BELGRADE, SERBIA — At night, when the lawns are empty and the lamps along the walking paths are the only source of light, Topcider Park on the outskirts of Belgrade is a perfect meeting place for spies.
It was here in 1992, as the former Yugoslavia was erupting in ethnic violence, that a wary CIA agent made his way toward the park's gazebo and shook hands with a Serbian intelligence officer.
Jovica Stanisic had a cold gaze and a sinister reputation. He was the intelligence chief for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and regarded by many as the brains of a regime that gave the world a chilling new term: "ethnic cleansing."
But the CIA officer, William Lofgren, needed help. The agency was all but blind after Yugoslavia shattered into civil war. Fighting had broken out in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milosevic was seen as a menace to European security, and the CIA was desperate to get intelligence from inside the turmoil.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
War crimes: An article March 1 in Section A about Serbian war crimes defendant Jovica Stanisic reported that prosecutor Dermot Groome said that Stanisic's actions to help the CIA and counter Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic underscored his power. Groome was not commenting on the relationship between Stanisic and the CIA, but on Stanisic's efforts to save lives during the war. Also, the article said that Georgetown is in Virginia. It is a Washington, D.C., neighborhood.
So on that midnight stroll, the two spies carved out a clandestine relationship that remained undisclosed: For eight years, Stanisic was the CIA's main man in Belgrade. During secret meetings in boats and safe houses along the Sava River, he shared details on the inner workings of the Milosevic regime. He provided information on the locations of NATO hostages, aided CIA operatives in their search for grave sites and helped the agency set up a network of secret bases in Bosnia.
At the same time, Stanisic was setting up death squads for Milosevic that carried out a genocidal campaign, according to prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which was established by the U.N. Security Council in 1993 to try those responsible for serious human rights violations in the Balkan wars.
Now facing a trial at The Hague that could send him to prison for life, Stanisic has called in a marker with his American allies. In an exceedingly rare move, the CIA has submitted a classified document to the court that lists Stanisic's contributions and attests to his helpful role. The document remains sealed, but its contents were described by sources to The Times.
The CIA's Lofgren, now retired, said the agency drafted the document to show "that this allegedly evil person did a whole lot of good." Lofgren, however, doesn't claim to disprove the allegations against Stanisic.
"But setting the indictment aside," he said, "there are things this man did that helped bring hostilities to an end and establish peace in Bosnia."
Through his attorney, Stanisic, 58, declined to comment, citing the tribunal's ban on communications with the media. But Stanisic has pleaded not guilty, and denies any role in creating the squads or even being aware of the crimes they committed.
The CIA's effort puts it in the unusual position of serving as something of a character witness for a war crimes defendant. The agency declined to comment on the document. Because its contents are classified, the letter could be considered by the court only in closed session. Court officials said it was unclear whether the document would be of significant use to the Stanisic defense, or would come into play mainly in seeking a more lenient sentence if he is convicted.
Prosecution dubious of Stanisic claims
This account is based on dozens of interviews with current and former officials of U.S. and Serbian intelligence agencies, as well as documents obtained or viewed by The Times. Among them are official records of the Serbian intelligence service, and a seven-page account of that bloody period that Stanisic wrote while in prison in The Hague.
In that memo, Stanisic portrays himself as someone who sought to moderate Milosevic, and who worked extensively with the CIA to contain the crisis.
"I institutionalized cooperation with the U.S. intelligence community in spite of the notoriously bad relations between our two countries," Stanisic writes. That collaboration, he continues, "contributed significantly to the de-escalation of the conflict."
The chief prosecutor, Dermot Groome, says that Stanisic's actions to help the CIA and counter Milosevic only underscore the power he had. In his opening argument, Groome said that the "ability to save lives is tragically the very same authority and the very same ability that [Stanisic] used . . . to take lives."
Belgrade still bears the scars of war. Bombed-out buildings are scattered across the Serbian capital, including a charred concrete structure on Knez Milos Street that used to be the headquarters for Serbia's State Security Service.
Stanisic used to occupy the corner office on the top floor. In his prime, he was in charge of 2,000 employees. He wore dark suits and sunglasses, a Balkan James Bond. His nickname was "Ledeni," Serbian for "icy."
Stanisic joined the Yugoslav service in 1975, when the country was still under the communist rule of Josip Broz Tito. He was never regarded as an ideologue or rabid nationalist. But he had a rare aptitude for espionage.