Accuracy In Media
Another Kosovo cover-up

By Reed Irvine

May 12, 2000

Newsweek revealed in its May 15 issue that an Allied Force damage assessment report completed last August had exposed the falsity of Secretary of Defense William Cohen's claim that the war over Kosovo saw "the most precise application of air power in history" and that more than 50 percent of Serbia's military arsenal and one third of its armored vehicles were destroyed. That claim was accepted without challenge by much of the media. Time, for example, said, "Operation Allied Force may be the sharpest looking war in American history. The numbers are remarkable: 99.6 percent of allied bombs NATO dropped 20,000 of them found their targets."

At the end of the war Gen. Clark estimated that our bombs had destroyed 110 tanks, 210 armored personnel carriers (APCs) and 449 artillery pieces. Wanting more precise figures, he ordered a ground search for the wreckage of the armored vehicles and artillery. A 30-man team scoured Kosovo, checking out the site of every claimed hit. On August 3, its 75-page report, "Operation Allied Force Munitions Effectiveness Assessment, Mobile Targets," was published. It has yet to be made public. Newsweek recently obtained a copy of it, and it became the basis for the article in its May 15 issue on the falsity of the claims about the accuracy of the bombing made by NATO and the Defense Department.

Newsweek described this report as "suppressed." It was still being suppressed after the Newsweek story appeared. On May 10, Capt. Cheryl Law, an Air Force press officer, told me, "There is no report that I know of that Newsweek is referring to. Asked if Newsweek had simply made up the story, she said, "That whole suppressed report thing? I have no idea what they are referring to."

Capt. Law said there was a report by a damage assessment team that provided the basis for a briefing given by Gen. Wesley Clark on September 16, 1999. In that briefing the general said that the bombing had destroyed 93 tanks, 153 APCs and 389 artillery and mortar pieces. He said that was more than a quarter of the Serbian tanks, more than a third of their APCs and more than half of their artillery and mortars pieces. The numbers were lower than the figures he gave out at the end of the war, but the percentages were the same because the estimates of the number of tanks, APCs and artillery deployed by the Serbs had also been reduced.

According to Newsweek's story by John Barry and Evan Thomas, the Allied Force ground search found evidence of only 14 tanks, 18 APCs, and 20 artillery pieces destroyed by the bombing. The number of tanks destroyed was one more than the 13 reported by a Serb general. Newsweek said that when the Allied Force team report was given to Gen. Clark, he could not believe the numbers. He ordered the Air Force to prepare another report, and Brigadier General John Corley got the assignment. Rather than conducting another ground search, he had a large team comb the records for anything that would support pilot claims of a successful strikes. Gen. Clark explained the absence of wreckage, saying that the Serbs had dragged it away. The ground search team had reported they could find no evidence of the gouges in the earth this would produce.

The Pentagon reacted to the Newsweek story with a news conference where Gen. Corley denied that the effectiveness of the air campaign had ever been overstated. His numbers were included in an after-action report that was sent to Congress in January along with a caveat that they did not show what percentage of the total mobile targets were hit or the level of the damage inflicted. A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek that this meant, "Here's the Air Force chart. We don't think it means anything."

Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, explained the feeding frenzy over Reagan's "Iran-Contragate" as a reflection of the reaction journalists have when officials lie to them. The lies that covered up the evidence that our bombing was ineffective against mobile targets has not produced that reaction. Even the Washington Post, Newsweek's sister publication, did not consider it newsworthy. It reported the diversionary Pentagon news conference, using an Associated Press story that merely mentioned the suppressed numbers and failed to credit Newsweek with exposing a serious cover-up. Even that was better than the New York Times. It ran no story at all.

Original article