President Clinton secretly gave a green light to covert Iranian arms shipments into Bosnia in 1994 despite a United Nations arms embargo that the United States was pledged to uphold and the administration's own policy of isolating Tehran globally as a supporter of terrorism, according to senior administration officials and other sources.
Two top U.S. diplomats, acting on instructions from the White House and the State Department, told Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in early 1994 that the United States would not object to the creation of an arms pipeline that would channel the weapons through Croatia and into Bosnia-Herzegovina for the forces of the Muslim-led government fighting in the bloody civil war.
According to the U.S. sources, Tudjman raised the idea of the secret shipments and asked what the American response would be. At the time, the U.S. was publicly committed to the arms embargo, and America's allies in Europe were concerned that a weapons influx would escalate the conflict and lead to revenge attacks against their peacekeeping troops in the region.
But after consultations with National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the two U.S. diplomats--Charles Redman and Peter W. Galbraith--relayed to Tudjman that there would be no U.S. protest over the smuggling operation.
Specifically, the U.S. officials were told to say they had "no instructions" concerning Iranian arms shipments--a diplomatic way of saying America would not object. Clinton directly participated in the decision, a senior administration official said.
Thus opened a new chapter in U.S. policy toward Bosnia, one that has remained secret until now and has had important consequences both for the combatants in the long-running war and for the nations, including the United States, attempting to deal with it.
After the decision, Tudjman was free to allow the Iranians to launch large-scale arms transfers through Croatia. The operation continued until January of this year, even after nearly 20,000 American troops began to be deployed as peacekeepers in Bosnia, Clinton administration officials said. The weapons helped fortify the badly outgunned forces of the Muslim-led government as well as the Croatians, who took a large cut of the shipments, until they were able to fight a better-armed Bosnian Serb army to a standstill.
The support also increased Iran's links with the Bosnians, which continue ominously to this day. Some Islamic fighters slipped in with the weapons and established operations.
Meanwhile, U.S. government officials not in on the secret policy shift were left in confusion. With its spy satellites trained on the region, the Central Intelligence Agency discovered the smuggling and came to wonder whether certain State Department and National Security Council officials were running an illegal covert operation reminiscent of the Iran-Contra affair, sources said.
Then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey took the evidence to the White House, prompting a top-secret six-month investigation by the Intelligence Oversight Board, the small White House panel responsible for probing wrongdoing in the intelligence community. It delivered a secret verdict that determined no laws were violated. Elsewhere, speculation and grumbling spread, particularly in Europe, that the United States was somehow violating the embargo and reneging on its pledge to uphold it. The White House repeatedly denied facilitating arms shipments to the Muslim-led government but never acknowledged its real role.
"This case is very, very sensitive and very highly classified," former White House counsel Abner Mikva, who formally referred the case to the Intelligence Oversight Board in 1994, said in an interview.
Administration officials insist that the decision on the arms shipments was justified. The United States was always sympathetic to the Muslims, who bore the brunt of Serbian territorial aggression, and amenable to easing their plight short of violating the embargo.
"The policy throughout this administration up until the expiration of the arms embargo [the ban on small arms ended in March] was that we fully abided by the terms of the arms embargo, and we did nothing to violate it or circumvent it," said a senior administration official who was authorized to discuss the matter after The Times learned of it.
"That being said, when the issue did arise, when we were approached by the Croatians as to whether we would object if they acquiesced to Iranian shipments, we took the position that we would take no position in response," the official said.
Nevertheless, the secret arrangement has left the administration in an awkward position. Among its allies and political critics, it could be open to charges of duplicity or lack of candor on a major foreign policy issue.
More immediately, in Bosnia, the administration is now confronted with a clear strengthening of the Iranian influence it had tried to contain. At the time the White House was giving the green light to the Iranian arms shipments, the administration was putting pressure on its allies to isolate Iran and calling on them to participate in trade and economic sanctions against Tehran.
Iran had long been eager to take on a larger role in helping the embattled Muslims in the civil war, and the Croatian pipeline offered a prime opportunity.
With the tacit U.S. approval, American officials said, the arms pipeline grew into a large and well-organized airlift operating through Turkey and Croatia, supplying thousands of tons of small arms, mortars, antitank weapons and other light equipment.
The Croatian government took a large cut--as much as 30%--for its cooperation, U.S. officials said. The weapons not only helped the ill-equipped army of the Muslim-led Bosnian government to stay in the field despite the U.N. embargo, but it also aided the Croatian military in the months leading up to its 1995 invasion of the Croatian region of Krajina and its subsequent defeat of Croatian Serb forces there, administration officials said.
The Iranian link that grew with the shipments is now an obstacle to the implementation of the 4-month-old peace accord, said U.S. officials, who are relying on the pact to bring about a permanent end to the conflict. The administration has demanded repeatedly that the Bosnian government expel the Iranian military advisors who helped the Muslim-led government when the West would not, and Bosnia is dragging its feet on complying.
"The Iranians were there when we weren't--in the Bosnians' darkest hour, when we were just wringing our hands," a senior State Department official said sardonically. "Now we're saying, 'Abandon this person who helped you, and trust us.' The Bosnians aren't buying it."
When told of the secret Clinton policy, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, secretary of state in the Bush administration and a frequent critic of Clinton administration policy, termed it "the height of insanity" and added: "We are inviting Bosnian-Islamic connections with a terrorist state that wishes us as much damage as they can possibly inflict upon us."
As part of its effort to keep its Iranian arms policy secret, the Clinton administration did not notify Congress of its decision.
In fact, at the time Clinton was fighting strenuously to defeat congressional efforts to unilaterally lift the U.N. arms embargo so that the Muslim-led government could be armed openly and allowed to defend itself.
Clinton's critics in Congress maintained that getting an "even playing field" in the war for the lightly armed Muslim-led government troops was worth the damage the U.S. would suffer in its relationship with its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations.
But the administration asserted that the negative effects were too great and that it would abide by the embargo. The administration cited throughout 1994 and 1995 the allies' position that the international peacekeeping troops, who were protecting civilians and providing humanitarian aid in Bosnia, would become targets of Serbian reprisals if Western arms began to flow to the Muslim-led government. If the embargo was lifted, the peacekeepers would have to be evacuated--an effort requiring a massive force of U.S. troops, Clinton argued.
Publicly, the administration stood by that position. But the revelation of the secret Croatian smuggling channel now shows that the president had found a third approach: an official policy that upheld the embargo, paired with a private one that undercut it.
Administration officials now seek to downplay the impact of their policy decision, but the go-ahead from the White House clearly played a role in the creation of the Iranian arms pipeline, intelligence and other sources say.
In September 1992, the Bush administration received intelligence showing that an Iranian plane loaded with weapons had landed in Croatia despite the embargo. The administration ordered the filing of a demarche, or official protest, with the Croatian government; the Croatians responded by seizing the 747 and the weapons.
"We raised hell," Eagleburger recalled. "We made it very clear that we were adamantly opposed to this going on. There was no question in the Bush administration of where we were on this subject."
That stance was a major impediment for the Muslim-led Bosnian government and the Iranians. And it left them with few alternatives.
Besides its long border with Croatia, Bosnia's only other land borders are with Serbia and Montenegro, its bitter enemies in the Balkan civil war. Some maritime smuggling along the Adriatic Sea also occurred, although large-scale sea smuggling was difficult to hide from the U.N. and NATO warships charged with enforcing the arms embargo.
But Clinton, while publicly upholding the embargo policy, was sympathetic to the Muslims' predicament, having spoken out for helping them in his 1992 presidential campaign.
And privately, many key officials in the administration were bitter and angry over what they saw as the West's abandonment of the Muslim-led government.
"The Bosnians always pleaded with us, publicly and privately, to lift the arms embargo. But we were never in any position to give them assurances. It was nothing we could do anything about," said a senior U.S. diplomat.
Tudjman, the Croatian president, provided the answer. He approached the two American diplomats after the U.S. helped broker a negotiated settlement of the conflict between the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims. The two sides formally signed agreements creating a new federation of their warring parties in Washington in March 1994.
"Tudjman approached us, and that kind of forced the issue--of deciding consciously, rather than passively" to allow Iranian smuggling, said one administration official.
The administration was initially reluctant because of the risk of enhancing Iran's presence in Bosnia, the official said. But in the end the green light was given because of the Muslims' need and because the administration felt the shipments would help cement the Muslims' fledgling alliance with the Croatians against the Serbs.
Also, the White House believed that Tudjman, as a result of his alliance with the Muslims, would probably proceed with the smuggling anyway.
The proposition "was never something that pleased anyone," said one senior U.S. diplomat. "But there it was. The Bosnians were desperate."
Redman, then the chief American negotiator in the Balkans, and Galbraith, U.S. ambassador to Croatia, relayed the signal to Tudjman, administration sources said. Redman, who is now U.S. ambassador to Germany and who is planning to leave the government this summer, declined to comment about the events. Galbraith also refused to comment.
By November 1994, Clinton, under pressure from Congress to lift the embargo, publicly announced that the U.S. would no longer enforce the arms ban. He did not mention that that had been the secret policy for months, or that it was a carefully orchestrated element of an ongoing Iranian arms smuggling operation.
In the meantime, despite the administration's public commitment to the embargo, America's European allies were becoming suspicious.
Administration officials repeatedly denied the allies' suggestions of American involvement in some kind of covert arms program, including French charges that the U.S. was directly participating in airdrops of weapons into the Tuzla area in northeastern Bosnia.
But Washington was never able to convince the French or British. Sources say that Peter Tarnoff, U.S. undersecretary of state, was told by one European diplomat: "We don't believe you."
Still, knowledge of the U.S. policy decision was a closely guarded secret within the State Department. One State Department official noted that during the period that the Croatian pipeline was operating unmolested, U.S. embassies in other countries such as nearby Bulgaria were issuing demarches when they ran across arms shipments intended for the former Yugoslav federation. U.S. ambassadors in those countries were apparently not in on the secret.
CIA Blows the Whistle
In the end, it was the CIA, also cut out of the loop, that first blew the whistle on the covert Bosnia policy.
In the summer and fall of 1994, sources said, senior intelligence officials began to notice signs of a large airlift operation on spy satellite photographs.
Photographs showed aircraft on runways in Turkey, and then a day or two later, the same aircraft on runways in Zagreb and other airports in Croatia. Photos showed the planes' cargo being trucked overland across the Croatian-Bosnian border, sources said. Reports from other intelligence sources convinced the CIA that the shipments were originating in Iran or being purchased and shipped with Iranian backing.
CIA sources say they saw about eight flights each month carrying large amounts of munitions, sometimes on chartered Russian-built cargo jets.
Soon, officials began to conclude that the effort was too big to be going on without the "active acquiescence" of the administration, one source said.
The key piece of evidence came when one of the diplomats involved in the policy decision--Galbraith--made remarks to the CIA's station chief in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, that left an impression he knew about the smuggling, several intelligence sources said.
"It was like a lot of puzzle pieces we had been seeing finally started to fall into place and make sense," one source said.
The station chief, worried that Galbraith, an outspoken proponent of arming the Muslims, might be running an unauthorized covert operation, quickly reported the statements to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Senior CIA officials took the evidence to Woolsey and also created a formal "paper trail" to make sure that they could not be accused later of trying to cover up the matter.
"I wanted a record, a paper trail, showing that I had found that something was going on and I was not going to ignore it," said one source at the CIA, which was harshly criticized for its role in covert operations during the Reagan administration.
In meetings with senior CIA officials, Woolsey seemed genuinely shocked by the evidence and quickly took it to the White House. "He either didn't know about it or was doing the best acting job I've ever seen," one source said.
Woolsey met with Lake, who already knew about the policy decision but brought in then-White House counsel Mikva to deal with the matter. Mikva referred it to the Intelligence Oversight Board for investigation. The board has four members, all Clinton appointees unaffiliated with individual intelligence agencies.
In an interview, IOB Chairman Anthony Harrington, a Washington attorney in private practice, said the board began a classified investigation in November 1994. It examined whether the administration had conducted an illegal covert action by failing to issue a written "presidential finding"--a classified report that legally must be filed to explain the action's purpose--and by failing to notify the intelligence oversight committees in Congress.
No Direct Assistance Found
Harrington said the board concluded in May, in consultation with Mikva, that no U.S. laws had been broken. The administration's actions did not constitute a covert action under the legal definition of the term, so no "finding" or congressional notification was legally required, Harrington said.
"We did not find that U.S. officials directly assisted or were involved in arms shipments," Harrington said. The IOB determined that the law gave leeway to U.S. diplomats to conduct secret diplomacy free from strict congressional oversight.
Knowledge of the IOB investigation was tightly held in the administration. Harrington said the results were reported only to Clinton, Mikva and "very senior" officials at the CIA and State Department. Congress' intelligence committees were not informed until this week, after inquiries by The Times.
The legal status of the policy decision may have been resolved for now, but the delayed effects of the policy are still reverberating in Bosnia.
In recent months, U.S. officials have decried continuing evidence of Iranian influence in Bosnia, which could further threaten the plan for a stable new federation. The evidence included a training camp for foreign fighters. There were also signs of preparations for terrorist activity against NATO-led peacekeeping troops.
In mid-March, a State Department spokesman issued another official appeal to Bosnia to sever its Iranian ties so that the West could go forward with plans to arm troops of the Muslim-led government.
"We've stressed to the Bosnian government that their involvement with Iran in arming the Bosnian military would be detrimental to stability in the region and to Bosnia's relations with the U.S.," the statement said. "We've been quite clear on that."
Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington and Tracy Wilkinson, recently on assignment in Zagreb, contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
U.S. diplomats told Croatia in early 1994 that the United States would not object to the creation of an arms pipeline that would channel Iranian weapons through Croatia and into Bosnia for the Muslim-led government forces fighting the civil war. It came despite a U.N. embargo that the United States pledged to uphold.
Croatia: Shipments then moved by road
BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Weapon's destination
TURKEY: Transport aircraft first spotted here
IRAN: Origin of arms shipments
How U.S. Was Involved
The arms shipments to Bosnia-Herzegovina through Croatia apparently were first detected in 1992. Here are some key moments in the arms transfers:
March, 1992: Bosnia-Herzegovina declares independence from the former Yugoslavia, triggering the war.
Spring 1992: Serbian forces begin a campaign of systematically killing Muslin and Croatian families.
May 30, 1992: European and Westerns nations impose arms embargo.
August 10, 1992: Presidential candidate Bill Clinton says the West should not rule out lifting its arms embargo. The United States should consider granting the Bosnians, "a greater capacity to defend themselves." Then-President Bush says, "I don't think the area need more arms; I think it needs less arms."
September, 1992: U.S. spy photographs show an Iranian 747 on a runway in Zagreb, Croatia, and United States discovers it is loaded with arms destined for Bosnia. The Bush Administration issues a formal protest to Croatia. Croatia seizes the aircraft, bringing a halt to Iranian arms smuggling through Croatia.
October, 1992: U.N. human rights investigator warns that the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina are "virtually threatened with extrermination" unless outsiders act to save them.
January 1993: Vance Owen peace treaty, which gives the Serbs 43% of Bosnia, fails.
February-March 1994: As Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina reach agreement on a federation and alliance, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman approaches two U.S. diplomats, Charles Redman, chief U.S. negotiator in the Balkans, and U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, to ask how the Clinton Administration would respond if Croatia allows an Iranian arms smuggling operation to begin. President Clinton, along with National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, instruct Redman and Galbraith to tell Tudjman that the United States will not protest the shipments.
Summer-Fall 1994: Spy photographs tip CIA that arms are being airlifted from Turkey to Croatia. The arms are then being transported by land to Bosnia. Other intelligence convinces CIA that the arms are being smuggled by Iran.
Fall 1994: U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith in Croatia makes statements to CIA station chief that indicated that Galbraith knows about arms shipments.
Oct. 28, 1994: United States formally submits a resolution to the Security Council to lift the ban on arms sales to Bosnia.
Fall 1994: CIA takes evidence to then CIA Director James Woolsey. Woolsey discusses arms shipments with White House National Security Advisor Anthony Lake.
November 1994: Intelligence Oversight Board begins investigation of White House policy decision.
Nov. 15, 1994: Deadline set by Congress for the U.N. Security Council to lift the embargo multilaterally. U.S. troops are prohibited from enforcing the embargo.
Dec. 8, 1994: Clinton offers to send up to 20,000 U.S. ground troops to help evacuate the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina if the allies decide to withdraw.
May, 1995: Intelligence Oversight Board investigation concludes no covert action was made in arms shipments and no U.S. laws were broken.
Aug. 11, 1995: President Clinton vetoes legislation requiring the United States to defy the U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia--Herzegovina, arguing that the politically popular measure would backfire by increasing atrocities, torpedoing diplomacy and ultimately converting the complex ethnic war into "an American responsibility."
Nov. 21, 1995: Dayton peace treaty is signed, ending four years of fighting. An estimated 250,000 people have been killed, 2 million refugees created.
The smuggled weapons included:
* AK-47 rifles
* Antitank weapons
* Shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles
Researched by D'JAMILA SALEM and JAMES RISEN / Los Angeles Times