Propaganda deconstructed – a guide to the techniques of persuasion

Modern technology and techniques of mass communication shape the way we view the world. They also possess the power to distort reality. Western media coverage of the Balkan conflicts is a prime example. The fall of Srebrenica in 1995, reportedly filmed by US spy satellites, was claimed as compelling evidence of genocidal massacres and mass graves. It was widely used and disseminated to construct a wholly misleading narrative of what actually happened. The following article , reproduced from the New York Times of October 29, 1995,  typifies the techniques of persuasion employed to manipulate readers. Here, point by point, we demonstrate the use of so-called intelligence to cloud rather than clarify events on the ground. We dissect the lies and expose the false claims that have paraded as the truth for far too long. Our commentary and analysis appears in red




Michael Dobbs; R. Jeffrey Smith

October 29, 1995


The United States government has supplied international war crimes investigators with reconnaissance photos and other intelligence evidence of “approximately half a dozen” mass grave sites — in addition to those it has previously disclosed — where Bosnian Serb forces buried thousands of Muslims massacred last July 

U.S. officials said yesterday this new evidence supports the accounts of Bosnian Muslims and human rights groups who have described large-scale atrocities by the Serbs after they captured the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia on July 11.

The spy photographs first presented  by US Ambassador Madeleine Albright on August 10 to a closed session of the UN Security Council as ‘compelling evidence of atrocities’ were immediately discounted by the world media because they provided no evidence of any substance. 

UN spokesmen in the former Yugoslavia considered the photographs ‘insufficient proof of mass graves in Srebrenica’ and voiced the suspicion that they were presented at the time to deflect attention from Croatia’s brutal expulsion of Krajina Serbs. The additional material and  so called ‘new evidence’ was submitted to the ICTY just 3 days before the opening of the Dayton Peace talks for what were clearly propaganda purposes. The Hague Tribunal was unimpressed and on a number of  occasions expressed its disappointment at the poor quality of the information provided.  The US then promptly classified the spy pictures for 60 years so preventing any further examination. 

If the reconnaissance photos really provided conclusive evidence of atrocities why would the US have waited for over a month before telling anyone or demanding earlier intervention? The fact is the spy plane and satellite pictures proved nothing. 


The United States was first alerted to the possibility of mass killings in the area only a day or two after Srebrenica fell, in a phone call from Bosnian Foreign Minister Mohamed Sacirbey to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine K. Albright, according to a Washington Post reconstruction of the U.S. government’s response to one of the worst atrocities committed in Europe since World War II.

So desperate were the Bosnian Muslims to demonise the Serbs as butchers that they alerted the world to the possibility of mass killings three days before they had even entered Srebrenica.       The New York Times of 29 October 1995 reported that on 8 July, 3 days before the BSA overran the area, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic went on Sarajevo radio to say that the people of Srebrenica faced “massacres and genocide”. He said he had delivered this warning to the USA, Germany, England, France, the UN and NATO.  The chronology of events set out by the prosecution at the various ICTY trials concerning Srebrenica suggests that even Sacirbey’s warning a day or two after the fall  of the safe area was ahead of alleged events. Evidence of Bosnian Muslim stage management of the aftermath of Srebrenica can be seen from their refusal to admit refugees into Tuzla for the first 48 hours after they started arriving. 

Throughout the Balkan conflicts the track record of information released  US officials, Bosnian Muslims and human rights groups was deplorable.

George Kenney,  former head of Yugoslav desk for the US State Department said “there has never been shred of evidence for wildly inflated US claims that up to 200,000 Muslims were killed.”

Although the Clinton administration was quick to denounce the reported “brutal” and “inhumane” behaviour, the best part by the Bosnian Serbs, it did not go public with detailed evidence of the atrocities until nearly four weeks later. Albright went before the U.N. Security Council in a private session on Aug. 10 to present spy photographs of suspected mass graves and to accuse the Bosnian Serbs of executing many Muslim refugees.

Officials blamed the delay in presenting intelligence evidence on the difficulties of sifting through a vast pile of reconnaissance photos to find corroborating evidence of atrocities. Since then, the administration has been hesitant to release data about the additional mass graves because of fears that the Bosnian Serb authorities might attempt to tamper with the sites to conceal the evidence, officials said. But they said the United States has supplied all relevant information to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

These arguments do not stand up. Albright told the Security Council the US spy satellites “would be watching” for any signs the Serbs were tampering with mass graves. No such signs were ever forthcoming.  Hard evidence of atrocities would have been the Holy Grail discovery for the US, providing complete justification for their illegal ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the affairs of the sovereign state of Yugoslavia.

Other findings of the reconstruction of events include: Western governments felt unable to respond militarily, before the assault, to a Bosnian Serb buildup around Srebrenica, because they feared for the safety of several hundred Dutch peacekeepers in the enclave. Classified American diplomatic cables show that Dutch Defense Minister Joris Voorhoeve repeatedly depicted the situation in the enclave as “hopeless” and opposed the use of NATO air power, despite requests by the local Dutch commander for deterrent strikes. U.S. intelligence officials say they have information indicating that regular units of the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army crossed into Bosnia and were involved in the assault on Srebrenica, together with Bosnian Serb forces that ostensibly are independent of Belgrade. This disclosure adds credibility to earlier accounts from some journalists and U.N. officials that Yugoslavia aided its Bosnian Serb allies in the military attack on Srebrenica, although not necessarily in the atrocities that followed.

This is utterly disingenuous. The Dutch peacekeepers were not in Srebrenica to defend the safe area. They numbered only 80 and were there merely as peacekeepers.

The 6,800 men of the 28th division of the Bosnian Muslim Army (ABiH), who had remained in Srebrenica despite its so-called demilitarisation, had everything they needed to repulse any Bosnian Serb attack with consummate ease.  Huge arms shipments into Tuzla airport in the early months of 1995 – facilitated by the US air force – had brought them state-of-the-art weaponry and command-and-control equipment surpassing anything NATO had.  But the 28th division was ordered to abandon the safe area rather than defend it. This was a cynical decision calculated to expose civilians and retreating Muslim troops to the risk of ambush in Serb held territory -the  higher the death toll of Muslims the more likely it would be to trigger NATO intervention.   The Republican Party foreign affairs policy committee had reported months earlier that President Clinton was just waiting for “a sufficiently vivid incident” to justify armed intervention. Srebrenica was the excuse the Americans were looking for and the Muslims deemed the loss of their own people a worthwhile sacrifice. 

 Republican congressional leaders have attacked the Clinton administration’s strategy of negotiating with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who has exceptionally close ties to the Yugoslav army, on grounds that Milosevic may be linked to atrocities. Milosevic has repeatedly denied that Yugoslav units are operating in Bosnia.

Despite many years of searching The Hague Tribunal was never able to produce a scrap of evidence that the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) provided any military assistance to the Bosnian Serbs.

The latest disclosures come three days before the opening of peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, which will be attended by Milosevic and the leaders of Bosnia and Croatia. Bosnian Serb representatives will attend the talks, as part of a joint Serb delegation headed by Milosevic, who is widely regarded as the political mastermind behind the drive for a “Greater Serbia” that triggered the 3 1/2-year-old Bosnian civil war.

The so called “Greater Serbia” document proved to be a crudely executed smear, first detected when it was noticed that the text was littered with Croatian spellings.  Milosevic was in fact the only one of the leaders of the Yugoslav republics who wanted to keep Yugoslavia united.  Contrary to myth, he did not start any of the conflicts in the Balkans.

The chief U.S. negotiator to the former Yugoslavia, Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, who will preside over the Dayton talks, described the Srebrenica atrocities in an interview as “a war crime of major proportions.” He depicted the fall of Srebenica as a “historic event” that galvanized Western governments into taking action to prevent further territorial gains by the Bosnian Serbs and to work to negotiate an end to the war.

Holbrooke was happy to make atrocity accusations without any evidence to back his claims.  His ruthless pursuit of US political objectives had little to do with humanitarianism. As he wrote in his memoir ‘To End a War’:  “It was not an overstatement to say that America’s post World War Two security role in Europe was at stake.”

As previously reported, the massacres occurred when 12,000 Muslim males of military age, most of them unarmed, sought to trek about 60 miles from Srebrenica to Muslim-controlled territory. Fewer than half completed the trip safely, and nearly all of the others were butchered by Bosnian Serb troops, according to accounts from witnesses and human rights groups. The Red Cross estimates that 8,000 of the men remain missing, while the Bosnian government says at least 10,000 were killed.

The maths of Srebrenica could never be made to add up.  ICTY Judge Patricia Wald wrote that the population of the safe area when it fell was 37,000: with the UN recording 35,600 survivors at Tuzla and UN officials reporting some 3,000 soldiers safely behind Muslim lines in the Sapna Finger, at least 38,600 could be safely accounted for.  The original and only basis for the Red Cross figure of 8,000 missing was the list they compiled  from those who answered advertisements to come forward to report missing relatives.  As there were no population records for the war period, there was no way to corroborate these reports.

In a rare departure from the secrecy that normally surrounds an ongoing intelligence-gathering operation, senior U.S. officials and intelligence analysts agreed to discuss their own investigation into the fall of Srebrenica. Interviews with these officials and Western European diplomats make it possible to reconstruct in detail how the United States government and its allies responded at a key turning point in the Bosnian civil war.  

These departures from secrecy were by no means rare.  Great chunks of misinformation were constantly fed to the media by intelligence sources.  The US government and its allies, while swearing impartiality, were from the outset united in taking sides against the Serb. A CIA  memo in February 1993 specifically recommended setting up the Hague Tribunal for the purpose of “publicising Serbian atrocities.”

American intelligence agencies began observing a Bosnian Serb military buildup around Srebrenica in late June. There were reports that Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic was furious about a series of raids by Srebrenica-based Muslim troops on neighboring Serb villages, and that he wanted to teach the Bosnian government a lesson. U.S. intelligence analysts concluded, however, that the Serb aim was to “neutralize” the enclave rather than take it over all together.

It is true that General Mladic approached Srebrenica to issue a warning that the further murderous attacks made on unarmed Serbian farming villages within the safe area would not be tolerated.  It is also the case that Mladic had no plans to take the safe area.  He had approached with a force of only 200 men and four tanks, believing that the 6,800 ABiH force would defend the safe area.  It was only when he learned on 11 July that Srebrenica town had been abandoned that he led his troops in and took control without a shot being fired.

 As the Bosnian Serbs, spearheaded by Yugoslav army tanks, advanced to within a mile or two of the center of Srebrenica in early July, there was a flurry of consultations among Western capitals over the possibility of defending the enclave.

There was talk of this kind at political levels.  However, all the indications are that the US government was well aware that the Muslims were abandoning the safe area with the aim of proclaiming a massacre by the Serbs which would trigger NATO to enter the war on their side.

On July 9, the Dutch defense minister gave a bleak assessment of the military situation to the U.S. ambassador in The Hague. He reported that the Dutch peacekeepers were “surrounded, outnumbered, and afraid of further actions” by the Bosnian Serbs. Voorhoeve described the city as “indefensible,” even though he still felt that the Serbs probably would not attempt to overrun it entirely.

According to the Dutch Defense Ministry, on the evening of July 10 the local garrison of Dutch peacekeepers requested large-scale NATO airstrikes. They expected NATO warplanes to begin attacking Serb positions early the following morning. But the raids were delayed until the afternoon, and they succeeded in neutralising, at most, two Serb tanks. At 6 p.m. that evening, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable, the Dutch defense ministry conceded that the enclave had fallen.

U.S. officials immediately braced for possible horrors to come. “After Srebrenica fell, everybody said atrocities were going to happen,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official.

The US was desperate to find an endgame to conclude the Bosnian war.  Alleged atrocities provided exactly the climate that would allow them to take charge and achieve their goals.

Further airstrikes were effectively ruled out, because of the large number of hostages in Bosnian Serb hands. The Clinton administration now had only one place to turn for help: Milosevic. Despite a cooling in relations between Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb proteges, U.S. officials felt that the Serbian president was their best bet for trying to restrain the vengeful fury of the victors of Srebrenica.

“We do not have evidence of direct involvement by Milosevic {in the Bosnia atrocities}, but at the same time we felt that he could prevent things from happening,” said an official involved in the frantic U.S. effort to forestall atrocities. “His ability as an interlocutor was on the line.”

Milosevic’s relations with the Bosnian Serb leadership had never been close. At all stages he had tried to help bring the civil war in Bosnia to a peaceful conclusion and was happy to do so once again.  Even Richard Holbooke acknowledged that the Dayton agreement could not have been reached without his assistance.

 On July 12, as Mladic’s forces began to separate fighting-age Muslims from women and children, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Rudolf V. Perina, went to see Milosevic. He told him that the capture of the “safe area” was a serious blow to the peace negotiations then underway, and urged him to “cut off all military supplies” to the Bosnian Serbs.

The Serb leader replied that he was “stung” by the U.S. demarche. “Why blame me?” Milosevic said, according to a diplomatic cable from Belgrade. “I have been unable to contact Mladic.” Milosevic went on to tell the American diplomat that he had been assured that the Bosnian Serb forces would not harm U.N. peacekeepers or Muslim civilians.

Another cause of concern for Washington was the reported presence in the Srebrenica region of a notorious Serb militia leader, Zeljko Raznatovic, more commonly known as “Arkan.” U.S. officials said they have repeatedly urged Milosevic to restrain Arkan, who operates out of Yugoslav territory and is believed to have close ties to the Yugoslav army. U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Arkan now has returned to his home base of eastern Slavonia after terrorizing Muslim and Croat inhabitants of Serb-controlled territory in northern Bosnia.

The threat of Arkan was repeatedly invoked by western leaders during the Yugoslav conflicts as part of the process to demonise the Serbs. Invariably there was no truth behind the rumours.

A day after the fall of the “safe area,” according to U.S. officials and refugee accounts, Serb military forces herded at least 600 Muslim men from the city into a soccer field in the village of Nova Kasaba, northwest of Srebrenica. As they huddled in a circle surrounded by guards, a U.S. reconnaissance satellite snapped a grim, shocking photo of the group.

This ‘grim’ photo showed nothing more than a group of people gathered together.  There was absolutely nothing to support the allegations made by US officials and Muslim refugees.

The men subsequently were taken from the site in groups to two nearby fields, lined up, and machine-gunned. The Serbs buried the dead in mass graves and bulldozed the entire area. A similar group of at least 400 men in the village of Sandic also was captured on satellite imagery, shortly before they too were trucked away and slain in moonlight on a nearby field. Those photos were not released to the public.

No evidence has ever been brought forward to support these allegations. Nor did the Hague Tribunal produce any.

Word of the atrocities — or imminent atrocities — reached Washington on the evening of July 13. After Sacirbey tipped off Albright, she in turn phoned White House deputy national security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger. At Berger’s suggestion, Albright asked the intelligence community the next day to try to find corroborating evidence.

But it is not clear whether the task was given much urgency. Several officials said, for example, that the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), which has a special group assigned to analyze satellite and U-2 spy-plane imagery of Bosnia, was not assigned the task in mid-July of looking for atrocities or mass graves.

This defies reason.  If US intelligence had really believed that massacres had taken place they would have been clamouring for the supporting evidence.

Instead, the analysts devoted most of their time to trying to find fresh information about a Serb attack on Zepa and movements of Serb weaponry, including any air defense batteries that could endanger U.S. and allied pilots engaged in possible retaliatory strikes. As a result, the photos languished in NPIC archives until the evening of Aug. 2, when they were unearthed by an analyst who linked them with the nearby grave sites.

They were ‘unearthed’ not because some analyst had made a breakthrough but because the media was beginning to challenge the lack of any evidence to support the atrocity claims.

After their existence was reported on Aug. 4 in the National Intelligence Daily, a classified newsletter circulated to senior policymakers, Albright asked for a briefing that she could present to the U.N. Security Council. On Aug. 10, she told a closed meeting of the Council that “we have seen these signs {of mass graves} again and again in territory taken by the Serbs — around Brcko; in northwest Bosnia; and most notoriously outside Vukovar,” where 200 Croat hospital patients are believed by international human rights organizations to be buried in mass graves.

As indicated above Albright quickly waved some unclear photos in a closed session of the UN Security Council and then had them classified.

“People were completely stunned,” Albright said later about her colleagues on the Council. She and other U.S. officials are convinced that the disclosure helped persuade Britain and France — which had long been gun-shy about taking decisive military action in Bosnia — to authorize a broad campaign of NATO bombing later in August.

 A perfect example of the way international opinion can be shifted by a simple propaganda exercise: some fuzzy satellite photographs and a confident intelligence narrative was all Security Council members required to conclude the massacre tales proven beyond doubt.

But questions have since been raised in the European press and the Dutch government about whether the administration acted as quickly as it should have to ferret out the information and publicize it. The Dutch defense ministry, which has been under intense fire at home for not doing more to stop the atrocities, demanded in August that Washington provide a detailed account of what it knew and when.

This second wave of nonsense was highly welcome to the Americans  because it appeared to further confirm the basic truth of US claims.

According to that account, which was provided to the Dutch defense minister by Secretary of Defense William J. Perry in early September, the administration did not have “any information on any Bosnian Serb Army intent to commit atrocities” in or around Srebrenica. But the chronology adds that “we did know of the possibility of such activity given the history of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.”

Perry was no doubt delighted to take the opportunity to suggest that ‘genocide and ethnic cleansing’ were second nature to the Serbs.  But once again all that was lacking was any hard evidence.

On July 17, according to the account, the CIA’s Bosnia Task Force wrote in its classified daily report that numerous accounts by refugees “provide details that appear credible” of atrocities being committed but added that “we lack authoritative, detailed information to substantiate this information.” The intelligence officials declined to say what they did during this period to try to redress the deficiency. “It was not a military priority,” said one official. “A lot of this {atrocity} stuff is not looked at” at the time it is collected, the official said.

So far as we can tell, it was never looked at because the CIA knew it would provide no hard evidence of atrocities.

But several officials said the pace of the search for information quickened after July 25, when the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, sent a highly classified “No Distribution” cable to Secretary of State Warren Christopher recounting testimony by a massacre survivor to U.N. human rights interviewers in Muslim-controlled Tuzla.

Galbraith had long campaigned for the US to take the side of the Croatian separatists and the Bosnian Muslims. His ‘no distribution’ memo was an opportunistic attempt to put Bill Clinton – for whom Yugoslavia was well down the list of priorities – under intense pressure to take action.

Galbraith’s cable said that the account, which he heard secondhand from a friend, “provides disturbing evidence that the Bosnian Serbs have massacred many if not most of the 5,000-plus military-age men in their custody.” As one official said, “this thing was qualitatively different {from earlier reports about atrocities}, because it involved systematic organized killings of large numbers of human beings.”

Qualitatively it was exactly the same as earlier reports – wholly unconfirmed hearsay originated by CIA/Bosnian propaganda services.

Another official said, “When I read that report, I said, God damn, they are doing it again.’ ” Christopher immediately ordered John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, to visit the region, where he met with the refugee survivor and collected additional firsthand accounts. On July 27, according to the account, a U-2 making a weekly pass over the area snapped photos of freshly dug earth at various fields. The photos offered a contrast with earlier photos showing no disturbance.

Shattuck, already known for epic exaggeration, was in Bosnia for less than a week.  He was easily impressed, lapping up stories of a massacre of 1,000 men or more in an agricultural warehouse in Kravica, carried out with machine guns and grenades.  A quick glance at the photographs of the interior of the building revealed very limited bullet damage to the walls and fragile wooden animal pens that had miraculously survived many grenade explosions within a confined area.

Several officials said the additional, secret evidence of mass grave sites includes aerial photography of disturbed earth in three locations near the town of Sahanici, near Karakaj, which confirms an Oct. 3 report published earlier by the Boston Globe. The site is significant because it is at least 20 miles from the route taken by the refugees when they left Srebrenica, disproving Bosnian Serb claims that any mass graves contain only Muslims killed “in combat.” One official said that the administration has not divulged all the evidence of mass graves in part because it is no longer “on a mission . . . to dispel doubts” that atrocities occurred, one official said.

It never was on a mission to dispel doubts.  It knew the stories were lies.

Albright said “the great frustration of this whole horror show is that you can never get information in real time” from U.N. officials in Bosnia. But she added that she is satisfied that “the system worked as well as it could to put the information together. I obviously wish I’d had it sooner, but it was not possible to have it sooner.” 

No new information had been put together.  All Albright had been fed was further unverified hearsay.  But that was apparently  good enough.


Other senior officials said, however, that the intelligence community should begin examining how it can use satellite imagery more effectively in public diplomacy aimed at exposing or deterring war crimes, rather than restricting its use to military purposes. The Srebrenica massacre “is going to change” the intelligence community’s priorities, one official said.

There has been no change.


CAPTION: This U-2 spy plane photograph was among the first to show what analysts believe are mass grave sites near Srebrenica — the revetments are thought to have been constructed to protect heavy trucks and earth-moving equipment from shelling. The map at right shows reported massacre sites identified by eyewitnesses and human rights groups before U.S. officials revealed that they had evidence of six sites other than those previously disclosed.


US spy satellites passed over most parts of Bosnia up to 8 times a day and were able to focus on objects only 4 inches long.  Given this remarkable capability and technical precision, it is hard to understand the apparent degree of analysis and interpretation required to identify what was actually caught on camera.  Poor weather and cloud cover can pose  problems but these are intermittent.  It is the consistent lack of unambiguous graphic evidence of genocidal killings and mass graves which suggests there was little to be seen. But seeing is believing. 

Viewers of  the satellite photographs were led to believe they could not trust the evidence of their own eyes – they  had to be told what they were looking at. This process was more a construction of events than an accurate reconstruction.

In reality the  journalistically acclaimed ‘new proof’ was just more media manipulation and the same old distorted truth.