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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Maps Blamed for Deadly Error




WASHINGTON -- Satellite-guided bombs from a B-2 bomber struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, last Friday night because CIA analysts used outdated maps, and military databases designed to catch such mistakes had the wrong address for the embassy, U.S. officials said over the weekend.


When the target was initially checked against electronic mapping data in U.S. military and NATO computers to protect against civilian casualties, no red flags were raised because half a dozen different government databases had the location of the old Chinese Embassy in another part of Belgrade, not the new one, the officials said.


With an investigation under way and NATO still blaming the CIA for picking the wrong target, U.S. officials said Sunday that something obviously went horribly awry in translating the location of the intended target into information the military uses to target its satellite-guided bombs.


The intended target was the headquarters of a Yugoslav arms agency, picked because intelligence agencies have long suspected that it helped rivals of the United States to develop advanced weapons and that it sold weapons to help finance the Yugoslav military, officials said.


The intelligence analysts in Washington apparently picked the Chinese Embassy for attack, which was in its current location for only two years, without vetting from anyone on the ground.


Unlike many of the targets on NATO's hit list, the arms agency was added only within the last several weeks, when allied planners requested more sites to strike. Using both open and clandestine sources, CIA analysts determined the street address of the arms agency.


Then, using various intelligence, including photographs, and comparing the arms agency's street address with the addresses of other known buildings on the same street, the same analysts deduced what they thought was the building that matched the street address.


"We put an X on the map, but we put the X in the wrong place,'' one American official said Sunday night.


The arms agency and the embassy are about 200 meters apart.


The mistake was compounded when geographic coordinates for the building, derived from aerial reconnaissance photographs, were plugged into into the bombs' navigational system, officials said. The bombs, which were dropped by a B-2 stealth bomber on a 31-hour, round-trip mission from its base in Missouri, flew precisely to their assigned point, guided along the way by constantly updated radio signals from a constellation of Navstar global positioning satellites.


The intelligence failure led to a deadly case of mistaken identity that killed at least three people and wounded 20. While NATO spared Belgrade from bombing overnight Sunday, officialssaid that military targets there had not been taken off the bombing list.


The outdated maps analysts were using came from the Pentagon's National Imagery and Mapping Agency.


Late Saturday night, Defense Secretary William Cohen and CIA Director George Tenet faxed an unusual joint statement to news organizations insisting that neither pilot error or mechanical failure was to blame. Instead, they said, the bombing was "an anomaly that is unlikely to happen again.''


"Clearly, faulty information led to a mistake in the initial targeting of this facility,'' the statement said. "In addition, the extensive process in place used to select and validate targets did not correct this original error.''


But with no further explanation than that for the accident, the opaque statement gave no evidence for why American and NATO officials are sure this will not happen again.


"We've got confidence in the process and we're going to continue to target,'' General Wesley Clark, NATO's military commander, said Sunday on ABC television's news program "This Week.''


With Pentagon and intelligence officials refusing to say anything more about the accident other than that it was under investigation, these questions are still unanswered: Who was involved in the initial targeting? Why were American officials in Belgrade not consulted? Why was the location of the new embassy not in the military computers? How were the two buildings confused?


Several intelligence experts expressed dismay at such an intelligence blunder. "I'm absolutely dumbfounded,'' said one senior retired American officer with extensive experience in picking targets. "They should have known long before this conflict where that agency was located.''


Intelligence experts said the accident also raised questions about the wisdom of a decision in 1996 to fold the CIA's photographic intelligence center into a new Pentagon agency, a move that prompted many of the agency's most experienced analysts to leave.


Overall, NATO's track record in the seven-week air war has been pretty good. After more than 5,000 bombing missions that have used more than 15,000 missiles and bombs, there have been relatively few mistakes, largely because of political constraints imposed on both targets and pilots' tactics to avoid downed aviators and civilian casualties.


NATO began its strikes on March 24 with a list of about 100 targets, allied officials said. Most of those targets were selected by military aides to Clark, working with military planners in Belgium, Germany and Italy and with a special set of aides to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.


But the CIA also plays an important role, military officials said. In fact, the targeting information for Serbian targets bombed in Bosnia in 1995 was produced by the CIA's Balkans task force, intelligence officials said.


The target list is constantly being revised, with sites added or dropped based on new intelligence and battlefield assessments.


Once a target is identified for its military value, it is checked and cross-checked for possible risks to civilians.


The most sensitive targets, including the arms agency's headquarters, require President Bill Clinton's review and approval, administration officials said.