WASHINGTON -- President Bush ordered U.S. intelligence agencies in May to take an intense look at conditions in Bosnia, and by June those agencies had uncovered widespread atrocities by Serbian forces, including summary executions and beatings that caused thousands of Muslim deaths, according to U.S. officials.
But the administration has withheld details of its findings, portraying its reports from the Balkan conflict as anecdotal and inconclusive, often no more complete than press reports from the region.
In reality, extensive interviews show a comprehensive effort by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency involving U.S. agents on the ground in Bosnia, the maneuvering of U.S. spy satellites to better see the area and extensive interception of radio and phone communications.
U.S. intelligence reports have concluded that "thousands" of Muslims and Croats throughout Bosnia were being summarily executed or dying from beatings and other atrocities by Serbian forces, according to U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There's no question there have been horrible atrocities, thousands of deaths," said a U.S. official familiar with the CIA reports.
Those conclusions were passed on to Mr. Bush in his daily intelligence briefings, an official said.
But Marlin Fitzwater, Mr. Bush's chief spokesman, denied yesterday that the administration knew in detail of widespread atrocities being committed in Bosnia as early as June but publicly misrepresented its information as inconclusive.
"We didn't have any knowledge different than what everybody else had as well," Mr. Fitzwater said, according to the Associated Press. "There is an implication here that we knew something that everybody else didn't know. That's not true."
Early U.S. intelligence reports centered on conditions in towns and villages where Serb forces easily overwhelmed Muslim defenders. Since June, officials say that U.S. intelligence
provided Bush and U.N. officials with detailed accounts of an organized effort to displace and terrorize an estimated 500,000 Muslim Slavs in Bosnia.
While Secretary of State James A. Baker III at one point had referred to the "humanitarian nightmare" in Bosnia, neither he nor other administration officials in public had turned the world spotlight on Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the extent of the atrocities. One administration official said U.S. policy was aimed at pressuring Mr. Milosevic through diplomatic channels in concert with its European allies.
But behind the scenes, the U.S. intelligence effort established a direct link between the terror campaign and Mr. Milosevic, Western diplomats said. "It's pretty good evidence," said one diplomat, who refused to discuss details. Mr. Milosevic's staff offices were presumably targets for U.S. satellites that can intercept a variety of communications.
The administration has provided few details of its intelligence effort even to the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees.
"We didn't learn anything," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., after a private briefing of the committees by U.S. intelligence officials Aug. 7. Also disappointed was Sen. Jim Exon, D-Neb. "It is surprising to see how little information comes from an organization with such resources," Senator Exon said.
While senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they had concluded by June that widespread atrocities were occurring in the towns and villages of Bosnia, the Bush administration did not focus on Serbian concentration camps -- where Muslim prisoners were reportedly starved, beaten and randomly selected for execution -- until late July.
At one point, U.S. officials planned U-2 spy plane flights over the camps, but the operation was rejected as "too provocative" by the United Nations, U.S. officials said.
But in late July, Keyhole satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force were focused on the concentration camps. Even so, some U.S. officials say that U.S. intelligence failed to grasp the significance of the camps.
"The importance and the size of these camps are a logical outgrowth of displacing large numbers of Muslims," one official said. "The [Central Intelligence] Agency just blew it."
And although U.S. officials said that atrocities were not spotted at the time, intelligence experts are reviewing thousands of feet of videotape to determine if such activities were recorded but overlooked by analysts last month, according to U.S. officials.
The initial U.S. surveillance of the Serb camps late last month came at a time when Mr. Bush and top aides were saying little about them. Evidence produced by the entire intelligence effort -- including the "ethnic cleansing" of towns -- would appear to contradict the statements of surprise and outrage expressed by Mr. Bush, U.N. officials and other governments after disclosures of atrocities in the detention camps. Administration officials portrayed those reports as anecdotal.