Close Call  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1999

Close Call   

During the first week of the bombing of Yugoslavia, two NATO F117 Nighthawks headed for Belgrade to take out Serb TV headquarters, where Western journalists filed daily. The mission was aborted only minutes before the planes would have reached their target.

By Patrick J. Sloyan
Patrick J. Sloyan (ppsloyan@comcast.net) covered Washington for United Press International and Newsday.     


DURING THE FIRST week of Operation Allied Force, two F117 Nighthawks took off from Aviano, Italy, headed for a new priority target of modern warfare. No, not enemy headquarters, or the secret laboratory of James Bond epics. These odd-looking stealth bombers carried four tons of explosives for a laser-guided attack on the Serb Radio and Television headquarters in downtown Belgrade.

President Clinton and most other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had sanctioned the destruction of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's propaganda outlet--hanging their hat on Article 52 of the Geneva Convention, which makes national broadcast stations legitimate military targets. Ostensibly, stopping the spin and outright lies from the Serb president's anchor henchmen had moved the broadcast headquarters to the top of the target list. It also raised the very real possibility that the Western world's eyes would have been blinded to events in Yugoslavia as the country came under NATO bombardment.

CNN's Brent Sadler and his staff had an office in the Serb broadcast headquarters; NBC, Britain's BBC and other Westerners were daily visitors. The Serb government required journalists to use facilities in the building when relaying their broadcasts back home via satellite. As the bombers roared out of Aviano in late March, these journalists had no inkling of the Nighthawks' target.

According to White House and Pentagon officials, the possibility that network correspondents from NATO countries could be blasted at the broadcast headquarters was understood by Clinton; Defense Secretary William Cohen; Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the American commander of NATO, Army Gen. Wesley Clark.

"The president was briefed" about the headquarters, says a National Security Council staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He knew the Western reporters were there."

Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for public affairs, says NATO wasn't "hot to attack Western media." The issue, he says, "was shutting down a propaganda vehicle," which Milosevic hoped to use to fracture NATO unity and chip away at popular support for the bombing campaign--his only chance of hanging on to Kosovo in the face of the world's mightiest military alliance.

"We are not against the free press," Bacon says.

Fortunately, when the Nighthawks were only minutes from the Serb broadcast headquarters, Clark aborted the mission. That was no simple task. During the three-hour flight, the F117 had withdrawn its communications antennae to enhance its radar-evading profile. "It's kind of like communicating with a submerged submarine," Bacon says. "It's difficult to contact them."

In the aftermath of that aborted bombing plan, Bacon would launch an extensive campaign to warn the Western press away from the radio and television headquarters and Belgrade itself. A month later, on April 22, when NATO did strike and destroy the headquarters, no Western journalists were killed. The Serbs weren't so fortunate; 10 technicians and engineers died in the blast. Reporters at the scene say they saw a decapitated body. Another man had his legs amputated to free him from the rubble. "For the first time in world history, the media war is fought with bombs," said Belgrade Mayor Vojislav Mihajlovic, deploring the attack.

But despite repeated attacks on transmitters throughout the country, Serb radio and television remained on the air throughout the 79-day conflict. "It was fuzzy but still broadcasting on the last day," says Steven Erlanger, the New York Times reporter in Belgrade.

There are conflicting accounts about why NATO commander Clark halted the planned strike in March. The general blamed unidentified "lawyers" when he complained bitterly about interference at a Pentagon news conference. He did not respond to repeated calls by this reporter.

An explanation from Air Force officials is that CNN President Tom Johnson learned of the plan and vigorously confronted Cohen and Shelton--while the planes were in flight.

Another view--from Shelton's staff--was that French President Jacques Chirac vetoed the strike.

But the White House explanation, offered by a National Security Council official, was that the mission to destroy the broadcast headquarters was aborted because of a breach of security--a leak to CNN's Johnson. It was presumed Johnson alerted his staff in Belgrade that an attack was imminent.

Sorting out the facts is difficult. Most of the players are reluctant to talk about secrets of diplomacy, warfare and journalism. Even Johnson begged off. "Everything was off the record, as far as I am concerned," the CNN chief said recently.

What is certain is that the Western journalists' presence in Yugoslavia was a risky proposition: Many senior U.S. military commanders viewed those working in Belgrade as Milosevic's handmaidens. "When you tell us you are willing to take the risk of going into areas we are bombing, we are willing to take you at your word," says a senior aide to Shelton, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

T OM JOHNSON CAN charm, wheedle and whine if necessary to bend Washington to CNN's viewpoint. But, by all accounts, Johnson became a lion when the Nighthawks took off for the Serb broadcast headquarters and the offices of CNN correspondent Sadler and his staff.

"Tom Johnson called and raised hell after the bombers were launched," says a senior Air Force officer who viewed the looming broadcast headquarters attack as a disaster. "It would have made the Chinese Embassy bombing look like a positive development. They would have killed TV reporters from every NATO country."

As it turned out, someone, either in Washington or at NATO headquarters in Brussels, tipped Johnson that the strike was under way, according to Air Force sources. While the Nighthawks followed their three-hour course to Belgrade, key participants screamed at each other over the phone lines. "There was a ďsuggestion' [by Johnson's tipster] that the CNN crew leave the building and head for their hotel in Belgrade," says one participant involved in the controversy that night. The suggestion was meant as intimidation. The tip-off to Johnson included some heavy-handed warnings that CNN staffers clear out of the headquarters and take other Western journalists with them--perhaps by throwing a party at a Hyatt hotel in Belgrade where they were staying. "You better have that goddamn party right now!" was the edict to Johnson overheard by a Pentagon staffer.

During the exchanges while the planes were in flight, Johnson warned Bacon and Shelton that the imminent attack would be killing men and women who were household faces in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, as well as the United States, one military officer says. Johnson, the officer adds, "was really hot."

But Shelton's aides say it wasn't Johnson but the president of France who halted the Nighthawks. Chirac told the French media in June that "not a single╔[airstrike] was carried out without France's agreement." Leaders of the other NATO countries could have exercised the same control, but "for their own reasons, they waived their powers," Chirac said.

Chirac's role was endorsed by Clinton. According to Clinton aides, the president embraced Chirac's advice to temper the pace and scope of the air war. "They were on the same wavelength," a Clinton official says.

According to Shelton's aides, Clark had launched the bombers with the thought that his action would trigger formal approval from Chirac. But when Clark called Shelton to inquire about the French president's endorsement, Shelton calmly told the NATO commander that there had been no approval. "Then [Shelton] put down the phone before Clark let out a shriek," says the military officer.

What effect did the Western media reports have on the war? Some say their reports of continued Serb atrocities in Kosovo served to bolster support in the United States and other countries for NATO airstrikes.

But in the ensuing weeks, Western journalists also would relay the mistakes and mishaps of aerial NATO attacks where civilians were incinerated. Wayward "precision" munitions struck a passenger train, apartment buildings, a hospital, a tractor convoy and, most famously, the Chinese Embassy. NATO estimated 200 civilians were killed during the conflict, but some Western journalists put the death toll at 1,000.

Public opinion surveys showed, however, that popular support of the alliance remained high in the United States and Western Europe throughout the conflict. Accounts of Milosevic's continued genocide in Kosovo seemed to outweigh reports of NATO mistakes.

A S THE MEMORY of Operation Allied Force fades, it is important to focus on official American planning for the next foreign conflict.

While many journalists had expressed strong frustrations over the limitations of coverage imposed during the Persian Gulf War, newspaper editors, network news chiefs and wire service executives made little effort to bring about revised ground rules for the military and media before the conflict in Yugoslavia started. And although Clinton officials and NATO trampled previous agreements with the media at the outset of the campaign in Yugoslavia, the press establishment didn't get to the Pentagon to protest until April 29--a month after the airstrikes began. Their complaints were brushed off by Bacon.

Now is the time for the media establishment to bypass the Pentagon and go directly to the commander in chief for ground rules on future Kosovos, to prevent American military planners from painting bull's-eyes on Western network cameras in potential hot spots.

And if they do, one thing media leaders should consider is making Johnson their point man.

Bush administration officials are still complaining about Johnson's "interference" with war planning during Operation Desert Storm, when his efforts halted attacks on a media center used by CNN in Baghdad. And while he won't go into specifics about the aborted bombing of the Serb Radio and Television headquarters, Johnson is clearly dismayed by the current climate at the Pentagon.

Johnson first waded into the fray over war coverage as a young deputy press secretary for President Johnson as he was being besieged by nightly news reports from Vietnam. The media-military relationship "has changed a lot," he says.

"In those days, we used to provide [military] helicopters to get reporters to the war," Johnson says.

###