Bosnia: What the CIA Didn’t Tell Us

Charles Lane and Thom Shanker   

May 9, 1996 issue

A pair of photographs changed the course of the war in Bosnia. They were presented to the United Nations Security Council on August 9, 1995, by the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright. The first picture was taken by an American U-2 spy plane as it flew over an area near the Muslim-controlled town of Srebrenica shortly before July 11, the day when the town, a UN-declared “safe area,” fell to the Bosnian Serb Army. The photograph showed an empty field. The second picture, taken after the safe area fell, showed the same field, splotched with freshly turned earth—the mass graves containing thousands of Srebrenica men murdered by the Serb nationalists. This was dramatic evidence of a horrific Serb atrocity. It embarrassed the European governments and members of the Clinton Administration who had been resisting military intervention, and prepared the way for their acquiescence in the large-scale use of NATO force against the Serbs.

That story is well known. What is not well known is that the US government could have made equally dramatic revelations much, much earlier—if it had wanted to do so. During the late spring and early summer of 1992, some three thousand Muslims in the northern town of Brcko were herded by Serb troops into an abandoned warehouse, tortured, and put to death. A US intelligence satellite orbiting over the former Yugoslavia photographed part of the slaughter. “They have photos of trucks going into Brcko with bodies standing upright, and pictures of trucks coming out of Brcko carrying bodies lying horizontally; stacked like cordwood,” an investigator working outside the US government who has seen the pictures told us. In 1993, US officials allowed members of a United Nations Commission of Experts on War Crimes in Bosnia (the precursor organization to today’s International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague), to inspect this evidence. But they were forbidden to make it public—or even to keep or copy it—because, they were told, to do so would jeopardize the classified methods by which it was obtained. Unlike Albright’s pictures, the photographs of the blood bath in Brcko remain unpublished to this day.

The contrast between the two episodes says much about the role US intelligence agencies have played—or failed to play—in exposing, preventing, and prosecuting war crimes during the last four years of combat and atrocities in Bosnia. US intelligence in Bosnia has suffered from a near-total lack of agents, or “human intelligence.” But thanks to what are officially called “national technical means,” US intelligence agencies have been able to “see” or “hear” a great deal of evidence about the most heinous atrocities in Europe since Stalin died. These means include cameras mounted on U-2 planes and spy satellites; video recorders in the Defense Department’s brand-new “Predator” drones; microphones and long-distance antennae used by the National Security Agency to pluck radio and telephone traffic out of thin air; and RC-135 “Rivet Joint” aircraft that can snatch up battlefield communications. “The former Yugoslavia is the most listened to, photographed, monitored, overheard, and intercepted entity in the history of mankind,” a former State Department official who handled classified information from Bosnia during the first, and bloodiest, year of ethnic cleansing told us—only somewhat hyperbolically.

Apart from a few highly publicized disclosures like Albright’s, however, US intelligence has mostly sat on the mountain of raw evidence it accumulated. The story is one not so much of a cover-up as of squandered potential, a failure born of inaction. Wary of deepening American involvement in the conflict, neither President Bush nor, until quite recently, President Clinton consistently made the documentation of ethnic cleansing a high priority “task” for the US intelligence agencies. Still less did they demand that the agencies tell the world all they knew.

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Info compiled by Dr. Andrew Burns, compiled by Macka