What Did The Cia Know

At a secluded military base on Croatia's Adriatic coast, an unpiloted CIA plane rolled down the runway, then climbed slowly over tall pine trees and headed into hostile airspace. It was July 1995, and a new conflict was brewing. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had conquered Croatia's Krajina border zone with Bosnia in 1991, and now Croatia was preparing a lightning assault to get it back. Americans in military uniform, operating from a cream-colored trailer near the runway, directed the GNAT-750 drone to photograph Serb troop positions and weapons emplacements. The images were transmitted back to base, analyzed and then passed on to the Pentagon. According to top Croat intelligence officials, copies were also sent to the headquarters of the Croatian general in command of "Operation Storm."

The classified reconnaissance missions continued for months, until long after Croat forces had pushed the Serbs into neighboring Bosnia. And the information proved vital to the success of Operation Storm, according to the Croats. Late in the 72-hour campaign, Croat officials say, the drone photos showed Serb forces massing for a counterthrust. The Croatian commander of the operation, Gen. Ante Gotovina, massed his own troops at the point of the Serb breakthrough and shattered the assault.

Now the successful CIA operation is about to become defense exhibit A in a war-crimes case at The Hague tribunal. Last month prosecutors announced the indictment of General Gotovina for atrocities committed during and after Operation Storm, including the murder of 150 Krajina Serbs, the forced displacement of as many as 200,000 others and the torching of thousands of homes. Gotovina, 45, who once served in the French Foreign Legion, denies any role in the atrocities, most of which occurred in the three months after the military operation ended. Yet he has refused to surrender to the tribunal, complaining that he would have to spend years in jail awaiting trial. Gotovina's Chicago-based lawyer, Luka Misetic, argues that U.S. intelligence will be vital to his case. "He was in the chain of command, but there was this other set of eyes and ears watching this operation," says Misetic. "No one there [in the CIA] saw there was a problem with war crimes or a crime against humanity... The information the United States possesses is relevant to establishing General Gotovina's innocence."

Now a NEWSWEEK investigation has shown that U.S. intelligence cooperation with Croatia went far deeper than Washington has ever acknowledged. According to Miro Tudjman, son of the late president Franjo Tudjman and head of the Croatian counterpart to the CIA in the mid-1990s, the United States provided encryption gear to each of Croatia's regular Army brigades. He says the CIA also spent at least $10 million on Croatian listening posts to intercept telephone calls in Bosnia and Serbia. "All our [electronic] intelligence in Croatia went online in real time to the National Security Agency in Washington," says Tudjman. "We had a de facto partnership."

American officials familiar with intelligence issues confirm that the CIA operated drones from a base near Zadar on the Adriatic coast, during and after Operation Storm. They also acknowledge what they describe as "limited sharing" of intelligence information with Croatia. (Two former senior administration officials, however, deny that such sharing was ever approved by the White House.) And although U.S. officials refuse to talk about encryption equipment, they confirm there was a "liaison relationship" with Croatia and other countries in the region to gather information.

They also insist American operatives did nothing that contributed to war crimes. The United States "knew of a military operation being planned," says Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war-crimes issues, adding: "We did not know about planning for criminal activity." A former senior administration official says the White House had "the usual scatter of information about individual incidents," but no evidence "Croats were going out of their way to terrorize the Serb population."

The charges against Gotovina could be difficult to prove. United Nations chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte says in her indictment that Gotovina has both personal and command responsibility for atrocities committed during and after Operation Storm. The indictment specifically argues that the "cumulative effect" of actions by the Croatian Army "led to the large-scale displacement" of Serbs. But to many people who followed events in Krajina, that charge seems dubious. "The fact is, the population left before the Croatian Army got there," says Peter Galbraith, who was U.S. ambassador to Croatia in 1995. "You can't deport people who have already left."

Skeptics have also questioned whether Gotovina had a role in the executions of Serb civilians. "I cannot find a single document or fact which points to Gotovina" as the man who ordered the atrocities, says Ivan-Zvonimir Cicak, a leading Croatian human-rights advocate. Sonja Biserko, a human-rights activist in Serbia who interviewed hundreds of refugees from Krajina, blames "paramilitaries, police and ordinary citizens" for the crimes.

Many Croats suspect Gotovina is being targeted because the tribunal feels pressure to prosecute people who are not Serbian. Milosevic himself, in jail awaiting trial in The Hague, has accused the tribunal of being one-sided. Just last week, in a preliminary motion contesting the U.N. court's legality, he asserted the tribunal was "selective and political" and "incapable of acting equally."

The prosecutor's office vigorously denies charges that it is aiming to achieve ethnic balance in its indictments. And while chief prosecutor Del Ponte will not discuss specifics, she dismisses criticism about the strength of her case. "Since we bear the burden of proof," she said through a spokesman, "it is reasonable to assume that we are confident about being in a position to make our point in court."

In Croatia, the Gotovina case has stirred passions. Billboards along the Adriatic coast proclaim gotovina: a hero, not a criminal. The current government--which, unlike Tudjman's regime, is actively cooperating with The Hague tribunal--has sharply criticized the court over the indictment of Gotovina and another, lower-ranking general. And the country's former intelligence chiefs have decided to speak out about their ties to the United States as a way of vouching for Gotovina's innocence. "I always said that the only people in Croatia who know everything are the Americans," says Markica Rebic, the former head of military intelligence. When Gotovina stands trial, some of those Americans may be asked to testify about their country's role in an ugly conflict.