For "Bear 21," April 14 will be a day to remember. The U.S. Air Force F16 Falcon pilot dove on a clearly identified Serb target in Kosovo that day and saw it destroyed by his laser-guided, 500-pound bomb. For his skill and professionalism, the pilot was branded a killer of innocents. Not by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's propaganda machine in Belgrade. Bear 21 was fingered by the staff of U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander directing both the air war on the former Yugoslavia and the almost equally important struggle to control the global perception of what is going on in the Balkans.
What happened to Bear 21 says more about the American-led Operation Allied Force than all the slides, maps and film clips created to sway journalists into presenting a positive view of the bombing offensive. Serb television reported that day that NATO planes had struck refugee convoys near the Kosovo town of Djakovica. Belgrade television showed film of elderly men and women among the dead and inaccurately reported that more than 60 people were killed.
The next day in Brussels, Clark's staffers said there may have been a bombing mistake. Then they played an audiotape of Bear 21's formal debriefing in Aviano, Italy.
The pilot's words evoke an image of someone straining to be accurate before striking--a NATO firefighter running down Serb forces who had been terrorizing Kosovo, where more than 580,000 ethnic Albanians have been expelled. The pilot tells how he flew back and forth north of the town, seeing a string of villages burning. Then he spotted a three-truck convoy, leaving a freshly lighted building.
"I make a decision at that point that these are the people responsible for burning down the villages I've seen so far," the pilot says. "I roll in, put my [infrared] system on the lead vehicle and execute a laser-guided bomb attack...destroying the lead vehicle."
Later that day, President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair led NATO in apologizing for the killing of civilians. Television and newspaper reports were filled with the pilot's debriefing.
The trouble was, Bear 21 had done nothing wrong. Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as much three days later. "The F16 pilot is not responsible in any way," said Shelton's spokesman, Navy Capt. Steve Pietropaoli.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea would concede privately to journalists in Brussels that, in the rush of events, Bear 21 had been unfairly pinpointed. (About a week after the bombing, NATO briefers showed gun-camera footage that indicated other NATO pilots may have accidentally killed some civilians in the area on April 14. But the footage also proved it was not Bear 21. His bomb hit a military vehicle, as he had recounted.)
Senior U.S. military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say Clark's staff had purposely singled out the F16 pilot in an attempt to minimize public criticism of the civilian bombing. The hope was the public would be sympathetic to someone who had taken great care to be accurate. "They [NATO] picked him for propaganda reasons," says a senior U.S. military official.
The blame-placing outraged senior Air Force officials, who said it deliberately misrepresented the event and smeared an excellent pilot.
The incident underscored a willingness by Clark and NATO to distort crucial information. It also highlighted why, when covering a war heavy with political overtones, skepticism is just as important for journalists as a laptop.
As TV cameras focused on the use of military force in a distant land, the media once more were asked to sort out a few kernels of facts from a barrage of distortions and half-truths from government information manipulators. The baloney-ladened military briefings in Brussels were followed by downright cryptic shows at the Pentagon. So little was divulged by so many briefers that the normally somnolent news hierarchy was pounding Clinton's desk two weeks after NATO airstrikes began. The commander in chief referred them to Defense Secretary William Cohen, who received an April 9 letter from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, CNN and NBC News.
The news executives wrote: "Though the ongoing military campaign in the Balkans is one of the largest and most important U.S. military operations conducted in recent years, the Department of Defense has supplied far less information to the media and public than during the Persian Gulf War and the more recent Desert Fox operation.... We strongly urge you to reconsider what has been a dramatic reduction in the Pentagon's cooperation with the news media."
The editors noted that bomb damage assessments had been withheld from the American public and the media. So had details about attacks. "At a minimum, we believe the department should make public its information on what targets in Yugoslavia have been hit.... The media should be told which planes are involved in operations, how many operations they fly, and the degree of their success," the top editors wrote.
Cohen didn't respond to the letter, but he asked Ken Bacon, a former Wall Street Journal newsman who is now assistant Defense secretary for public affairs, to call the executives to a Pentagon session April 29 to discuss their concerns.
The media elite were asking for something closer to Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's 1991 Desert Storm briefings: more and better details. They also asked for a media pool that would give news outlets greater access to troops in the field.
But the pool request could be a mistake. Eight years ago, the world watched as an American-led coalition of 13 divisions prepared to crush more than 300,000 Iraqi soldiers. As the air war got under way, TV footage was largely bloodless: smart bombs destroying seemingly empty buildings. During the brief ground war, manipulation and censorship of the media pool became apparent. There was not a single eyewitness account of battle, or a single still photograph or strip of network footage from more than 150 reporters forced into the pool arrangement by the news powers.
Although there are major differences between Desert Storm and Allied Force, both military operations flow from carefully orchestrated political decisions. Even though Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, President Bush had to be careful about offending Arab leaders in the coalition put together to stop Saddam. And, despite the Serb president's undisputed brutality, Clinton must worry about losing European allies queasy over the killing of civilian bystanders by NATO airstrikes.
Yet, the very nature of airstrikes from 15,000 feet is certain to take a civilian toll--along with the intended destruction of Serb military and special police units in Kosovo and economic targets near Belgrade. "Inevitable" was how Clinton put it when talking in April to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in San Francisco.
Clinton's insistence on limiting civilian casualities has included orders to apologize fully when the inevitable happens. It appeared particularly painful for Clark to apologize at a briefing that showed the footage of an Air Force pilot who on April 12 had accidentally struck a civilian train twice while bombing a railroad bridge.
"It's not enough to admit you mistakenly killed the wrong people," says one Pentagon veteran. "Now you have to release the film that proves you screwed up."
What has emerged from all this has been an effort by the military to somehow justify or mitigate the accidental killing of civilians--or "collateral damage." For Clark, the NATO chief, that means trying to control what the media write and film.
On March 24, Clark issued orders that no military personnel could be identified by name or hometown. (There were exceptions. Senior commanders such as Clark could be quoted by name.) Not only was that order an example of censorship, it also violated rules in effect since World War II. It was another point the media executives strenuously objected to in their letter to Cohen.
The impact of Clark's order was felt immediately. "It was really bad" trying to conduct interviews at the main NATO base in Aviano, Italy, says Pentagon reporter Steven Komarow of USA Today. "The public affairs officers escorted you everywhere and told the airmen not to give their names or hometowns." A Washington Post account April 11 of operations aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Adriatic was detailed but sterile; the reporter could not quote a single sailor in more than 1,000 words.
Even worse were Army public affairs officers wielding Clark's gag order like an M16. The Associated Press wanted to staff the deployment of Army Apache helicopters from Germany to Albania. But Army officials initially didn't cooperate.
"They wanted us to commit ourselves for 14 days," says Sandy Johnson, AP Washington bureau chief. "It was like we were being booked on some vacation. Then they had a three-page list of restrictions." The Army relented after Johnson and other AP editors complained. AP reporter Doug Mellgren was permitted to cover the deployment in mid-April without rules beyond those imposed on the media at large.
Bacon has talked to Cohen and Clark about loosening some restrictions on the media. Bacon says a concession was made after his April 29 meeting with news executives: He is encouraging commanders to allow journalists to identify their troops in the field by hometown and first name.
However, as of early May there were still no written ground rules from Washington or Brussels on media coverage of troops in the field.
In an interview, Bacon defended the no-name policy by saying the Serbs had become deft at launching a barrage of hate mail--by post and Internet--against soldiers and their families once soldiers were identified. However, he would not cite any specific instance of such harassment.
It appears that Clark was calling the shots for media from the 19 NATO nations covering the conflict. On April 8, he also began pressuring the Serb media to provide less-biased coverage, after they aired disturbing footage of dead civilians and flaming buildings in Belgrade that had been destroyed by NATO planes and cruise missiles.
A message from Clark was read by one of his chief spokesmen, British Air Commodore David Wilby. "Serb radio and TV [represent] an instrument of propaganda and repression," Wilby read. Those media have "filled the airwaves with hate and with lies over the years.... If President Milosevic would provide equal time for Western news broadcasts in its programmes without censorship...then his TV could become an acceptable instrument of public information."
Belgrade television didn't buckle. Private and state-owned Serb networks refused to broadcast Western news. NATO warplanes began destroying their facilities two weeks later.
The attacks may halt the diet of lies fed Serb viewers. But it will also curb transmission to the West of those disturbing "collateral damage" pictures that could erode public support for NATO's escalating airstrikes in the Balkans.