Ouster of Serb leader sought

Clinton decides on effort to remove Milosevic from seat of power

Covert CIA action included

U.S. would employ computer hacking to drain foreign accounts

June 27, 1999|By Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has decided to mount a concerted campaign to remove Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power and is harnessing an unusual range of tools to do it, from international aid to covert CIA action, officials say.

The 11-week war over Kosovo convinced Clinton that the best way to secure peace in the Balkans is to oust the Serbian leader and help Yugoslavia become more democratic, aides say.

Among the actions that have been launched are a CIA-led operation aimed at exposing and disrupting Milosevic's financial dealings abroad -- including a plan to use computers to hack into his accounts; secret contacts to encourage Yugoslav military leaders to move against the president; clandestine meetings with Serbian opposition leaders to forge an anti-Milosevic coalition; and a proposal to provide overt political aid for democratic forces in Serbia.

At the same time, Clinton and his European allies have told the Serbian people that they could get millions of dollars in reconstruction money from the West -- if they pushed Milosevic out of office.

"I do not believe we should give them any money for reconstruction if they believe [Milosevic] is the person who should lead them into the new century," Clinton said at a news conference Friday. "I do not, and I will not, support it."

After the failure of similar efforts to undermine Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other foreign leaders, U.S. officials are setting no specific goals or deadlines. "We don't want to give the false impression of progress," an intelligence official said. "But we're very serious about trying."

Working for the U.S. efforts is that Serbia, unlike Iraq, is still open enough that public opinion could have a significant impact.

Among the actions that U.S. officials listed:

* Clinton has notified Congress that he has directed the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to undermine Milosevic and encourage his ouster, officials said.

The covert program has several components, including the controversial proposal to use computers to drain funds from foreign bank accounts held by Milosevic and his allies.

Officials refused to say whether computer raids have been attempted against Milosevic, who is believed to have hidden assets in Greece, Cyprus, Switzerland, Russia and Lebanon.

"There may be as much `psy [psychological] war' going on here as `cyber war,' " said one -- suggesting that the plan aims to rattle Milosevic's wealthy backers and prompt them to withdraw their support of him.

* Clinton has authorized U.S. military and intelligence officers to encourage senior Yugoslav military figures to turn against Milosevic -- and even attempt a coup, one official said.

Other aides cautioned that the prospects of a coup soon do not appear high, because Milosevic has removed independent-minded officers from his armed forces and cultivated those who remained.

* A senior State Department official, Robert S. Gelbard, has held a series of clandestine meetings with Yugoslav opposition leaders in Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation.

Gelbard traveled secretly into Montenegro during the war and told the opposition leaders that the United States would support them but encouraged them to forge a broad anti-Milosevic coalition, one official said.

Serbian participants in the talks included Zoran Djindjic, president of Serbia's opposition Democratic Party, and Vladan Batic, chairman of the Alliance for Change, an opposition coalition.

* The Clinton administration announced last week that it is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Milosevic's arrest and conviction on war crimes charges -- the first such reward ever offered by the U.S. government for the arrest of a foreign head of state.

Officials said the order was intended to rattle Milosevic and his allies, and to alert other Yugoslav officials that they risk similar action if the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands, hands down more indictments.

* The administration is pressing other countries to freeze assets held by Milosevic and other indicted Yugoslav officials in overseas bank accounts.

Switzerland, a traditional haven for hidden assets, announced last week that it has ordered its banks to freeze all accounts belonging to Milosevic. Cyprus has also been quietly cooperating with the United States, officials said.

* The State Department is working on proposals for overt financial and technical aid to anti-Milosevic forces inside Serbia.

The administration is also hoping to help the Serbian opposition by funding professional political consultants through the foreign-aid branches of the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties.

* To dramatize Serbia's isolation, Clinton has called for an international summit by the end of next month on Balkan reconstruction efforts.

One purpose of such a summit would be to encourage European and other wealthy countries to commit significant aid to Kosovo and to Yugoslavia's neighbors, including Albania and Montenegro. Another would be to remind the Serbian government and people what they are missing by keeping Milosevic in power.

* U.S. officials are waging an energetic propaganda war against Milosevic, doggedly publicizing evidence that his regime might be in trouble.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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