In 1992 George Kenney was Acting Head of the Yugoslav desk at the US State Department. This is his account of the way initial reports of ‘death camps’ in Bosnia gained apparent confirmation from the US government.
How Media Misinformation led to Bosnian Intervention
Beginning with his 19 July articles on the Serb-run detention centres at Manjaca and Omarska, Roy Gutman of Newsday began filing a series of stories based, he minimally acknowledged at that time, only on second and third-hand accounts that culminated in his charge in several stories filed from 2-5 August that the Bosnian Serbs were operating ‘Nazi-style’ (his words) death camps for non-Serb prisoners of war.
As the Yugoslav desk officer at the State Department, I knew about these stories before they were printed, because Gutman had contacted the then US Consulate General in Zagreb to tell officials of his suspicions and ask for help in corroborating his findings.
Specifically, he wanted US spy satellites to determine whether a ‘death camp’ was in operation. Nobody took this request seriously, but I knew such reports could create a public relations firestorm, so I made a special effort to keep the highest levels of the State Department’s management, including Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger’s office, informed of his work. I did not, however, think management paid much or enough attention before Gutman’s story broke.
Among other tasks, I was responsible for drafting press materials, which mainly involved preparing State Department Spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler for her daily noon press briefing. Tutwiler, who was Secretary James Baker’s closest confidant and unofficially the second most influential person at State, felt that the USA should have been doing considerably more to stop, or at least suppress, the civil war in Bosnia. Alone among senior officials in her surreptitious dissent, she drew constant attention to the war’s worst aspects, hoping to spur the administration to greater action if for no other reason than Baker’s fear of bad press. At my initiative, she had already used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in mid-May to describe Bosnian Serb actions, introducing this previously unknown revilement into the vernacular. Frequent use of this sort of lurid language conditioned the press into a Pavlovian yearning for ever more shocking news of atrocities.
On Tuesday, 4 August Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Tom Niles was scheduled to give routine testimony to the House International Relations European Subcommittee, and in carrying out this obligation he badly erred, compounding public outcry about Gutman’s ‘death camps’ report. Inexplicably, Niles decided to stonewall instead of earnestly declaring that we knew little, but took the matter seriously and were looking into it. The subcommittee responded poorly, with Niles particularly enraging its presiding member, Tom Lantos, a survivor of pro-Nazi Hungarian concentration camps.
Adding to public frustrations, Niles’ comments appeared to differ from what Tutwiler’s assistant Richard Boucher told the press pool at the State Department the day before that the USA knew about the Gutman stories. Boucher had meant only that US officials read newspapers, but the leading papers unanimously (and mistakenly) reported that he said
State had independent confirmation from its intelligence sources. Reporters, smelling a cover-up, launched into full-throated choruses of ‘what did they know, and when did they know it?’ More importantly, they asked, ‘what is the USA going to do?’.
The truth was, the State Department knew very little. The real scandal was that it did not want to know more, because whatever could have been learned might also have brought new obligations to do something (anything). But by early 1992 the White House had decided not to incur the least substantive responsibility for the Yugoslav crisis, in order to avoid a Vietnam-like slippery slope and messy foreign entanglements during an election. We did not know whether minor measures might have brought results, but had no will to experiment.
Yugoslavia, in the US government’s view, was Europe’s problem; the State Department was determined it should stay that way. In any case, by mid-week the State Department’s public affairs officials were in a nuclear panic. The Yugoslav desk was asked, twice, to review its files about what we knew on ‘death camps’, and I gave Boucher a thick folder to photocopy of telegrams from my unofficial, personal file on Bosnia. There was not much information there – nothing confirming Gutman’s story – and the State Department struggled to find words to get out of the hole it had dug for itself. We had to explain our limited knowledge and say something more than ‘we do not like concentration camps’, but less than ‘we intend to invade Bosnia and shut them down’.
Sensing an opportunity to attack President George Bush, on 5 August then-candidate Bill Clinton renewed his call for the USA, through the United Nations, to bomb Bosnian Serb positions. The US Senate began consideration of a symbolic vote (eventually approved) to permit the use of force to ensure aid deliveries and access to the camps. Even high Vatican officials, speaking unofficially for the Pope, noted parallels between Nazi atrocities and Bosnian camps, and called for military intervention ‘to hold back the hand of the aggressor’.
A kind of hysteria swept through the Washington press corps. Few outsiders believed State was trying to tell the truth. After I resigned over policy in late August, for example, senior Clinton campaign officials speedily approached me regarding the camps issue, seeking advice on whether they should pursue spy satellite records which the administration allegedly ignored. I told them not to waste their time. And for years afterwards journalists continued to ask me about ‘the cover-up’.
On Wednesday 5 August, in an effort to quell the burgeoning Boucher/Niles ‘cover-up’ story and regain control of the press, Deputy Secretary Eagleburger’s office issued a clarification of the State Department’s position, including an appeal for ‘war crimes investigations’ into reports of atrocities in Bosnian detention centres. Immune to his efforts, extremely harsh press criticism continued to mount from every quarter. On Thursday, President George Bush issued an ill-prepared statement urging the United Nations Security Council to authorise the use of ‘all necessary measures’ to ensure relief deliveries, but stopped short of calling for the use of force to release prisoners. British and
French officials responded that his statement was a reaction to political concerns in the USA. Meanwhile, further inflaming the public outcry, Serb forces stepped up their attacks on Sarajevo.
At almost exactly the moment of President Bush’s call to arms, ITN’s pictures (of Omarska and Trnopolje) first aired. I do not know whether senior State Department officials saw or learned of them that day, but I viewed them, to the best of my recollection, with a handful of colleagues on Friday morning or possibly early afternoon, in the office of European Bureau’s chief of public affairs. We were unanimous, from our respective mid-to-mid-senior level vantage points, that the tape was ruinous for the Bush administration’s hands-off policy and could not but result in significant US actions. The notion that ‘we have got to do something’ echoed down State’s corridors.
At the start of the week possible critical policy shifts were dimly perceived and highly tentative, but by week’s end ITN’s graphic portrayal of what was interpreted as a ‘Balkan Holocaust’ probably ensured that those shifts became irreversible. Those shifts remain fundamental to policy to this day. On 13 August the UN Security Council passed Resolutions 770 and 771, which for the first time authorised the international use of force in Bosnia and promised to punish war criminals, the precursors of the current international occupation of Bosnia and the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague.
On the 14th, the United Nations Human Rights Commission appointed former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a highly pious Catholic, as Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Former Yugoslavia, a position from which he tended to target only Bosnian Serbs. And, on the 18th, Britain reversed itself and pledged to send 1800 soldiers to Bosnia for humanitarian aid operations, the first step towards what became by mid- September a UNSC approved, enlarged UN Protection Force mission in Bosnia, the seed that sprouted into IFOR and now SFOR. Lost in the shuffle was any understanding of what was actually going on in the camps, who ran them, and why. Official Washington and the US press almost completely ignored an International Committee of the Red Cross report issued on 4 August, describing ICRC visits to 10 camps and their finding of blatant human rights violations by all sides. And though the Serbs did indeed, as the ICRC said, run more camps, it was not disproportionately more. In the rush to convict the Serbs in the court of public opinion, the press paid no more attention to other, later reports throughout the war, up to and after the Dayton agreement, of hellish Croat and Muslim run camps. Nor did the press understand that each side had strong incentives to hold at least some prisoners for exchanges.
Medieval xenophobes reincarnated as high-tech cowboys, Western opinion leaders fixated their fear and anger against the unknown. Defying reason and logic, a myth of a Serb perpetrated Holocaust, coupled with the refusal to even acknowledge atrocities against Serbs, became conventional wisdom. This was the first instance and future model for post- modern imperialistic intervention to determine the winner in a bloody civil war. Washington loves to go to war in August. The florid atmosphere of August 1992, though not (yet) exactly a shooting match, comprised a more than satisfactory propaganda war, vaguely
reassuring those who lost their bearings with the end of the Cold War, together with a new generation of journalists who needed a fraught, dirty conflict on which to cut their teeth. Bosnia made excellent sport.