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George Kenney

Living Marxism, April, 1997

Was it inevitable that the West intervened militarily
in Bosnia's civil war, taking sides against the Serbs,
and then occupying the country? I doubt it. Was it
right? No, not insofar as careful, objective,
after-the-fact investigation of key media events was

The first turning point, that led straightaway to the
introduction of Western troops, coincided with ITN's
broadcast of images of what was widely assumed to be a
concentration camp, at the Bosnian Serb-run Trnopolje
refugee collection centre in

August 1992. Now, in a stunning development, Thomas
Deichmann has discovered that those ITN images 'fooled
the world'.

To understand the impact that those misleading ITN
pictures had, one must look at the atmosphere of
July/August in Washington. 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 storiesbased, he minimally acknowledged at
that time, only on second and third-hand accountsthat
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
muchor 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 beforethat 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
therenothing confirming Gutman's storyand 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

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

At almost exactly the moment of President Bush's call
to arms, ITN's pictures 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

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 Bosniathe 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
afterthe 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.

It is no surprise, after all, that the temptation for
news organisations to try to change policy, when they
knew how easily they could, was overwhelming.

George Kenney resigned from the US State Department in
August 1992, in protest at the Bush administration's
policy towards the former Yugoslavia. This is his
personal account of how the bogus interpretation which
the world placed upon ITN's pictures of Trnopolje camp
helped to put Washington on a war footing.