The US Central Intelligence Agency has dismissed one of its officers and reprimanded six managers, one of them senior, for mistakes that led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during last year's Nato intervention in Kosovo.
A further, relatively junior, officer was commended by the CIA director, George Tenet, for the efforts he made to present doubts about the targeting.
US planes taking part in the Nato operation bombed China's embassy in Belgrade on 7 May last year, killing three Chinese people, severely damaging the embassy and devastating President Bill Clinton's efforts to put American relations with China on a normal footing. The bombing also raised questions over the accuracy of remotecontrol hi-tech warfare and renewed European concerns at what some saw as the gung-ho approach of the US military in the Kosovo operation.
American officials, from Mr Clinton down, said at the time that the bombing was an error caused by inconsistent and out-of-date maps, which showed a Serbian arms procurement agency on the site now occupied by the Chinese embassy.
Peking, however, has never fully accepted that explanation, preferring to believe that the embassy was selected deliberately. According to this view, the US suspected China of gathering intelligence about the Nato operation by satellite and feeding it to the Serbian authorities.
But this version was dismissed by a CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow.Two internal reviews, he said, concluded that the CIA had intended to hit the arms agency, but marked the wrong building on the map. "Numerous CIA officers failed to ensure that the intended bombing target ... had been properly identified and precisely located," he said. There was no doubt, he insisted, that the attack was "a tragic mistake". On the basis of those reports, Mr Tenet authorised the punishments on Friday. He has declined to resign, promising instead to investigate what went wrong and to ensure it could not happen again.
The identification and punishment of officials involved in the operation was one of several conditions set by the Chinese for resuming relations at the previous level. They had also demanded an official apology, which was given soon afterwards by President Clinton and subsequently delivered in person by a State Department envoy, and reparations. Compensation for the victims and their families was agreed last year, and reparations for the damage to the embassy at the turn of the year.
The disclosure that the CIA had found seven people primarily responsible for the mistake and taken disciplinary action against them goes some way towards meeting China's one remaining demand.
However, the CIA refused to identify the employees concerned either by name or position, citing security considerations. And the timing of its disclosure on a Saturday night guaranteed that it would receive minimal attention.
None the less, a lawyer representing one of those disciplined condemned the action, accusing the CIA of "caving in to political pressure to produce scapegoats". The disciplinary measures taken include verbal and written reprimands, and freezing the recipients' ranks and salaries.
While the CIA spokesman declined to comment on procedures that might have been introduced to prevent similar targeting errors in future, he did reveal some details of the lengths to which one mid-level employee had gone to try to prevent the erroneous operation. The employee, who was on loan to the CIA from another, unidentified, security agency, repeatedly questioned the target selection, based on his personal knowledge of Belgrade. He even placed calls to an officer at the European command's centre in Naples to try to keep the arms agency off a list of potential targets.
His second and final call to Naples was made on the morning of the fateful day, but was not judged significant enough to warrant halting the operation.Reuse content