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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Pentagon to Tighten Targeting Procedures

Military: Cohen calls bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade an 'institutional error,' suggesting it is unlikely to be blamed on any person.

May 11, 1999|PAUL RICHTER and DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered a tightening Monday of the Pentagon's system of picking bomb targets after a misdirected airstrike on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade exposed flaws in existing procedures.

Cohen said the government will institute new, more reliable procedures for updating maps, for reporting on the location of embassies and for checking to ensure future airstrikes don't hit sensitive sites.

At the same time, President Clinton and other officials said Saturday's bombing, and China's angry response to it, won't change NATO's military and diplomatic strategy in the war with Yugoslavia.

"The embassy bombing hasn't had much real effect, except for a lot of angry language on all sides," a senior State Department official said. "There needs to be a settling-out period before real diplomatic progress occurs, but there wasn't going to be much immediate progress anyway."

In the short run, the bombing made it impossible to win China's assent to a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing NATO action in Yugoslavia. But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization wasn't seeking that authorization immediately, and the alliance is willing to continue bombing--and negotiating--without it, officials said.

As officials provided new details of the embassy bombing, Cohen acknowledged that the accident occurred because of the failure of "a number of systems designed to produce and to verify accurate data."

While an internal investigation continues, Cohen seemed to hint that the error is not likely to be blamed on any individual. It was the result, he said, not of mechanical or human mistake but of an "institutional error."

Because of the faulty information it had received, an American B-2 Stealth bomber dropped at least three "joint direct attack" munitions on the building, killing three people and injuring 20.

Intelligence officials said military planners apparently had, from a variety of sources, the correct street address for the target they wanted to hit--a weapons-making agency called the Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement.

But when they reviewed reconnaissance images to match the address with an actual site, they chose the wrong building. The directorate was, in fact, about a block away to the south on the same street, Tresnja Tveta.

From the overhead photos, there was nothing to suggest that the building was the modern marble-and-glass Chinese Embassy rather than the plainer federal agency building, officials said.

Procedures call for planners to double-check their information by comparing the data with maps, with a long list of potential targeting sites and with a so-called "no-strike" list that enumerates sensitive locations that are off limits--churches, hospitals and schools, for example.

These checks were carried out but did not reveal the error.

The map examined by planners was developed by the CIA, first drafted in 1992 and updated in 1997. It did not show the Chinese Embassy at its current location, even though the Chinese moved in during 1996, before the most recent update of the map.

Instead, the CIA map showed the Chinese Embassy to be at its old location across town in "old Belgrade."

Officials acknowledged that a number of U.S. representatives have probably visited the new Chinese Embassy building since it was occupied. Yet no one reported its location to the planning unit, nor did officials have any reason to send an agent on foot to search for the site, since they didn't realize there was a problem.

"It's a multistage check, both within the intelligence community and at the Department of Defense," a senior intelligence official told a Pentagon briefing. "None of those fail-safes worked."

An official said the review of the potential target wasn't primarily focused on whether the assumed location was correct. Rather, the discussion focused more on whether the target was "appropriate" and whether collateral damage would inflict too much harm on people who might be in the area, an official said.

Cohen and other officials did not rule out that such a calamity could happen again. "In combat, such accidents will happen, despite our best efforts to prevent them," he said.

A State Department official said several former officers of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade have been asked to check the CIA's maps and databases to make sure other embassies are located properly.

"We want to make sure we don't hit the Russian Embassy next," he said.

The official said the Clinton administration believes that its bombing campaign is producing a "change in attitude" in the Yugoslav government that is moving Belgrade closer to accepting NATO's conditions for Kosovo.

The United States and its allies don't plan to seek a U.N. resolution until then, he added.

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