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Weapons of mass delusion in the Balkans

The story behind an exchange with Judith Miller.

By Daniel Simpson

Early in my career at The New York Times, I was asked to hype some “news” about Iraq (which the United States was seeking reasons to attack). It came from the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, and when they summoned me in for a briefing, I felt awful.

I’d spent the past two days necking pills at an all-night party, and was in no fit state to talk to robo-diplomats. But they claimed to have some documentary evidence, which impressed my corporate rival, the Washington Post.

And so while I lay in bed on a comedown dodging phone calls, the Post was making headlines round the world:

Yugoslav defense companies have been working for two years on the development of a cruise missile for Iraq, according to a document delivered by U.S. diplomats to Yugoslav government officials this month.

The allegations were made in a “non-paper,” or aide-memoire, accompanied by a stern letter to the country’s top officials from the U.S. ambassador in Belgrade. The letter asked Yugoslavia to end its breach of the U.N. arms embargo on Iraq, according to a senior Yugoslav official who has knowledge of the U.S. document.

The official said the document asserts that Yugoslav scientists have been working on the development of a turbojet engine for a medium- to long-range cruise missile called CM 1500. It also alleges that Yugoslav scientists have made repeated visits to Iraq since early 2001 to complete work on the project, and that the contracts were arranged by the state defense conglomerate, Yugoimport.

The claims followed a State Department announcement this week that the same company had cooperated with a Bosnian aviation firm to help repair and sell spare parts for MiG fighter planes destined for Iraq.

Explosive stuff. Except there wasn’t much else to corroborate the story. The only source for the spin about missiles was U.S. intelligence.

There was more. A day before, the Post had scored another “scoop”, this time via Serbia’s neighbour (and arch-enemy) Croatia, which Americans talked up eagerly:

ROME, Oct. 25 – Croatian officials are studying powders found on board a ship bound from Yugoslavia to Iraq to see whether the Iraqis could use them to improve the performance of Scud missiles, Croatian police officials said today.

At least four containers on the ship Boka Star contained the suspicious powders, according to officials at the Adriatic Sea port of Rijeka. They declined to give further details, awaiting additional study. “We will have to wait and see,” said a police official by telephone.

The cargo had been described as spare parts for MiG-21 fighter jets, which are Soviet-designed planes dating from the 1950s that are part of the remnants of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s air force. A Croatian official in Rijeka told the Reuters news agency that inspectors had found no jet parts aboard the ship.

Croatian officials seized the Boka Star on Tuesday after it left the port of Bar in Montenegro, one of the last two remaining republics of Yugoslavia. The ship flew a Tonga flag of convenience, although the crew was Montenegrin.

A Western official, while declining to detail contents found on the Boka Star, said that investigators would try to discover whether the powders might have been produced from formulas used in a defunct Yugoslav rocket program.

This official had no comment on whether they’d also try to track down other pipe dreams. What the powders might have been, I had no clue (not entirely unlike the tablets I’d ingested). But the rest of the ship’s alleged cargo rang a bell. I’d been hassled about that stuff for several weeks.

As reported the previous month (by a media monitoring service, whose English cheat-sheet was the news source of choice for foreign journalists):

Orao Institute Denies Exporting Weapons to Iraq

Aviation Overhaul Institute Orao from Bijeljina, Republic of Srpska (RS) [better known as the Bosnian Serb Republic], rebutted Wednesday the information that it had exported weapons to Iraq, report the agencies.

The Institute’s statement said that this Institute does not manufacture weapons, but spare parts for turbo jet engines and their overhaul.

The Institute underlined that, since the break up of former Yugoslavia, most of its work is not related to the military, which is why it does not have the obligation to register its business or apply for a license with the RS Weapons manufacture and sales Directorate.

The US Government said last week that is suspects that a company in Bosnia and Herzegovina, based in RS, is assisting the Iraqi air force units, thus violating a UN Security Council resolution.

Which meant to say (as I’d written in the meantime):

The American Embassy in Bosnia accused Orao last month of selling spare parts and services to Iraq for its Soviet-era MIG-21 warplanes, continuing a longstanding trade that began when Bosnia was a republic in a larger, socialist Yugoslavia.

But the company, which in the 1980′s was part of a Yugoslav industry that armed Iraq against Iran (as did companies in the United States, Britain and France), does not appear to have heeded the warning.

When NATO soldiers raided the Orao factory, they found a document dated Sept. 25 telling five staff members to remain in Iraq and remove all traces of the company’s involvement there, diplomats in Bosnia said.

Military analysts said that even if the spare parts kept aging Iraqi aircraft in good condition, they would hardly help Saddam Hussein’s military defend against the high-technology weapons that the United States could deploy.

One Western diplomat said the only significant question was whether assistance from Orao was decisive in helping Iraq to put antiquated planes in the sky at all.

“Given that Saddam has had 10 years of sanctions, how does he keep his old equipment going?” the diplomat asked. “If Orao is sending in spare parts, they would be very useful in keeping his decrepit air force flying.”

And that would mildly inconvenience the U.S. military, which prefers to invade when countries can’t defend themselves. But this was as clear as the embassy’s spokesman got, when he hauled me in to hector me with spin. So I left it at that.

My bosses in New York weren’t best impressed; not least since the Post kept printing sexed-up angles.

So before I went AWOL on ecstasy, I’d promised I’d file another story soon, “on the mess Serbia is getting itself into after failing to make a serious stab at reform” since emerging from Slobodan Milosevic’s grip. My email to my editors continued:

More details about this Bosnian sale of military goods to Iraq via Yugoimport are likely to be released over the weekend, which could escalate this issue, but everyone is being pretty tight-lipped for now.

Since the Serbs are lobbying intensively to join NATO, no one seriously believes this was directly sanctioned by top officials in the government, but it’s emblematic of how many old regime forces remain in place here. to say nothing of the mess the “reformers” have created by trying to fight to the death, effectively bringing reform to a standstill. There is no longer talk of Serbia being Eastern Europe’s transition success story, but instead fears that it will be an all too familiar case of stagnation, regression and dodgy people becoming legitimated through murky privatizations that foreigners shun. There will be a few big ticket deals, but this is not the environment too many foreign firms are looking for right now. Maybe they’ll have another look in a few years…

I’ll try to keep an eye on the Iraq stuff at the weekend, but unless something clear emerges, I think this is all best dealt with in a bigger piece about the failed reform process, which would also touch on the economy and organized crime.

Post-party, once I’d found the strength to open my laptop, I found the following from my boss, the foreign editor:

Your plans sound good. But I feel perhaps the Iraq story is worth another, more detailed piece in which you could mention that this is emblematic of an array of problems in Serbia. Rather than the other way round.

In other words, keep it aligned with “the President’s plans“, as opposed to trying to write about what’s happening.

Feeling sheepish, and lacking self-confidence, I said I’d provide what I’d been asked for. But I warned it wouldn’t be big on fake sensation (unlike the weekend was for me). My description of what they’d be getting ran as follows:

This will be a general story about the whole affair, which appears to have been hyped rather out of proportion. The Americans and the Serbs have been talking for two years about the need to ensure that old regime figures and arms trade connections could not carry on as they had for years. There has been consultation on this for a long time and the discovery of some concrete proof that the trade had not stopped has sharpened minds on all fronts. But there is no evidence yet of anything of particular military importance being shipped (contrary to what the Post has reported) so this is more of a story about how the reformist government that replaced Milosevic has dragged its heels rather than confronting his legacy. I have not quite decided how to pull this together yet, but I was thinking of something fairly tight and explanatory – around 600 words I guess, covering what’s happened in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia and putting it into context. Basically the whole story is not quite as it may seem and certainly not a sudden scandal that changes too much about Serbian relations with the outside world – provided they continue to clamp down as they have done since being told this really has to stop.

Hope that helps to give you an idea. Please let me know if you want something different, or if there is unlikely to be space for this today, in which case I can take my time a bit more.

Unto which a foreign desker wrote (quoting something he’d read on the Reuters news-wire):

Does some ref to this go into your story?

BELGRADE, Oct 30 (Reuters) – A network of Yugoslav firms has been helping Libya to develop long-range cruise missiles capable of reaching targets in Israel, according to a confidential U.S. complaint to Belgrade.

The three-page document, published on Wednesday by the Yugoslav weekly, Nedeljni Telegraf, says the firms may also have helped Iraq to develop its missiles, but provides no details.

The technologies in question were capable of helping the delivery of weapons of mass destruction and their export is restricted under the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime.

“The U.S. opposes all missile-related cooperation with Libya and Iraq and works actively to impede their access to missile-related equipment and technology,” the document said.

I said it did, and got on with sending what I’d pitched. It was dull, and no one tried to make it otherwise (though they tweaked it a bit to suit their tastes, as usual).

BELGRADE, Serbia, Oct. 30 – Two years after Slobodan Milosevic was ousted, many features of his rule are still hampering Yugoslavia’s integration into the world community – especially the sale of arms to President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The crucial lines were buried halfway down (as is often the case):

Military analysts in Serbia, the dominant republic in what was left of Yugoslavia after the Balkan wars of the 1990s, question whether the country has the capacity to supply cruise missiles to anyone.

“There is definitely not the technological capability to produce cruise missiles here and I doubt that Yugoslavia even has the know-how,” a retired senior Yugoslav military official said.

The rest just listed background facts. Even so, it drew an email from a hotshot: Judith Miller, the paper’s special weapons “expert”, who served as the go-to girl for U.S. propagandists. A few weeks before, she’d thundered on the front page:

Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.

In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. American officials said several efforts to arrange the shipment of the aluminum tubes were blocked or intercepted but declined to say, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence, where they came from or how they were stopped.

The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program, officials said, and that the latest attempt to ship the material had taken place in recent months.

The attempted purchases are not the only signs of a renewed Iraqi interest in acquiring nuclear arms. President Hussein has met repeatedly in recent months with Iraq’s top nuclear scientists and, according to American intelligence, praised their efforts as part of his campaign against the West.

This revelation seemed to have a single source (the U.S. authorities), though the rules were obeyed by surveying several mouthpieces (from “intelligence experts” to “administration officials”). But I digress. Miller’s missive to me was effusive in its scorn (better known in the business as a “praise sandwich”). She wrote:

From: Judith Miller
To: Daniel Simpson
Date: 31/10/2002, 12:15 -0500

Hi Dan, Great story today

…but apparently there is more …

You referred to hi-tech sales to Libya and Iraq…I’m focused immediately on Iraq…and here that what they have already sold is an advance UAV that is capable of carrying “hundreds of klg. of material”: — chem, bio, nuclear…and that many companies are involved, not just the ones that have been mentioned in the press. Can you find out what are some of the other companies being investigated?

And how they got onto this in the first place? And what the U.S. is doing about it beyond just issuing demarches? And what assurances they have gotten from the Serbs? Also, are the other Yugoslav entities also involved in this trade.

Longer term, if you could ask about LIbya…I hear the sales also involve UAV technology — and nuclear related components…

I know you won’t want to discuss LIbya over a phone…but I don’t think we can wait a week for the Iraqi stuff…can you make some calls on that for us?

allbest, and congrats on that very good story. Judy

Judith Miller
c/o The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
NY, NY 10036

Telephone: 212-556-7445
Fax: 212-556-1397

I’d just arrived in Albania when I read this, and it took me a while to decide what to write in response. I tried to make it sound conciliatory:

From: Daniel Simpson
To: Judith Miller
Date: 31/10/2002 07:36 PM +0200

hi there judy,

i think we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions about what the reference to a UAV means.

military experts here are convinced that yugoslavia is incapable of producing a cruise missile like the american tomahawk, or an extremely high-tech unmanned machine like the predator.

the most credible of the theories doing the rounds here is that the serbs were helping the iraqis to convert their fleet of decrepit mig-21′s into planes that could be put in the air without pilots to become flying bombs. these would be very difficult to defend during their flight and would amount to a poor man’s cruise missile at best.

but as far as we know, they have not sold the iraqis a UAV yet. the american document that was sent to the yugoslav authorities mentioned only the intention to supply iraq with missile-related assistance. the companies mentioned in this document are brunner (formerly jpl systems), ede pro and infinity doo, along with yugoimport. other documents are said to mention gvs, temex and interdeal, but these have not been seen by me, or to my knowledge any other journalist. i have not heard of any others apart from orao, the bosnian serb company providing help with migs, so the issue would seem at this stage to be confined to serbia and bosnia. but it could turn out to involve other parts of the old yugoslav defence industry.

this is something the americans have been following closely ever since milosevic was toppled and they have been talking to the serbs about it for two years. someone on the yugoslav side leaked this most recent information for domestic political reasons, but it contains little that is new. the only significant development appears to be that after raiding orao’s offices, the americans now have a pile of papers to back up their intelligence information, which they had in any case been sharing with the serbs.

for the past two years, the factional feuding of serbian politicians has gridlocked the reform process, particularly on thorny issues such as overhauling armed forces and a defence sector still stuffed with figures and ideas from the milosevic era. the americans were clearly annoyed that not enough was being done quickly enough, but since they produced this proof the serbs have been falling over themselves to make amends, effectively shutting down yugoimport for the moment and firing people left, right and centre. so the americans are pretty satisfied with how things are going, provided this can become a catalyst for tackling some of the biggest problems with the military.

it seems that these companies were acting alone as entrepreneurs seeking to revive old contacts that never really stopped, with support from the unreconstructed milosevic cronies at yugoimport, who were reappointed to their jobs last year to avoid the headache of taking them on. yugoslav intelligence people say that when first presented with allegations, these companies asked the americans to cover debts they are owed by baghdad from previous deals in exchange for closing off one of the few avenues of trade left to what was once one of the world’s biggest defence industries. the americans apparently refused.

as for libya, the trade has been ongoing since the 1990′s, as it has with liberia, another country on the u.n. blacklist. but again, it would seem that the west now has enough leverage over yugoslavia to force the serbs to crack down here too. i’ve spent three days chasing this stuff and i can’t find anyone in the region (american officials included) who can give me clear facts on what the trade in weapons amounted to. the document on libya and iraq mentions guidance and control technology, but it remains unclear whether the serbs have the necessary know-how.

in the iraq case, without knowing the nature of this alleged UAV it is difficult to see what the serbs could have been supplying. we really need to talk to some aviation experts outside the region to see if it would be practicable and worthwhile to covert a mig-21 into a flying bomb capable of hitting tel aviv or an advancing column of american armour. it would need a turbojet and a guidance system, so maybe there’d be no need to have a rusting soviet plane wrapped around it. it is possible that the serbs were able to put together more advanced guidance systems after studying american kit that was shot down or lost here in 1999, but no one here seems to think that would be good enough to construct what we think of when we talk about cruise missiles or UAVs.

would you be able to talk to some experts in the states about this? i think getting some answers on this front might help. i’m not sure if there’s much more i can get on this by phone. american diplomats here have closed down on the issue, largely because they didn’t appear to plan on it all becoming quite this public. all in all, they don’t appear overly concerned about it all either, although they are at pains to stress that it is of course still a serious issue.

but seen from this end, the issue really appears to be the fact that serbs have not until now tried to confront the military establishment very directly, resulting in problems and sanctions violations like this, rather than the strategic threat they posed.

hope this helps. please let me know how you get on and if there’s anything i can do for you here.

all best,

daniel

Had I jumped and done as asked, I might have made myself more popular. I might even have Made My Name At The New York Times, at least for a fraction of a news cycle. But that didn’t appeal. I couldn’t face greasing up to the U.S. Empire (which didn’t exist in the minds of editors – the U.S. was simply omnipotent, and thus first among peers in The International Community, which served as its synonym).

Judy didn’t find my words persuasive. She wrote to say as much.

From: Judith Miller
To: Daniel Simpson
Date: 01/11/2002, 14:46 -0500

Dan,

Sure you saw the Wash Post story this morning…

It gels with the info I sent you.

We should keep pursuing it…I’m told there is more. Judy

If there was, it would never reveal itself to me (like UAVs and all the rest of it). Or it showed no sign of doing so thus far, as I reminded her:

From: Daniel Simpson
To: Judith Miller
Date: 2/11/02 10:33 +0200

hi judy,

i agree we need to keep pursuing it, but i have drawn a blank beyond what i sent you the other day. nothing in the post story appears to take us any further — all this stuff about the boka star is just extra detail. the line they have which interests me most is to explore this idea about converting planes into flying bombs. as i was suggesting last time, i think this is the most profitable line of investigation to try to uncover what we are dealing with. the post’s description of what kind of weapon this would be seems to imply it is more significant than what military experts in the balkans believe it could be. which is why i was asking you to check on that with people your end if possible.

from albania, i am not going to get my hands on anything interesting unfortunately. i’m keeping an eye on the situation but have pressed as hard as i can for the moment until i get back to belgrade. if you need me to check out specific information you’re being told about i’d be happy to. but as i said last time — seen from the balkans (and on the strength of what american officials on the ground are saying) the issue at stake seems to be more yugoslavia’s pitiful efforts to sort things out before now, rather than the military significance of the cooperation with iraq. but if you have information which runs counter to that please let me know.

best,
daniel

And that was that, as far as Judy was concerned. I never heard from her again.

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