Behind the spy story

There is a broader agenda here. It might explain the motive for disclosure of an anti-Nato report

Richard Norton-Taylor

Friday March 10, 2000

An interesting string of reactions yesterday greeted the Guardian's article about a secret US report concluding that a Nato spy provided Serbs with details of allied bombing plans in the early days of the Kosovo conflict.

The report, revealed to the experienced and respected BBC foreign correspondent, Allan Little, was drawn up by the US air force for the joint chiefs of staff. It said that as soon as the numbers entitled to see the distribution list of highly classified "air tasking orders" were reduced from 600 to 100, the impact on what the Serbs appeared to know about Nato's targeting plans was immediate.

Jamie Shea, Nato's spokesman, moved into action. "There is absolutely no evidence that Yugoslavia had any kind of information to allow them to be more effective in shooting our planes down," he insisted. "This is a rumour" he said. "There is no beef". He insisted there was "no proof, no evidence" of a Nato spy.

He described the Guardian's report as "speculative" - bureaucratic-speak for "truthful", perhaps. For Shea added that Nato had not been told about the US report, inviting the retort that if his organisation was unaware of it, how could its chief spokesman possibly comment on it?

Maybe he had been kept in the dark, just as he was by Nato military chiefs when he tried to explain away its mistaken bombing of civilians during the Kosovo campaign. In Ankara, Lord Robertson, Nato's secretary-general, was more circumspect. "No evidence [of spying] has been presented. It is simply an allegation," he said.

Nato officials subsequently confirmed that a US study had indeed investigated Serb behaviour in the early days of the campaign and had concluded there could have been a leak of information. As the day wore on, more came out.

A Nato military official confirmed to Reuters news agency that the report - by a now retired US air force general, James McCarthy - indeed found targeting information had been leaked to Belgrade. However, the conclusion, he then said, was based on "circumstantial evidence, no solid evidence we were compromised". A Nato counter-intelligence team had investigated Nato procedures and found no evidence of spying or air operations being leaked.

Subsequently, however, diplomatic sources were quoted as saying that the air tasking orders were potentially available to thousands of people. "There would be no way for anyone to know if some of it had leaked," said one.

And Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander, was certainly sufficiently concerned that he made sure access to Nato's secret plans was progressively narrowed down and some sensitive information was kept off them.

In London, meanwhile, Downing Street said the PM had no reason to believe there was a spy in Nato. The ministry of defence said it had no evidence of its own. It was only too happy to let Nato deal with media inquiries.

So after first denying all knowledge of the US report and dismissing the Guardian/BBC story as pie in the sky, Nato not only acknowledged the existence of the report, it named its author and confirmed its conclusions. All we lack is hard evidence pointing to a particular spy in a particular member country.

There is a broader agenda here which might explain the motive of whoever disclosed the existence of the report. It certainly helps to explain Nato's nervous, not to say unconvincing reaction. Relations between the US and its European allies are going through a particularly difficult period in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, the first war in the organisation's 50-year history.

Paradoxically, the legacy of the Kosovo conflict - a supreme test of Nato unity - has left the allies fractious, with mutual suspicion threatening to open up deep cracks across the Atlantic.

Washington is making clear that never again will it be prepared to carry the overwhelming military and financial costs of a European crisis. It was dismayed by the lack of European aircraft able to carry out round-the-clock bombing and refuelling missions, and the lack of European transport planes.

When the European allies responded by pledging to set up a European rapid reaction corps of 60,000 troops in place by the year 2003, Washington was deeply sceptical about whether they could achieve such an ambitious aim. Many of the European allies, including Germany, are cutting defence budgets.

Having relied on the US to pay for the war, the Europeans promised to pay for the peace. Yet they have failed to honour their pledges to contribute to a civil police force in Kosovo or come up with adequate money for the much-trumpeted stabilisation fund for south-east Europe.

The EU is also establishing a European Security and Defence Identity, leading Washington to accuse the Europeans of setting up bureaucratic structures without contributing men and machinery.

And senior US air force officers in particular still rankle about the way the Kosovo war was conducted, and what they regard as unacceptable interference by European political leaders.

The McCarthy report was written against the same background. It reflects US suspicions of the Europeans.

Original article