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The Embassy Bombing: Small Steps to a Big Disaster

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MARK THOMPSON WashingtonThe last time the U.S. mistakenly bombed a foreign mission was in 1986 in Tripoli, as an Air Force F-111 screamed over the darkened Libyan capital. The fiery bomb blasts of another F-111 just ahead forced the second plane’s crew off its attack path and sent three 2,000-lb. bombs into the French embassy. When the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, there once again were two pilots aboard a single plane. It was a B-2 this time. Once again, a trio of 2,000-pounders went astray. But this time the error wasn’t made in the heat of battle by a pair of pilots fighting fear and fire. Instead it was made–and compounded–by deskbound drones at the CIA, the Pentagon, the U.S. European Command and NATO.

Things like this happen enough that the military has an acronym–snafu, for situation normal, all fouled up–to use in polite company for such errors. This is the first time I have been aware of where there were inadvertent, unintended casualties because of a target mistake at the wrong facility, a U.S. intelligence official said last week, using synonyms for snafu four times in a single sentence.

It was not a human error or mechanical error, Defense Secretary William Cohen said. It was an institutional error. In its wake, he said, the State Department will report to U.S. intelligence whenever an embassy moves. And the Pentagon will develop better methods for assembling lists of no-strike sites. There will be an ironclad requirement that sensitive targets be confirmed by intelligence agents on the ground in Yugoslavia or U.S. government personnel who until recently were assigned there.

The mistake, which killed three people and wounded 20, began just about the time of the NATO summit in late April. War planners correctly figured they would soon be ordered to come up with more targets. A mid-level CIA bureaucrat nominated–warspeak for picked–the Serbs’ Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement, a hub of Serbian weapons buying and development. He even had its address. But you can’t program bombs by street addresses, a U.S. intelligence official says. We had to give the Pentagon geo-coordinates. The first mistake occurred when the CIA took the right address and thumbtacked it to the wrong building on a Pentagon-drafted 1997 map.

We knew some of the buildings in the neighborhood that were flanking the target, the intelligence official continues. We interpolated–spyspeak for guessed–this building was the building at that address, when in fact it was the embassy. Not only had the Chinese had the bad fortune to build their new embassy near the Yugoslav arms office, but the buildings resembled each other when seen from above. The footprint described on the map was accurate, a senior U.S. intelligence official says. There’s no definable signature on this building that would scream ‘Embassy!’ Linking the photograph and its coordinates to the map was the second mistake.

The package of potential targets next headed down the Potomac from the CIA to the Pentagon basement, home to the Joint Staff’s directorate for targets and from there to the U.S. European Command in Germany and to NATO. All were charged with making sure that any bombs that went astray would do scant harm. No one raised an alarm.

All the maps that these three organizations consulted showed that the Chinese embassy was still in old Belgrade, on the other side of town, even though the embassy had moved in 1996. Each of the three institutions cranked the target through its own database. None showed that there was an embassy nearby–let alone, says a Pentagon official, directly under the ‘aim point.’ These were the third, fourth and fifth mistakes.

No one on the ground in Belgrade verified the target. Since the embassy is a walled compound with a Chinese flag fluttering outside, it would have been easy enough to do. But that would have required a person. So, based on high-tech wizardry that Americans love, the target was deduced. There was no Belgrade-based human to ensure that all the maps, spy photos and databases had zeroed in on the proper target. That was the sixth mistake.

Finally, after weeks of effort, the studying, double-checking and vetting in Washington and Europe were finished. Air Force weapons technicians in Missouri loaded the ill-aimed, satellite-guided bombs into the belly of the radar-eluding Stealth bomber. From that point onward, for the first time in the whole process, U.S. technology–and its human masters–worked flawlessly.

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