The Real History of a Time

My father used to say that the history of a time can’t be written until all the bodies are buried. There’s definitely something to that, and the little bits that do peek out often reveal the shape of an underlying mass of buried secrets. It’s enough to turn you into a conspiracy theorist.

First off, let me note that this is not new news – it’s a piece of a puzzle that dropped years after the event, but which I only stumbled over nearly twenty years afterward. This illustrates, for me, the corrosive effect of keeping secrets: you don’t know the truth, and then later you don’t learn it unless you seek it out or stumble across it, after years of thinking that people who were telling the truth are conspiracy theorists. The secret-keepers have taken a great big dump right in the middle of your ability to know anything – it’s a sort of epistemological denial of service attack. For anyone who wants to believe in Democracy, as a political ideal, it poses a problem: how can The People make informed decisions about lies?

Reported in The Guardian (1999): [guard]

According to senior military and intelligence sources in Europe and the US the Chinese embassy was removed from a prohibited targets list after Nato electronic intelligence (Elint) detected it sending army signals to Milosevic’s forces.

The story is confirmed in detail by three other Nato officers – a flight controller operating in Naples, an intelligence officer monitoring Yugoslav radio traffic from Macedonia and a senior headquarters officer in Brussels. They all confirm that they knew in April that the Chinese embassy was acting as a ‘rebro’ [rebroadcast] station for the Yugoslav army (VJ) after alliance jets had successfully silenced Milosevic’s own transmitters.

The Chinese were also suspected of monitoring the cruise missile attacks on Belgrade, with a view to developing effective counter-measures against US missiles.

Oh, well, there you go. It was a deliberate act of war that was swept under the carpet. Embassies are pretty widely assumed to be havens for spies, but they’re negotiated to be safe havens; bombing another country’s embassy in another country is an outrage of the sort only Vladimir Putin Bill Clinton would do. Perhaps you remember the massive outrage when Iranian revolutionaries held American embassy staff hostage, claiming they were illegal CIA agents in-country – and they were CIA agents?

I don’t have a good word for this (“political nihilism” comes to mind) – the idea that political ‘facts’ are only for manipulating the herd, that truth does not matter, right and wrong are vacuous concepts used to fob off the naive. This is from 20 years ago, and all that stuff about the maps being wrong was “fake news.”

Defence Secretary William Cohen said: ‘One of our planes attacked the wrong target because the bombing instructions were based on an outdated map.’

Later, a source in the US National Imagery and Mapping Agency said that the ‘wrong map’ story was ‘a damned lie’.

It’s easy to jump to “it’s all lies.” The illegal and secret actions of governments feed directly into bonfires of bullshit like 9/11 truthers and birtherism. They want that.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    The Chinese were also suspected of monitoring the cruise missile attacks on Belgrade, with a view to developing effective counter-measures against US missiles

    This is reported as though it’s some underhanded, reprehensible act, rather than what it is, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do about the missiles of a loose-cannon country that demonstrates literally almost daily that it has absolutely no respect for borders, human rights or international law. I hope Canada has effective counter-measures against US weapons. Perhaps they can purchase them from China…

    Seriously: if you told me that within 100 years there’d be a war, with the US and Israel on one side and literally the entire rest of the world allied somewhat uneasily on the other, right now I’d not consider it impossible.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Clinton’s war on Serbia, and “the former Yugoslavia”‘s war on itself, was one of the most confusing mass bloodsheds I’ve ever tried to follow; even the anti-war reportage was all over the place in de/a-scribing actions and motives.

    The faction claiming it was all about a trans-Balkan oil pipeline seems to have gotten it wrong; or maybe that deal fell through anyway after Belgrade had been bombed into submission (or perhaps they snuck one through and I just never read about it).

    The locals there have a genuine knack for complex schemes and contradictory, incomplete narratives; their literature must be dizzying.

  3. Curt Sampson says

    First, “epistemological denial of service attack” is a brilliant phrase. Thank you for that.

    But, while I see your point, is it all really as bad as you think?

    I, too, until I’d read this very post, put down the “it wasn’t accidental” claim about the bombing of the Chinese embassy to conspiracy theory. But as soon as I was shown (here) reliable sources that made sense, I had no problem changing my opinion. We work with the evidence we’ve got and it’s our ability to revise our opinions in the face of new evidence (or, in this case, old evidence seen for the first time) that makes us more rational or less rational. I think that those of us on the “more rational” side, while we for good reason don’t generally give high credence to “big lie” theories, do admit that Big Lies do sometimes happen and have no problem accepting that one did happen when given sufficient evidence.

    I’m never sure I know the truth. I only can make judgements based on what information I have, knowing that it’s almost certainly incomplete. So, no, the bullshit and the lies that I know are out there are not and never will be “enough to turn [me] into a conspiracy theorist.”

    I leave out of this argument the effect on those who want to Believe; I’ll have to think a bit on whether your argument has an effect on that. (Beyond the obvious, “it’s always bad when we can’t determine facts,” of course.)

    As for embassies being “negotiated to be safe havens,” well, only at the surface level. The Soviets certainly didn’t hesitate to build and/or con in to U.S. embassies some truly brilliant bugs as well as lots of regular bugs and everybody returned the favour whenever they could.

  4. says

    This is reported as though it’s some underhanded, reprehensible act, rather than what it is, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do about the missiles of a loose-cannon country that demonstrates literally almost daily that it has absolutely no respect for borders, human rights or international law.

    The big “aha!” moment for me, on this, was when I was reading a european-written description* of the Cuban Missile Crisis and they described it as “A Soviet attempt to contain US nuclear ambitions.” Whoah. If you put it that way, that does sound about right. The US’ desire for nuclear hegemony was so great that Kennedy was willing to burn the world rather than allow anyone to interfere with US proliferation of nuclear weapons to Turkey.

    I remember sitting there, staring at the page for a long time, as the world spun around me and shifted and re-settled in a slightly different position after that.

    (* It may have been Howard Zinn. I do not remember. How can this be? I don’t know. It was a casual sentence and it took a while to sink in.)

  5. drken says

    I don’t remember thinking that anybody actually believed the “old map” story at the time. Based on the unwillingness of the Chinese to try to get diplomatic leverage out if it, I figured we had actual military justification (military communications facilities being legitimate targets and all) and the Chinese couldn’t make too big a fuss about it without us revealing what they were up to. Of course, we couldn’t admit we knew what they were doing without dragging the Chinese into the conflict (something both NATO and the Chinese didn’t want), so everybody pretended to believe the cover story because the message was received: “don’t help Milosevic, or you’ll be targeted too”. I’m not sure what the Chinese were getting for putting their diplomats in harms way, but it probably had to do with money. These things usually do.

  6. Raucous Indignation says

    “Outdated map” sure sounds like a “that’s-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it” sort of excuse.

  7. ridana says

    Hmm, I remember that around that time I was getting misdirected emails to a contractor who had a similar email address but with a different provider. For some reason, none of the people on this mailing list could be convinced I was not this contractor. In fact it took over a year before I stopped randomly receiving emails intended for them. One of them was from a security firm responsible for vetting government employees (that firm had also earlier sent me a password to log in and pick up my security clearance for their site – I did a lot of investigating to see if it was some weird sort of phishing or legit – it was, but it bespoke a rather astonishing lack of security), and I once got a set of blueprints I considered posting online to demonstrate the issue. I used to try to forward the emails to the intended recipient, but after awhile I figured if they missed a few meetings, maybe they’d do something to take care of the problem.

    Anyway, one of the attachments I got seemed to me to be something that perhaps ought to have been classified material regarding surveys of terrain (tree, mountain, building heights, etc.) in that area. It was probably nothing important, but I remember thinking that if they were so incompetent at their work that they couldn’t even get an unauthorized person off of the mail string after dozens of attempts to alert them that I was not the person they were seeking, it was no wonder we’d “accidentally” been bombing schools and embassies.

  8. coragyps says

    Marcus: I was in the tenth grade or so during the Cuban Missle Crisis, and I wasn’t particularly political. But I do remember thinking “what’s the big deal? We’ve got bunches of missiles in Turkey. Isn’t that the same thing exactly?”
    But I guess it wasn’t the same thing at all, since we’re the good guys and those Russkys and Cubans were the bad guys.

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