One day after a U.S. pilot mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade based on a bad map, top government officials stated that the fatal attack was “an anomaly that is unlikely to occur again.”
But the May 7 tragedy was no isolated incident.
The federal agency responsible for drawing the outdated map that led to the assault--killing three Chinese journalists and injuring 20 other people--has a record of providing military pilots with faulty navigational data.
Incomplete or inaccurate charts produced by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and its predecessor organization have played a role in at least a dozen accidents since 1985, some involving fatalities and loss of military aircraft, documents and interviews show. In the last 15 months, NIMA maps have been a factor in three tragedies in which 28 people have died, including the shearing of an Italian gondola cable by a Marine Corps jet.
Moreover, NIMA has had problems supplying its critical maps to combat aviators in a timely fashion. The agency has encountered other troubles: an exodus of senior analysts and cartographers, shortages in congressional funding and friction between intelligence and defense communities for its services.
NIMA officials say the agency has established a strong safety record, considering its enormous workload. In 1998 alone, the agency printed 23.5 million copies of maps and charts and produced 650,000 compact discs.
“NIMA mapping products are used with confidence every day by our military forces around the world as well as our national policy- and decision-makers,” agency spokeswoman Laura Snow said Friday in a written response to questions.
The agency’s maps came into question in February 1998 when a Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler on a routine training mission sliced a gondola cable at a ski area near Cavalese, Italy, sending 20 people plunging to their deaths. The aviators were flying with a NIMA map that failed to show the wires.
But virtually no attention has been given to a string of other incidents involving inaccurate government charts.
Fifteen days after the Italy catastrophe, a crew of five Navy fliers was killed in California’s Sequoia National Forest when their UH-1N Huey helicopter smashed into power lines. A military investigator determined that the wires should have appeared on the maps, noting that a crash involving the same power lines had killed two people three years earlier.
Such blunders are not uncommon, military accident reports show. One map had the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade located on the wrong street. Government maps have omitted power lines and other flight hazards or misplotted them. American troops at war have received outdated charts. A NIMA analyst missed signs that India was preparing to test nuclear weapons last year. A nautical map that led a Korean freighter to run aground in 1987 provided incorrect water depths off the coast of Brazil.
Report Faults Agency
An internal Air Force report, written on April 30, underscores the agency’s weaknesses.
“The current [Defense Department] system to generate and distribute imagery and mapping products for use in mission planning is broke,” wrote Lt. Col. Phil Meteer.
In March, Meteer met with American pilots during a trip to Europe to assess the military’s use of sophisticated computer and satellite images. Development of these products is a top priority for NIMA. But Meteer found that the pilots, who were preparing to go to war in the Balkans, could not get the materials they needed from the mapping agency.
The 48th Fighter Wing outside London “had ordered an entire set of NIMA products in December and had not received them [in] time to go to war in March,” Meteer wrote. He also found that crews that participated in the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq had to use imagery products that were “poor Xeroxed copies with pencil drawings on them.”
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, who opposed the formation of NIMA in 1996 from eight defense and intelligence divisions, criticized the agency’s miscues and failure to maintain current mapping data.
“I think what [NIMA] really needs is a quality-control program,” Woolsey said in an interview. “There has just been a lot of disruption and organizational difficulty in getting everything working smoothly.”
The shortcomings might be easily overlooked if NIMA were a federal department in charge of gathering statistics on the economy or keeping tabs on the number of housing starts. But the entire U.S. military, including battlefield commanders, fighter pilots and cruise missile operators, depends on NIMA’s work.
Air Force Capt. Brett Davis said he can no longer trust the accuracy of NIMA maps.
On April 17, 1997, Davis crashed his A-10 Thunderbolt into a 1,040-foot antenna tower near Nahunta, Ga., while returning to Moody Air Force Base. The $8.8-million plane rolled out of control, bursting into flames on impact. Davis, flying solo, was ejected and escaped with minor injuries.
Investigators cited inconsistent information on NIMA charts as a factor in the accident. Although the map used by Davis had been updated one month before the flight, it showed two towers instead of three.
“NIMA did not provide the pilots with complete information to update the charts used in this accident,” the investigation report noted.
Since the accident, Davis said he and his fellow squadron pilots question the accuracy of their official government maps.
“We felt like we had all the information we needed, and we didn’t,” Davis said.
While many accidents involving military aircraft are the result of pilot error, maps provided with faulty data make the demands on aviators more difficult.
It is difficult to determine how often NIMA maps are factors in accidents. The Navy Safety Center, for example, recorded 59 impacts of aircraft into unmarked obstacles since 1980. But the Navy could not say how many of the accidents involved NIMA maps.
A NIMA report commissioned after the Italy gondola tragedy noted in July that the agency’s system for collecting information to publish flight charts is “badly in need of overhauling” and “has not undergone a major change in 10 years.”
The same report acknowledged concerns within NIMA that its customers may lose “trust in the quality” of its products because of the “dominance of the inconsistencies” found in its charts. The report noted that the agency uses different standards in drawing maps of the same location, leading to contradictory information.
NIMA was created in 1996 by merging the 24-year-old Defense Mapping Agency with a hodgepodge of photographic analysts and intelligence personnel from seven other Pentagon and CIA branches.
Congress hoped that NIMA could provide the military and national security officials with up-to-the-minute maps and sophisticated computer images from reconnaissance satellites and spy planes while saving money.
“In general, NIMA is delivering high-quality images and maps to war fighters who have been extremely safe as a consequence and extremely effective as a consequence,” said Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “NIMA is performing in a way that they’ve got a lot of satisfied customers.”
NIMA boasts in its documents that the agency is “the single entity upon which the U.S. government relies to coherently manage the disciplines of imagery and mapping.”
The agency is located on a small campus of brick buildings outside Washington in Bethesda, Md. Other secret offices are nearly hidden in a run-down part of Washington’s Navy Yard.
In recent months, NIMA employees have been working virtually nonstop delivering maps of Kosovo and Iraq for use by senior Pentagon officials and military planners. The agency provides extensive reports on bombing damage of NATO airstrikes, updates on the refugee crisis and satellite intelligence on the movement of Serbian troops.
But the agency ran into trouble when it produced the equivalent of a Rand McNally street map for Belgrade.
The outdated map that led to the mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy was printed in 1997--after the embassy had moved to its present location in 1996--and reviewed last year. But no one noticed that the embassy was in the wrong place.
Questions After Error
The error shouldn’t have been difficult to detect: The Belgrade phone book had the correct address, as did tourist maps.
The bombing remains under investigation. Still unanswered is exactly how NIMA’s databases, which include intelligence information, failed to have such basic information as a public address.
The agency’s explanation: “No database available to NIMA identified the targeted location as the location of the Chinese Embassy,” said Snow, the NIMA spokeswoman.
The agency director, Lt. Gen. James C. King, declined to be interviewed for this story. The Times obtained a memo sent to agency employees and contractors on Wednesday, in which King accepted blame for the bombing of the embassy instead of the intended target--the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement.
“Our work, which used the best available information, was performed under existing, approved procedures,” King wrote. “Nonetheless, shortcomings in our work contributed to the unintended attack against the Chinese embassy.”
Shortly before midnight on May 8--the day after the bombing--Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and CIA Director George J. Tenet issued a rare joint statement concluding that the tragedy was “an anomaly.” Therefore, they added, “NATO authorities intend to continue and intensify the [bombing] campaign.”
NIMA was not the only agency at fault. The CIA analysts who picked the target and the NATO commanders who approved it also failed to discover the mistake.
In the wake of the Belgrade debacle, the Defense Department announced last week that it would come up with new procedures for updating maps.
The accidental bombing was not the first operation in which the map-making agency had faltered in a combat mission.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, NIMA’s predecessor agency distributed outdated maps that contributed in part to a fatal “friendly fire” incident, the General Accounting Office noted.
In 1983, troops were forced to rely on tourist maps during the invasion of Grenada because most of the military charts did not reach them until the operation was nearly over.
Other incidents illustrate how incomplete NIMA maps pose potential safety hazards for routine training flights.
Jeff Edwards, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, investigated the Italy gondola accident for the legal defense team representing the Marine Corps aviators. As part of his review, Edwards met with three NIMA analysts in St. Louis; he said that none could explain how NIMA ensured the accuracy of its charts.
“In short, NIMA reminded me of a fast-food place,” Edwards wrote in a Nov. 20, 1998, memo. “If you knew how the food was prepared, you wouldn’t eat there.”
Edwards, a former naval aviator, added: “It sends chills down my spine to think that I relied on this information to keep me from hitting a tower or other obstruction.”
Italian Map Showed Cable
Although NIMA’s chart failed to show the gondola cable--agency officials say the wires weren’t tall enough to require inclusion and their charts warned against low flying--it was clearly marked on an Italian aviation map.
Yet NIMA noted in its own investigation of the incident that the Italian Charting Authority suggested “this incident would not have occurred if the pilots had been provided [with] the Italian equivalent, [which] depicted the cableway.”
Joseph Schweitzer, the former Marine captain who charted the course of the fatal gondola flight, blamed NIMA for failing to mark the gondola cable.
“What you can’t see, you can’t avoid,” said Schweitzer, who recently pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for destroying a videotape of the flight. “We call those killer wires.”
The pilot, Richard Ashby of Mission Viejo, was acquitted in a jury trial of manslaughter charges for his role in the accident, but later was convicted of obstruction.
NIMA maps were available to the five helicopter crewmen who lifted off shortly after 10 a.m. on Feb. 18, 1998, from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center near Ridgecrest. The mission was a routine training flight over the Sierra Nevada.
The co-pilot, Lt. Daniel Mondon, didn’t know that his wife was four days’ pregnant with their firstborn, a boy. He would never find out.
Less than 90 minutes into the flight, the chopper clipped a span of power lines camouflaged by the terrain of Sequoia National Forest. The helicopter plummeted 1,200 feet into the Kern River canyon and erupted into flames, killing everyone aboard.
The Southern California Edison lines were not depicted on the NIMA map, even though a two-man crew filming a music video for the pop singer Meat Loaf died in 1995 when their helicopter crashed into the same power lines. The wires were 209 feet above the ground at the point of impact.
The investigator assigned to the crash, Maj. Patrick S. Blubaugh, concluded that the wires should have been noted on military maps.
“Although the mishap power lines have been ‘strung’ for almost 50 years, they should have been considered a hazard and placed on all charts and maps following the 1995 civilian helicopter crash into the same power lines,” Blubaugh wrote in a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Sharon Linquist, whose only son, Mondon, died in the crash, said of the omission: “It’s just insane.”
The families of the Navy fliers have sued Southern California Edison, saying the company is responsible for the accident. The suit is pending; Edison has since moved the wires.
Accident investigation reports show that the issue of marking power lines has worried safety investigators for years. “This is far from the first time an aircraft has collided with suspended power lines,” an internal Navy safety report concluded about the California accident. “To minimize the probability of recurrence, it’s essential that leaders and air crew take the time to read, study and pass on the costly lessons learned. Only we can make it the last wire strike mishap.”
Nor was it the first time a military map had failed to include wires that were involved in a previous crash.
Steel logging cables stretching 650 feet above the Kanno Gawa River in Japan weren’t marked on the military map given to Navy pilot Paul Haffen on Aug. 12, 1987. Haffen’s EA-6B Buno severed the cables on a training flight. The wires had been installed five days earlier.
“It is extremely fortunate that tragedy was averted in this case,” investigators concluded.
But four years later a Marine AV-8B Harrier jet hit the same cables, causing $148,000 in damage. No one was injured. The cables still were not depicted on military charts.
“You would think if someone hit them the first time, they would mark it,” said Haffen, now a Delta Air Lines pilot. “You’re counting on the maps to be right.”
A military investigation concluded that the “failure to properly warn pilots of the hazard of uncharted cables . . . directly contributed” to the 1991 mishap.
NIMA’s nautical charts also were a factor in a accident at sea. In 1987, the Hyundai New World, a 200,000-ton South Korean freighter on its maiden voyage, ran aground off the coast of Brazil.
The captain was relying on a nautical chart purchased from NIMA’s predecessor that incorrectly listed the water depth. Although the mapping agency had received a notice that the water levels had changed, it forgot to update that information when it distributed the chart, court testimony revealed.
Owners of the ship sued the U.S. government in 1989 for $60 million. The U.S. map-making agency said that it could not possibly verify all of the information it received from foreign sources for its charts.
The case dragged on for years until Congress passed legislation in 1994 protecting the mapping agency from such lawsuits.
On its maps, NIMA issues a standard warning that it cannot guarantee all of the information:
“CAUTION: Vertical obstructions, including power lines, have been extracted from the most reliable sources available; however, there is no assurance that all are shown or that their locations or heights are exact.”
The agency’s standard is to plot obstacles that reach 200 feet or higher, but military officials have requested that NIMA provide information on hazards as low as 50 feet.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Tom Wills said that he proposed while working at NIMA that the agency gather databases of wires and poles from power companies. But Wills said he could not persuade NIMA officials to acquire the information.
Wills criticized NIMA for producing maps that “are created more for orientation and navigation than for safety hazards.”
The NIMA report that looked into its aeronautical program after the gondola accident in Italy found that budget and staff cutbacks had taken a toll on the agency.
Some “clerical personnel lack the technical training or managerial skills to remain competent in the field of information gathering,” the report said.
Last year, NIMA managers decided to assign only one full-time analyst to monitor activities in India. In an oversight that shook up the intelligence community, the analyst failed to detect signs that India was preparing to test nuclear weapons.
“The decisions may have been wrong, but no one was asleep at the switch, and no one was negligent,” said Snow, the agency spokeswoman.
Retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, former director of the National Security Agency, contends that NIMA, as well as its predecessor, never has had enough money to do its job. “Essentially with intelligence you get what you pay for,” he said.
Much of the responsibility for the government’s map-making woes rests with Congress and the Defense Department for “pathetically” underfunding the agency, said Bob Lockwood, defense advisor to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
On Thursday, during a congressional debate on intelligence funding, Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) disclosed that the 2000 fiscal-year budget provides an increase for NIMA. The amount is not available because the intelligence budget is classified.
A year ago, the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence blasted management of the agency’s finances when it it sought approval for a proposed $740-million budget--approximately $100 million less than NIMA’s predecessor received in 1995, records show. The panel wrote that “NIMA either simply does not want to tell Congress of its dealings, or it simply doesn’t know how money is being spent and managed. Neither option is good.”
In 1996 a Defense Department audit criticized NIMA for excessive construction costs at a time when the agency was cutting back its work force. Although NIMA is moving away from paper maps in favor of digital data and an increasing reliance on outside contractors, the agency in September opened a $35.5-million printing plant in the district of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
The creation of NIMA in 1996 also caused friction between the agency’s two branches--the intelligence analysts and the military cartographers.
A 1997 employee survey, conducted anonymously, revealed some of the tensions:
“We are CIA employees. The more we see of the [Department of Defense] way of doing things, the less we like it,” one worker wrote.
The formation of NIMA set off a wave of early retirements and transfers by disgruntled senior analysts. The agency now has about 7,000 staffers--down from 9,000.
“I think it was a mistake to move the CIA analysts out of the CIA and put them into what was essentially a complete defense agency,” said Woolsey, the former CIA chief. “They didn’t want to be there, and a lot of them left.”
Members of Congress say they now have the agency on a tight leash.
NIMA has “a lot of management problems to resolve,” said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “And they are making good progress, but they have certainly not completed the job.”
Times staff writers Ralph Vartabedian and Richard Simon and researchers Janet Lundblad, Robin Cochran and Tricia Ford contributed to this article.
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Two Maps and a Tragedy
The Marine Corps pilot whose jet struck a ski gondola cable last year in Italy, killing 20 people, used a U.S. military map which failed to show the cable. An Italian aviation chart, right, clearly shows the obstruction.
Sources: Defense Mapping Agency, U.S.; AMI-CNBBQ, Italy
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When Maps Failed
Government map mistakes--ranging from misplotted or missing obstacles such as towers and power lines to outdated information--have played a role in at least a dozen accidents, some deadly, since 1985
Source: Navy Safety Center, U.S. military records, court documents, Freedom of Information Act