Faulty intel can cost (millions of) lives

It is almost axiomatic in warfare that the first reports are always wrong. Researching the Cuban missile crisis, I was startled by the erroneous intelligence reaching President Kennedy about Soviet actions and intentions. Fortunately, the former U.S. Navy lieutenant had a skeptical, questioning mind ("the military always screws up" was a favorite expression), or we might have ended up in a nuclear war.

Lyndon Johnson ordered his fateful escalation of the Vietnam war in August 1964 on the basis of mistaken reports claiming that North Vietnam had attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, we all know what happened when George W. Bush acted upon deeply flawed intelligence claims of weapons of mass destruction supposedly possessed by Saddam Hussein.

When it comes to genocide and mass atrocities, policy-makers often believe what they want to believe -- using erroneous intelligence either to build a case for military intervention or to justify a passive, hands-off approach. Let me illustrate what I mean by focusing on the false reporting of a single incident immediately prior to the capture of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic. In this case, the faulty intel was to have deadly consequences for the Muslim population of the so-called "safe area."

Shortly after dawn on July 10, a United Nations armored personnel carrier protecting the approaches to the "safe area" came under fire., causing it to skid off the mountain road. A Dutchbat officer, Captain Peter Hageman, reported at 0713 that he had been attacked by the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica who were in the area. He filed a report which went all the way up the UNPROFOR chain of command, first to Zagreb and then to New York.

It took Hageman several hours to conclude that in fact he had come under fire from Bosnian Serb positions. He radioed in a corrected report, which got lost somewhere in the U.N. bureaucracy. On the afternoon of July 10 -- more than 12 hours after the initial incident -- Security Council members were mistakenly informed that the Muslims had fired on Dutchbat positions. U.N. officials also erroneously reported that the Serbs had stopped shelling Srebrenica, and failed to mention Dutchbat requests for close air support.

Security Council members seized on the faulty intel to block calls for action against Mladic's men, pending a full investigation of the situation. By the time this was all sorted out, Srebrenica had already fallen.

A subsequent United Nations report, written in 1999, concluded that some of the misinformation reaching the Security Council "can be attributed to problems with reporting from the field." But it also cited "a more general tendency to assume that the parties were equally responsible for the transgressions that occurred." Attributing misdeeds to all sides turned out to be the ideal excuse for inaction.

July 10 probably represented the last opportunity for the United Nations to use air power to prevent the fall of the "safe area" to the Bosnian Serbs. But there were no air strikes that day. The following day, July 11, Mladic personally captured the United Nations vehicle abandoned by Captain Hageman. He joked that "we are saving UNPROFOR" -- the official title of the peacekeeping force -- and ordered one of his men to pose for photographs in a U.N. helmet.

The video below captures the moment: a United Nations vehicle that has run into a ditch; a Bosnian Serb tank attempting to clear it out of the way; a gloating, triumphant Mladic. All in all, a depressing epitaph for a failed international peacekeeping mission.

Mario Tama/Getty Images