Nineteen years ago today then-President Bill Clinton called the Chinese president to make a stunning apology: Sorry for bombing your embassy in Belgrade.
According to a CNN report from the time, Clinton had a "very constructive" half-hour-long conversation with then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin on May 14, 1999, days after the embassy was struck in a wave of airstrikes in what was then the capital of Yugoslavia. Three Chinese journalists were killed in the strike.
Testifying before the Senate intelligence committee in July the same year, CIA Director George Tenet called the bombing a "tragic mistake" and a "major error."
"The attack was a mistake. Let me emphasize, our investigation has determined that no one -- I repeat no one -- knowingly targeted the Chinese Embassy," Tenet said. "Speculation to the contrary is simply unfounded. No one, at any stage in the process, realized that our bombs were aimed at the Chinese Embassy."
Tenet said NATO was trying to strike a Yugoslav supply and procurement facility and that the U.S. government's maps didn't mark the correct location for it -- or for the Chinese embassy. In an amazing admission, Tenet said that virtually all the military and CIA maps showed the Chinese embassy where it was before 1996, even though the U.S. was aware the embassy had been moved that year and U.S. diplomats had visited the newer facility in the intervening years.
At least one intelligence officer saw the mistake days ahead of time, but for various reasons could not get through to the right people. From Tenet's testimony:
If any of this seems a little fishy, at least a few reporters thought so too. In October 1999, the British newspaper The Observer and a Danish outlet published a joint investigative report that alleged the bombing of the embassy had been deliberate because it was being used as a communications relay for NATO's adversaries.
Major U.S. papers at the time could not corroborate the story, and then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly described it as "balderdash." The next year The New York Times reported it had obtained the targeting summary sent to Clinton ahead of the strike that misidentified the building.
"The only thing that turned out to be accurate [about the attack plan] was the casualty estimate," the Times report says. "The description of the target's relevance to the war was misleading and, one senior intelligence official said, it should have been apparent to any imagery expert that the building shown did not look remotely like a warehouse or any Serbian government building... The bombing resulted from error piled upon incompetence piled upon bad judgment in a variety of places -- from a frantic rush to approve targets to questionable reliance on inexpert officers to an inexplicable failure to consult the people who might have averted disaster, according to the officials."
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