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Bombing embassies is something terrorists do. Consequently, when American war planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last May, administration officials expressed disbelief and then shock that anything so inexplicable could happen. Now there may be an explanation: The bombing was intentional.

The London Observer and Copenhagen's Politiken reported on Oct. 17 that, according to "senior U.S. and European military sources," the Chinese Embassy was targeted because it was serving as rebroadcast station for the Yugoslavian army.

After the May 7 bombing, which killed three Chinese, the United States professed ignorance. President Clinton called the bombing a "tragic mistake," the result of some mix-up, or so the story went. NATO officials said the Central Intelligence Agency had mistakenly targeted the embassy. The administration said that the U.S. pilots had meant to bomb the Yugoslavian arms agency, located 500 meters from the embassy, and hit the embassy because military databases contained the wrong address. Or, as U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky put it when explaining the chill in U.S.-Sino relations to Congress: "What happened, as I said to my staff, is that men never ask for directions, and we mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade."

These varied stories seemed to placate everyone but the Chinese and Russians. On ABC's This Week, Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing described the bombing as "a horrifying atrocity, something rarely seen in the entire history of the worst diplomacy." Leonid Ivashov of the Russian Defense Ministry told the New York Times: "By attacking the Chinese Embassy, the United States demonstrates the drive for a unilateral dictatorship of force to meet its interests."

If what the Observer's highly placed sources say is true, the administration's professed regret is a ruse. A source at the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency told the Observer the "wrong map" story is "a damned lie." Further, according to the Observer, the CIA and its British equivalent, M16, knew full well where the Chinese Embassy was because they "would have been listening to communications from the Chinese Embassy, as a matter of course, since it moved to the site in 1996."

According to the Observer, the Chinese Embassy was originally on a list of "strictly prohibited targets," but was "taken off" after NATO electronic intelligence detected it sending Yugoslavian army signals to Milosevic's forces. Three unnamed NATO officers told the Observer that in April NATO knew that the Chinese Embassy was serving as a rebroadcast station for the Yugoslavian army, whose communications infrastructure had been destroyed by the bombing campaign. "NATO had been hunting the radio transmitters in Belgrade. When [Slobodan Milosevic's] residence was bombed on 23 April, the signals disappeared for 24 hours," said an intelligence officer who monitored Yugoslavian radio communications from Macedonia. "When they came on the air again, we discovered they came from the embassy compound." A Naples-based flight controller said that NATO had a map of "non-targets"--schools, hospitals and embassies--and that the Chinese Embassy was correctly located on that map.

And an Observer source in the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said, "My information is [that] the Chinese became more supportive to the Yugoslav military the more that NATO pared down the Yugoslavs' capabilities." The Observer speculates that Yugoslavia was being militarily aided by China in exchange for the remains of the Stealth fighter (and its attendant technological secrets) that was shot down over Serbia.

If the United States did intentionally bomb the Chinese Embassy, it may have done so without the prior knowledge of it NATO allies. Certainly German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was suspicious of the official U.S. line. Speaking from Beijing several days after the attack, he said, "The explanation given by NATO on the tragic incident so far is far from enough and the Chinese government has every reason to demand a comprehensive, thorough and in-depth investigation into the incident and affix responsibility for it."

Who ordered the strike? According to Pacific News Service, the Observer reporters talked to a senior military officer who said that NATO had a "two-track" system for selecting targets in Yugoslavia. Targets on one track had to be approved by NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and the leaders of Britain, France and Germany. Targets on the other track were "solely under American control" and consisted of "politically sensitive" targets that had to be approved by President Clinton or the National Security Agency. A French Ministry of Defense report released in November acknowledged that American planes not under allied command carried out some of the largest bombing raids, including the one that struck the Chinese Embassy.

The Observer reported an unattributed "claim" that the three missiles that hit the Chinese Embassy "were so highly sensitive, militarily, that they were deployed by the Americans alone, answering to a special directive from the President himself and bypassing the normal NATO command structure." That assertion is backed up by a report in the London Daily Telegraph from last June that the precision-guided missiles "carefully singled out the most sensitive section of the embassy complex for attack," the intelligence directorate. The paper quotes a Pentagon official: "That's exactly why [the Chinese] don't buy our explanation."

And in July, CIA Director George Tenet testified before Congress that of the 900 sites struck by NATO during the bombing campaign, only one was targeted by the CIA-- the Chinese Embassy.

This story has only dribbled into the United States, where the mainstream press has ignored it. Though the story was covered by The Associated Press, the New York Times has given it no mention. The Washington Post devoted 90 words to it in the "World Briefing" section under the headline, "NATO Denies Story on Embassy Bombing."

In response to questions raised by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the New York-based media watch group, New York Times foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote, "The Observer article was not terribly well-sourced, by our standards at least. I assure you that if we can show that the bombing was deliberate, you will read about it on the front page of our paper."

In turn, FAIR asked the reporters who broke the story, John Sweeney, Jens Holsoe and Ed Vulliamy, to clarify their sources. The sources included: a European NATO military officer serving in an operational capacity at the four-star level; a European NATO staff officer at the two-star level in the Defense Intelligence office; a NATO flight controller based in Naples; a NATO intelligence officer monitoring Yugoslavian radio broadcasts from Macedonia; a very high-ranking former senior American intelligence official connected to the Balkans ("about as high as you an get," said one reporter); a mid-rank U.S. military official connected to the Balkans; and a U.S. official at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

"The New York Times, to my knowledge, has not made any effort to find out what the sourcing was," says Seth Ackerman, a media analyst at FAIR. "As has been done in the past, it sounds like the Times might be holding out for a named official source, which is a standard of evidence that the Times likes to apply in cases where they would rather not report the story at all."

The administration also has responded to the allegations. "Well, to use the fine diplomatic term, that's balderdash," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN's Late Edition. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, speaking to the BBC, concurred: "The idea that the United States has been sitting on a good explanation for all these months but sought not to share it is, I'm afraid, a delusion. It was a tragic error, that is the reality of the situation."

The reporters stand by their stories. "Nearly everyone involved in NATO air operations or signals command knows that the embassy bombing was deliberate," Politiken's Holsoe told Pacific News Service. Observer foreign editor Peter Beaumont said the investigation will continue. "This is our first stab at the story, but if it takes two months or 20 years, the truth will finally come out."

"It is peculiar and noteworthy that [the Chinese Embassy] seems to be the only target that the CIA picked--a fact which will be right up there with the Grassy Knoll with conspiracy theorists for some time to come," says John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "The explanation that has some currency in Beijing is that a secret team within the CIA is acting independently of the rest of the U.S. government on behalf of a Jesse Helms version of American foreign policy, and that they did this with the intentional purpose of antagonizing China."

But, Pike says, "I find the U.S. government's explanation for how the mistakes were made to be convincing." Even if the Chinese were allowing the Serbs to use the embassy compound for military purposes, which he says is doubtful, the United States would not have intentionally bombed the embassy because the damage such a bombing would inflict on Sino-American relations would far outweigh the benefits of such a strike.

"At the end of the day this raises a fundamental question about the level of duplicity and brutality that one believes the U.S. government to be capable of," Pike says. "The proposition that we attacked the embassy with malice aforethought as a deliberate policy and then lied about it does not conform to my model of the way the U.S. government works."

Then again, it wouldn't be the first time the U.S. government violated international law and then lied about it.


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