How to kill a rabbit, the CIA way

It was a privilege accorded to very few. I was sitting in the inner office of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, deep inside the heart of the world's most renowned and supposedly sophisticated intelligence service. He was a nice man but, as we spoke, one of life's blinding lessons suddenly struck me: people who reach the top - be it as presidents or prime ministers or even as editors, say - are by no means automatically (to use the current vogue term of intellectual disparagement here) the rocket scientists of our day. Often, indeed, they're merely those who find themselves in the right place at the right time, saying the right things to the right people.

Later I began to make one or two more friends in the CIA. I knew somebody whose job was to assemble psychological profiles of foreign leaders and, as he was telling me how he did it, I started thinking, I could do better than this, simply by looking up a few newspaper cuttings.

This friend told me how, to prove his toughness in "field" training (though he was office-bound in the CIA Langley offices in Virginia), he was required to kill a rabbit: somebody duly took a little bunny, apparently just acquired from a pet shop and still in its hutch, and my friend did what a man's gotta do. He killed the poor creature, and showed for ever that he was a true-blooded American fit to work for the world's greatest intelligence organisation.

This all came back to me in the light of last week's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

In the words of the US defence secretary, William Cohen, the former Republican senator I described last week as now looking permanently embarrassed, "the bombing instructions were based on an outdated map".

This kind of admission may come as a surprise to those reared on John le Carre or "non-fiction" spy books but - having seen the fallibilities of real spies - it didn't surprise me at all. A visitor to Belgrade in the past couple of years, after all, has been able to buy a tourist map showing the exact location of the Chinese embassy there - but brandishing the latest technological wizardry and courageously killing bunnies is much more exciting than boring nuts-and- bolts research like reading tourist maps, isn't it?

What Cohen said, though, is even more significant and worrying than it might seem. His words show how Washington is in more disarray than I've been stressing in recent weeks - because, in a word, he was wrong.

The problem did not lie with the CIA's maps of Belgrade - but I'll return to that in a moment. That he should even get the explanation of the blunder wrong is symptomatic of the rudderless vacuum here of which I have been writing: with no firm leadership, Washington's political, military and intelligence centres of power are now busily firing away at each other in their own internecine war.

Now to those maps, as told to me by my intelligence chums. Yes, it is true that the Chinese embassy did not show up on the CIA's maps - but that is because the maps were drawn up in 1992 and the embassy was not opened until four years after that. Revisions in 1997 and last year did show the new building, but failed to label it as the Chinese embassy.

This is where matters get complicated and very Clintonian. Not long ago the CIA's map experts were merged with analysts from other departments into a new secret body called the "National Mapping and Imaging Center" and, as with everything in the Clinton administration, the new department soon succumbed to inevitable disorder - inadequately staffed, unclear to whom it was now answerable and so on.

Still, though, the main problem did not lie with those maps; their primary function is to supply the correct geographical co-ordinates so that satellite-guided precision-guided munitions (PGMs) can reach their targets accurately.

The Pentagon started off Nato's bombing assault nearly two months ago with 100 targets that it thought would finish off Milosevic; when it became clear that was not happening, 170 more were hurriedly added to the list, one of which was the Serbian Directorate for Supply and Procurement (DSP). And the Defense Intelligence Agency - at least, this is what the finger-pointing chaps at the CIA say - then simply came up with the wrong address for the DSP.

Meanwhile the Pentagon (and Nato) managed not to have anyone actually on the ground in Belgrade - crawling though it is with John Simpsons and Brent Sadlers - to check that address. So they looked at the maps and aerial reconnaissance photographs and, lo and behold, there was a likely-looking office building standing roughly where the address seemed to suggest. True, an updated map would have had red flags saying the building was the Chinese embassy. But the primary mistake had already been made. I'm told Cohen has now asked the State Department to notify the CIA every time a foreign embassy changes its address. Quite a smart move, eh?

The Chinese are milking the tragedy for all it's worth. Their ambassador here, Li Zhaoxing, is a diplomatic heavyweight whose very scowl sends tremors down the spines of Clinton and Madeleine Notverybright. The whole Serbian mess, in fact, is teaching the US a humbling lesson: the world's only superpower it may be, but it still needs the support of other powers it thought it could imperiously ignore - like Russia and China.

The net result is that American resolve over Kosovo is steadily weakening instead of strengthening. So keep taking my advice, Tony, and stay tuned for news of peace.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence