Asking for trouble

Why were secrets known to so many?

Friday March 10, 2000

The long history of the cold war taught us that spies do little damage. The constant search for fourth and fifth men, the paranoia about moles, the Romeos and the honey traps were all part of the background noise in the ideological shouting-match between east and west. The difference in values between the systems was real enough, as was the awesomeness of the weapons of mass destruction which went with it on both sides. But spies were bit players and it was no wonder that we talked of a spying "game". Few took their contribution very seriously, especially as we now know how poor and inaccurate their assessments often were.

In a hot war, however, spies carry altogether greater weight. Any military information they pass on has real-time significance. If it refers to issues as sensitive as targeting, it is dynamite - or rather, counter-dynamite, since it may make the difference between bombs having an effect or having none at all. It is therefore incredible that Nato launched its air strikes a year ago without taking the elementary precaution of restricting its data on targets and aircraft flight paths to the narrowest possible circle. What next Sunday's BBC2 programme Moral Combat has uncovered, and which we reported in detail yesterday, reveals an extraordinary state of affairs in which as many as 600 people were on the distribution lists. It took several days before the lists were reduced to 100, though even this seems excessively high.

Nato officials may argue that a 19-member alliance is an unwieldy beast and the requirements of equal consultation demand wide disclosure of target information among the military. But this does not square with the fact that American planes frequently operated independently during the war on Yugoslavia. Nato may also claim that counter-intelligence searches during the bombing campaign revealed no evidence of a spy or any leaking of target data. It is certainly true that Nato concentrated on fixed targets rather than tanks or armoured vehicles in the first two weeks of the air strikes, and that the Serbs had taken their troops and other personnel out of their barracks and military installations long before the first bombs fell. The timing of the start of the air strikes was no secret. So any leak of target lists would not have helped the Serbs at that stage. But a leak of flight paths is another matter, especially as an American Stealth fighter was shot down in the first week of the campaign. Nato denies any spy involvement there, but this ought to be re-evaluated now. A new inquiry needs to be held.

If it is found that there was a spy, the issue is in one way academic since the war with Yugoslavia is over and it will be a long time before Nato embarks on any other. Wherever the supposed spy was, he or she has probably been reassigned. In the grander scheme of Nato's mistakes during the war, both tactical and strategic, this scandal is not the worst offence. This newspaper supported the principle and necessity for military intervention over Kosovo, though we had criticisms of the exclusive use of air power, the decision not to fly below 15,000 feet, and the policy of destroying power stations, factories, and other infrastructure which penalised civilians. But we did expect higher standards of competence. What we now know from this episode is that Nato set out on its first hot war with unacceptable arrogance. The alliance's own "intelligence" told it Milosevic would surrender within days. That being so, no one, it seems, thought to worry about sloppy distribution of target lists.

Original article