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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

NATO Spokesman a True Believer, Reluctant Celebrity

Englishman Jamie Shea says he knows the value of candor. But critics fault him for not telling whole story.

May 28, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRUSSELS — The now-familiar face and voice of NATO's armed crusade against Yugoslavia, Jamie Patrick Shea, knows about the dangers of cover-ups. He was, he will admit, involved in one himself.

More than two decades ago, the London native and the woman he was about to marry were working as teachers of English language and civilization at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.

"I tried to cut all kinds of corners about previous girlfriends and all of that," the 45-year-old Shea recalls. "And it brought me a whole lot of grief. Until suddenly, I realized that I would much better keep my wife, who I really did value, by being absolutely honest than by trying to cover up, as it were.

"That," says Shea with his customary earnestness, "was a major point of my life."

A genial, self-made Englishman who is a true believer in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the righteousness of its cause, Shea has, extremely reluctantly, become a global celebrity since U.S. and allied warplanes began their bombing operations March 24--and has faced criticism that he hasn't told the whole story about the campaign.

After two months of holding internationally televised news briefings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Shea's Fab Four-like coif and upwardly mobile Cockney accent are so identifiable that he's received one of the ultimate honors of modern times--a ribbing in Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip.

In Turkey, a NATO member, Shea is so well known that "if he walked down Ataturk Boulevard [the major street in Ankara, the capital], he'd definitely be recognized," says Guldener Sonumut, Brussels bureau chief for the Turkish news channel NTV.

For this son of a sewing machine engineer, who never served in his country's military, Operation Allied Force has proved as grueling as if he were in uniform. During the first 60 days of air raids, Shea often worked until 11 p.m. and had a total of 1 1/2 days off.

He has started driving his daughter, 10, and son, 7, to school in the morning because "it's the only chance I have to see them and chat with them, to explain what's going on and appeal to their understanding."

For Shea, who joined NATO 19 years ago as a humble functionary taking notes of meetings and has been its spokesman for the past six, the notoriety he has gained in recent weeks is not welcome.

During an interview, he throws the latest of a raft of newspaper and magazine profiles written about him onto a credenza in his office, insisting that he never reads them. At one point, he says he's surprised to be still in his job after so much exposure in the unforgiving eye of live TV.

"I honestly thought that after a couple of weeks, I'd be fired," Shea says, puffing on a Havana, a once-a-week indulgence. "Not because I say outrageous things, but because you know how sensitive politics are inside the alliance. NATO ambassadors have never seen a spokesman get up and do daily briefings on the record before.

"That's unique--that's never happened in the 50 years of NATO. I was quite convinced that I would end up inadvertently upsetting a lot of delegations."

To drive his message home at briefings, Shea resorts to alliteration, pathos, purple prose, quotes from sources ranging from Shakespeare to Frank Sinatra, phrases he hopes will be picked up by journalists and put in their copy. (He once said an Albanian refugee had called the roaring of NATO jets "the sounds of angels.")

On occasions when NATO planes have attacked the wrong target, or when incorrect information must be rectified, it's Shea, along with a representative of the alliance's military organization, who stands behind a wooden lectern and takes the heat.

"I like to be truthful," Shea said. "These [foul-ups] we've had really upset me profoundly. But I repeat: We've never told any lies."

As Shea sees it, his chief assignment is to keep opinion focused on the "big picture"--the appalling suffering of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians at the hand of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's army, police and paramilitary groups.

Shea's performance has not received unanimous plaudits. He can recognize almost every journalist who covers the alliance by his or her first name, and he's just "Jamie" to them. But often, he cannot give them the facts they seek. He pleads military secrecy, but members of his entourage blame micromanagement by the commander of the campaign against Yugoslavia, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

In Britain, some people strenuously object to the working-class accent of this graduate of Sussex and Oxford universities, the first member of his family to get a higher education. Shea "sounds like the manager of a lower-division football club," complained John Keegan, a prominent British military historian.

In fact, NATO's spokesman earned a doctorate in modern history from Oxford in 1981 with a thesis on the role of intellectuals in mobilizing popular support during World War I. As well as English and French, Shea claims a good knowledge of German and Dutch and can read Italian. He lectures regularly at a host of European institutions.

And there is just one critic Shea says he listens to: his wife, Frances, 42, his former co-worker at the Ecole Normale Superieure and now a lawyer. "She's far more astute than anyone else when it comes to, you know, 'You shouldn't have said that' or 'You didn't do well today,' " Shea says.

Ironically, the Londoner who has come to personify NATO was hoping to make a career change before the dramatic events in Kosovo came along but says, "I've just learned to accept that I've been, if you like, the guy who's been in the wrong place at the wrong time."

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