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How CIA intercepted SAS signals
By Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, January 29, 1996
THE American secret services - notably the CIA - embark on their first publicly -sanctioned mission in Bosnia this week, to shield Nato soldiers from hostile paramilitaries and help war crimes investigators.
But, despite official denials, these agencies, including the CIA's Pentagon cousin the DIA, have been engaged deep within Bosnia's war since its inception.
Among their surveillance targets were top-secret communications between the high command of the United Nations military operation in Sarajevo and the British special forces, the SAS, operating under deep cover. What the Americans discovered was that the UN command was engaged in neutralising Nato air strikes against the Serbs.
US intelligence became enmeshed in the war as the Americans became increasingly exasperated by what they saw as the thwarting of a robust stand against the Serbs, stemming from the reluctance of the European Union, Britain in particular. The outcome was a fierce backstage struggle between the Americans and their European and British allies, each pursuing radically diverse agendas.
American frustration was most acute during 1994, a period of cautious authority in the field exercised by General Sir Michael Rose, a former SAS commander.
The tension arose most acutely from the American belief that Nato air strikes should be used to bomb the Serbs to the negotiating table.
The United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia - and especially Gen Rose - was sceptical, and feared that air strikes would endanger its soldiers on the ground. The American strategy, and its thwarting by Unprofor and the British, turned the issue of air strikes into a covert backstage confrontation between secret services, commandos in the field and diplomats at the highest levels.
Now American intelligence sources have revealed what they found when they eavesdropped on communications between Gen Rose's headquarters in Sarajevo and SAS scouts deep inside Serb-held territory, near the besieged Bosnian town of Bihac, during the ferocious Serbian advance on that UN "safe area" late in 1994.
THE communication line was established so that the undercover SAS teams, assigned to the UN as forward air controllers, could identify Serb artillery positions and relay the co-ordinates to headquarters and the pilots of Nato bombers.
But a controversial order came over the air from Gen Rose's command to the SAS: hold off, do not identify the targets, thus neutralising the air strike.
The Nato pilots were shown nothing; their planes came and went, impotent. It was a measured instruction, highly secret, defiant of Nato. But it was not a private one. It was overheard, not by an enemy but by the Americans.
Gen Rose could not be reached for comment on the eavesdropping allegations yesterday at his headquarters at Trenchard Lines, Wiltshire. Sir Michael has argued that aggressive use of air power would have threatened the safety of UN soldiers on the ground and jeopardised Unprofor's humanitarian mission.
The general did order Nato air and ground strikes against the Serbs around Gorazde in 1994, and was then eager to use close air support to defend his SAS men trapped in the enclave, but was overruled by the UN envoy, Yasushi Akashi.
It was fundamental to Gen Roses's debate with the Americans that the UN "cannot be used to alter the military balance in a civil war . . . a peacekeeping force cannot allow itself to be hijacked by political pressures and become involved in the conflict".
He wrote: "There exist obvious limitations on the use of air power in any confused civil war situation. It is simply not possible to secure safe areas . . . by the use of air power alone."
The handling of the Bihac crisis was a dramatic illustration of how the Western "allies" were at each other's throats over Bosnia, with the Americans determined to override what they saw as the sabotaging of Nato efforts to bomb the Serbs into a peace deal.
BIHAC had been under siege for 30 months. A French Unprofor battalion had pulled out and been replaced by one from Bangladesh, by then marooned and virtually unarmed. Humanitarian aid convoys had been throttled since May.
Halfway through November the Serbian assault came. A relentless bombardment included the first reported use of naplam in the war. Serbian planes mocked the "no-fly zone" by cluster-bombing the safe area. Bihac was about to shrivel, or else collapse completely.
Nato intervened. There was an air strike against a Serb air field in Croatia. The UN commander in Zagreb, General Bertrand de Lapresle, insisted on the strike being limited to damaging runways and anti -aircraft missiles and not the planes themselves. B ut Nato's commander in southern Europe, Admiral Leighton Smith, told the Pentagon: "My hope is that we will not have to go back." The Western alliance creaked, then the drama began.
Gen Rose told the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, that unless the raids stopped Serbian positions overlooking Bihac would be attacked. Mr Karadzic replied by fax on November 23, telling the UN that the Serbs were now on a hill called Drebelac, which turned out to be inside the safe area.
Gen Rose rushed to Pale, the Bosnian Serb "capital" near Sarajevo, the next day and then on to the Croatian capital, Zagreb. He concluded that the UN should call in air strikes.
There was an American air force observer at UN headquarters in Zagreb and he was worried about reports from US intelligence in the field that the Bosnian Serbs had aquired a fresh arsenal of Russian SAM anti-aircraft missiles, sent via Belgrade.
Gen Rose put the air strike request on hold, and set about negotiating a ceasefire instead.
But the Americans were stepping up the pressure. On that Friday, November 25, the US ambassador to Sarajevo, Victor Jakovec, visited Gen Rose to discuss reports that Serb tanks were heading for the heart of Bihac city itself. Gen Rose told him he believed there was little the UN could do. Mr Jakovec put in an early call to the state department.
The call prompted a diplomatic flurry. The state department contacted the US ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright. She in turn bent the ear of the UN's head of peacekeeping in New York, Kofi Annan. The message was clear: the US government was insisting on Gen Rose calling air strikes, and Mr Annan duly conveyed it to him.
Newspapers on Saturday November 26 were bewildered after "confused reports of Nato air activity over Bihac last night".
The state department spokeswoman, Christine Shelly, said the ceasefire brokered by Gen Rose in Bihac was by no means holding, but added that Nato should not be blamed for its failure.
This is what had happened. Gen Rose heeded Kofi Annan's request for close air support from Nato - an intervention within the strict rules stipulating that the pilot had to find a smoking gun before he could strike. The men responsible for locating the smoking gun were the SAS teams, in radio contact with Gen Rose's headquarters. That night Nato planes took off from the US air force base at Aviano in Italy.
This was the showdown between Gen Rose's philosophy of cautious mediation and the Americans' interventionism. For Gen Rose's command, there was only one way to stop the bombing: they would have to tell the SAS scouts not to identify the target for Nato to bomb. The rules of engagement were clear: no target, no bombs.
The American intelligence sources now allege that this is what the Unprofor command did. It was a careful decision and a controversial one; by the end of the weekend, Serb tanks were blasting their way through the suburbs of Bihac.
The Bihac debacle had confronted the Clinton administration with a gesture of defiance, forcing the president to choose between maintaining the Atlantic alliance and continuing his support for the Bosnian government.
In public Mr Clinton chose the Nato alliance. Within two days the administration had offered concessions to the Serbs and 10 days later it agreed to recognise the "Republika Srpska".
On top of this the Virginia-based military consultancy MPRI was retraining the Croatian army.
The MPRI executive overseeing the contract with Croatia was an old-time master of intelligence, Ed Soyster, a former DIA director.
AN extraordinary correspondence, seen by the Guardian, led to the contract. It began in November 1994 with the hawkish Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, writing to the US deputy defence secretary John Deutsch asking for direct US aid to the Croatian military. Mr Deutsch replied explaining that the embargo prevented such direct involvement, but that it could be organised through a private consultancy.
Such genuflection to the rules, however, did not seem to inhibit assistance to the Bosnians, though this could not be delivered publicly.
The next task for US intelligence advance parties was to clear the ground for an assault by the Bosnian army on the capital, Sarajevo. For this, American intelligence organised the famous Tuzla air drops of weapons and military equipment to the Bosnian army, in breach of the embargo.
The received wisdom is that there were two such drops, on February 10 and 12, spotted by Norwegian UN personnel. In fact there were four. A C130 transport flew over, escorted by four American F18 fighters. The material dropped included radar equipment and anti-tank missiles.
Nato held an "internal inquiry" into the episode once it became public knowledge. The four-man inquiry team was all American and its report said that the Norwegian "paramedics" who made the sightings could confused them with civilian air traffic in and out of Belgrade.
But there was no civilian air traffic going in and out of Belgrade, and no night traffic at all. The Norwegians were not paramedics.
But by this time, about April, the war was starting to go the Americans' way. There was a new UN commander, General Rupert Smith, who favoured air strikes which damaged the Serbs.
Some months later, to the Americans' delight, Gen Smith swung his authority behind the "defining moment", - the air strikes against Serb targets in Bosnia last summer. This time, as the bombs found their prey, there was a loud cheer in the US embassy in Zagreb.