Milosevic winning gamble in Balkans armed showdown

April 11, 1999|By Charles Lane

THIS IS a picture of ethnic cleansing in progress.

The red-circled objects are Serbian armored vehicles, surrounding the Kosovo Albanian village of Glodane.

The elongated gray smudge in the lower-right area of the shot is a crowd of people -- the population of the village, ousted from their homes and herded into a field by Serbian troops. You can also make out a flow of civilian vehicles, presumably full of deportees, proceeding from the field south on the road to Albania.

Striking images

It's breathtaking to contemplate these images, probably taken by an American U-2 spy plane over Kosovo at the height of the Serbian rampage through the province.

It's even more chilling to realize that NATO is in possession of additional pictures, taken shortly after this one, which show the field completely empty and Glodane in flames. (Those photos have only been described to journalists, not released to the public, apparently to prevent the Serbs from making deductions about U-2 flight patterns.)

At last, "national technical means," the intelligence community's euphemistic name for its vast array of sophisticated spy planes, satellites and remote listening devices, may be coming into its own as a tool for investigating. And, eventually, for punishing war crimes and other massive violations of human rights around the world.

During the Cold War, these supersecret eyes and ears in the sky were devoted mainly to monitoring military movements in the Soviet Union, especially possible violations of arms control agreements.

But in the post-Cold-War world the very same technology that enabled, say, a KH-11 spy satellite to spot a Soviet bomb as small as a soccer ball can be used to find and photograph a pile of massacred bodies. New Predator pilotless aircraft can actually produce videotape of ongoing military activity -- including, presumably, assaults on civilians.

Four years ago, the United States released a few aerial photographs of mass graves near the massacre site in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces under Gen. Ratko Mladic killed thousands of Muslim men in July 1995.

But that was done on an ad hoc basis. Kosovo represents the first time President Clinton has formally "tasked" the intelligence community to use national technical means to document war crimes, according to a story in the Washington Post.

State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin has announced that information gathered this way could later be supplied to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Clearly, the administration is responding to criticism it received back in 1995, which charged that it had withheld key war crimes evidence from the public and the tribunal because of excessive concerns for the secrecy of U.S. intelligence-gathering methods.

Adapting national technical means to the inherently political task of pursuing and prosecuting war criminals poses real challenges.

Satellites and spy planes cannot see everything. Even the KH-11 satellite, the most powerful one the United States has in orbit, can make only two 10- or 15-minute passes over Kosovo each day. During that time, it can probably take about 75 pictures of preselected targets no more than a couple of kilometers wide. There will be large areas where atrocities go undetected.

Plane schedules

As for spy planes, the Serbs can gradually figure out their schedules so as to avoid doing anything too barbaric while they're overhead. Furthermore, aerial photos and intercepted telecommunications traffic are time-consuming and expensive to examine and interpret.

Moreover, the Clinton administration's decision to use national technical means in what could become an international law enforcement effort represents a further departure from the traditional norms of the intelligence community, which have generally been opposed to missions with such obvious potential for politicization.

To be sure, the intelligence agencies have less of a right to resist the war-crimes-fighting mission after so eagerly rushing into the war on drugs, which is also a quasi-judicial mission fraught with political and diplomatic issues.

But intelligence traditionalists can be expected to continue resisting the new mission. And, to a certain extent, openly conceding that U.S. intelligence is a material witness to crimes against humanity does raise genuine dilemmas for the agencies.

Still, though the intelligence community can always be accused of sitting on the information, ultimately it's up to political decision-makers how to use it.

Now that the Clinton administration has opted to use national technical means for human rights purposes in Kosovo, there's no logical stopping point: Why not Tibet, North Korea, Iraq and Indonesia?

In principle, we have the capability to gather information about atrocities in all these places -- and we probably have. But it's up to the policy-makers to decide what to do with the data.

Jamie Rubin sent a warning of future prosecution to nine specifically identified Yugoslav field commanders.

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