

So, it runs contrary and against the grain of everything that we have been trying to promote in terms of better relations with China for us to have deliberately targeted the Chinese embassy.

And I understand that there is anger. I understand that the Chinese feel this sense of frustration and rage right now, but I would hope that cooler heads would prevail, because we have much larger interests and long-term interests with the Chinese people and the Chinese government, and hopefully, we can help mollify those feelings of rage and anger and then restore a sense of calm and cordiality in our relations.

Q: Can you say who was responsible?

SECRETARY COHEN: I believe it was an American plane.

Q: Mr. Secretary, quite apart from the Chinese demanding punishment of those who might have been responsible, isn't it in the interests of the U.S. government that if anyone, if any members of the executive branch made mistakes that led to this, that there be some kind of publicly known punishment so that this kind of thing doesn't happen again?

SECRETARY COHEN: I think we have to wait for the outcome of the investigation to find out why this was not included, why the embassy was not properly identified, and then we'll take whatever measures are necessary at that point.

Q: Mr. Secretary, could you expand a little bit on your answer that NATO could consider a bombing pause? Does that mean that you want to see completion of all five conditions or simply a promise from Milosevic? At what point do you consider a bombing pause?

SECRETARY COHEN: I was trying to reiterate what President Clinton has already stated, that he could envision some circumstances under which there could be a pause. Those circumstances would require Milosevic to have to agree to the conditions that NATO has set forth, the five key principles.

If he were to agree and say he would abide by them and then take demonstrable evidence to comply with them, then there could be a halt in the bombing as such so that we would not target the soldiers who were in fact retreating and going out of Kosovo. Those are the only conditions under which you could have a halt to the bombing or a pause, under those conditions.

But absent an agreement on his part with demonstrable evidence that the forces were being pulled out and that the Kosovar Albanians were allowed to go back in and that there would be an agreement that there would be an international peacekeeping force with NATO at its core, absent any of that, then the bombing will continue.

Q: What would be the actual mechanism for getting some sort of an agreement? Do you envision talks between NATO and Milosevic? How would that even happen?

SECRETARY COHEN: I think Milosevic understands what he has to do. We've made it very clear to him. There have been a number of emissaries that have traveled to Belgrade and back. I think he understands what these five conditions are, and he will simply have to accept then.

How he communicates that is to be determined and through what vehicle or what person or persons, but he has every opportunity to comply with it, and he can stop the bombing now by complying with NATO's conditions.

Q: Has there been any pause in the bombing of Belgrade itself because of --


Q: Has there been any pause in the bombing of Belgrade itself because of this strategy --


Q: -- while you reevaluate the targeting procedures or anything?

SECRETARY COHEN: No. We're going to continue the bombing campaign wherever the SACEUR and our military authorities believe targets should be hit throughout Serbia.

Q: (Inaudible) for 45 days (inaudible) air power. I wonder if you please explain (inaudible) objectives on this and declare war.

SECRETARY COHEN: Well, first of all, we have indicated that although it's been 45 days, there have been only a very few, a handful of days that have been unrestricted by weather. Given that limitation, we have been quite successful in eliminating his petroleum refining capacity, 100 percent; we have cut in half his ammunition-production capability; we have eliminated nearly one-half or perhaps even two-thirds of his front-line aircraft, MiG-29s and others, and we are now systematically going after forces in the field. We think that the air campaign has been successful [and] will continue to be more successful as we intensify the operation.

Q: If you are not going to pause bombing, I presume you're using the same maps that had the mistake on it. Are you concerned about any other mistakes? And, also, you were scheduled for a trip to China, I believe, in June. Is that still on?

SECRETARY COHEN: Well, with respect to the mistakes, as I've indicated, out of the 4,036 combat strikes that have been conducted, roughly 12 or about a dozen have involved unintended casualties.

I would say that we have an outstanding record of achievement here in terms of trying to minimize harm to innocent people. In this particular case, it was not a human error or mechanical error. It was an institutional error, and that's what we have to make sure that we can correct in the future, to the best that we can.

Once again, I would point out that because we are engaged in combat, that errors are likely to take place in the future, but I think given the record that we've established, we have brought them to a very substantial minimum in terms of the overall campaign.

As far as my travel plans, they remain open. Much will depend upon whether the Chinese government wishes to have me travel there. I've been there many times before. I consider my relationship with their government to be certainly as receptive and as good and cordial as one can be. I would like to continue that relationship, but that depends upon the Chinese government.

Q: Mr. Secretary, since a map was used to target this building in the belief that it was the Supply Ministry, presumably the map has been used to select other targets. Don't you have to go back and re-examine that map and update your intelligence?

SECRETARY COHEN: They are looking at the reviewing of the maps, but they are satisfied, given the rate of accuracy that we've had during the past 45 days, that the record has been pretty outstanding.

So if you have only 12 incidents where you've had unintended casualties from either malfunction or misfire or errant missile, in this case, the wrong building, they still are very highly confident of the imagery that they have and the maps that they have.

Q: Mr. Secretary, excuse me. Do you think that this should directly -- does this directly come from deep cuts in the intelligence budget, or is this just a mistake that happened, just happened to occur?

SECRETARY COHEN: I really can't answer as to the cause of, or the failure to put the Chinese Embassy in the right location. The maps that they have show the Chinese embassy in old Belgrade, that show this building, unidentified as the Chinese embassy, where it is today, but the maps that they were working from had it in the part of -- the old part of Belgrade.

Q: Okay. Thank you.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BACON: In five minutes, we'll continue the briefing of the background, so we'll shut the lights off, take the cameras down, and be back in five minutes.