At night, when the lawns are empty and the lamps along the walking paths are the only source of light, Topcider Park on the outskirts of Belgrade is a perfect meeting place for spies.
It was here in 1992, as the former Yugoslavia was erupting in ethnic violence, that a wary CIA agent made his way toward the park’s gazebo and shook hands with a Serbian intelligence officer.
Jovica Stanisic had a cold gaze and a sinister reputation. He was the intelligence chief for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and regarded by many as the brains of a regime that gave the world a chilling new term: “ethnic cleansing.”
But the CIA officer, William Lofgren, needed help. The agency was all but blind after Yugoslavia shattered into civil war. Fighting had broken out in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milosevic was seen as a menace to European security, and the CIA was desperate to get intelligence from inside the turmoil.
So on that midnight stroll, the two spies carved out a clandestine relationship that remained undisclosed: For eight years, Stanisic was the CIA’s main man in Belgrade. During secret meetings in boats and safe houses along the Sava River, he shared details on the inner workings of the Milosevic regime. He provided information on the locations of NATO hostages, aided CIA operatives in their search for grave sites and helped the agency set up a network of secret bases in Bosnia.
At the same time, Stanisic was setting up death squads for Milosevic that carried out a genocidal campaign, according to prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which was established by the U.N. Security Council in 1993 to try those responsible for serious human rights violations in the Balkan wars.
Now facing a trial at The Hague that could send him to prison for life, Stanisic has called in a marker with his American allies. In an exceedingly rare move, the CIA has submitted a classified document to the court that lists Stanisic’s contributions and attests to his helpful role. The document remains sealed, but its contents were described by sources to The Times.
The CIA’s Lofgren, now retired, said the agency drafted the document to show “that this allegedly evil person did a whole lot of good.” Lofgren, however, doesn’t claim to disprove the allegations against Stanisic.
“But setting the indictment aside,” he said, “there are things this man did that helped bring hostilities to an end and establish peace in Bosnia.”
Through his attorney, Stanisic, 58, declined to comment, citing the tribunal’s ban on communications with the media. But Stanisic has pleaded not guilty, and denies any role in creating the squads or even being aware of the crimes they committed.
The CIA’s effort puts it in the unusual position of serving as something of a character witness for a war crimes defendant. The agency declined to comment on the document. Because its contents are classified, the letter could be considered by the court only in closed session. Court officials said it was unclear whether the document would be of significant use to the Stanisic defense, or would come into play mainly in seeking a more lenient sentence if he is convicted.
Prosecution dubious of Stanisic claims
This account is based on dozens of interviews with current and former officials of U.S. and Serbian intelligence agencies, as well as documents obtained or viewed by The Times. Among them are official records of the Serbian intelligence service, and a seven-page account of that bloody period that Stanisic wrote while in prison in The Hague.
In that memo, Stanisic portrays himself as someone who sought to moderate Milosevic, and who worked extensively with the CIA to contain the crisis.
“I institutionalized cooperation with the U.S. intelligence community in spite of the notoriously bad relations between our two countries,” Stanisic writes. That collaboration, he continues, “contributed significantly to the de-escalation of the conflict.”
The chief prosecutor, Dermot Groome, says that Stanisic’s actions to help the CIA and counter Milosevic only underscore the power he had. In his opening argument, Groome said that the “ability to save lives is tragically the very same authority and the very same ability that [Stanisic] used . . . to take lives.”
Belgrade still bears the scars of war. Bombed-out buildings are scattered across the Serbian capital, including a charred concrete structure on Knez Milos Street that used to be the headquarters for Serbia’s State Security Service.
Stanisic used to occupy the corner office on the top floor. In his prime, he was in charge of 2,000 employees. He wore dark suits and sunglasses, a Balkan James Bond. His nickname was “Ledeni,” Serbian for “icy.”
Stanisic joined the Yugoslav service in 1975, when the country was still under the communist rule of Josip Broz Tito. He was never regarded as an ideologue or rabid nationalist. But he had a rare aptitude for espionage.
“Stanisic was not an ordinary intelligence officer,” said Dobrica Cosic, a writer and former dissident who was president of Serbia in 1992 and 1993. “He is an intellectual, not a radical policeman. He was educated and skilled, and he knew how to organize that service.”
Because of those skills, Milosevic made Stanisic his top spy, despite long-standing distrust between the two.
Milosevic had come to power by exploiting Serbian nationalistic fervor and religious animosity. He cast himself as the Serbs’ protector, a posture that resonated powerfully with people who still mark the day their ancestors were defeated by Ottoman Turks, who were mostly Muslim, in the 14th century.
In 1991, as ethnic violence escalated, Milosevic ordered the creation of secret paramilitary units, with names like Red Berets and Scorpions, that would roam the Balkans. They wore unmarked uniforms, were led by thugs and committed some of the worst atrocities of the war.
As the trial got underway last year, Groome showed photos of Stanisic posing with members of the special units. He played audio of intercepted communications in which Stanisic appears to refer to the units as his “boys.”
At one point, Groome introduced a videotape showing images of Muslim men and boys -- their hands bound with wire -- being led into the woods and shot, one by one, by members of the Scorpions.
“Jovica Stanisic established these units,” said Groome, an American lawyer. And Stanisic made sure “they had everything that they needed, including a license to clear the land of unwanted people, a license to commit murder.”
CIA saw no evidence of war crimes
Former members of the State Security Service dispute those allegations. “We were doing our jobs, according to the law,” said Vlado Dragicevic, who served for years as Stanisic’s deputy. “We never committed acts of genocide. On the contrary, we were trying to stop that.”
CIA officers who served in the region said that they had assumed Stanisic was no choirboy, but they never saw evidence that he was involved in war crimes. Instead, they viewed him as a key ally in a situation spinning rapidly out of control.
From early on, Stanisic was eager to cement his relationship with the CIA. At one of his meetings with Lofgren, he turned over a sheaf of documents, including diagrams of bomb shelters and other structures that Serbian companies had built in Iraq for Saddam Hussein.
But Stanisic also drew boundaries. He never took payment from the CIA, worked with the agency on operations or took steps that he would have considered a blatant betrayal of his boss.
Over time, Stanisic sought to move his relationship with the agency out of the shadows. Well after his secret meetings had started, Stanisic persuaded Milosevic to let him open contacts with the CIA as a back channel to the West. The midnight meetings in the park gave way to daylight sessions in Stanisic’s office.
The two spies shared a dark sense of humor. Lofgren liked to wander over to the window, aim his phone at the sky and joke that he was getting GPS coordinates for a missile strike.
In the letter to The Hague, submitted in 2004, the CIA describes Stanisic’s efforts to defuse some of the most explosive events of the Bosnian war.
In spring 1993, at CIA prodding, Stanisic pressured Ratko Mladic, military commander of the breakaway Serb republic in Bosnia, to briefly stop the shelling of Sarajevo.
Two years later, Stanisic helped secure the release of 388 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops who had been taken hostage, stripped of their uniforms and strapped to trees as human shields against NATO bombing runs. In his own written account, Stanisic said he negotiated the release “with the support of agency leadership.”
That same year, Stanisic tried to intervene when French pilots were shot down and taken captive. Mladic “refused to admit that he was holding the pilots,” Stanisic wrote. But “my service managed to discover the circumstances and location of their captivity,” and shared the information with the CIA and French authorities.
By then, the Clinton administration was engaged in an all-out diplomatic push to end the war. Stanisic accompanied Milosevic to Dayton, Ohio, for peace talks, then returned to Serbia to carry out key pieces of the accord.
It was left to Stanisic to get the president of Bosnia’s Serb republic, Radovan Karadzic, to sign a document pledging to leave office. And Stanisic helped the CIA establish a network of bases in Bosnia to monitor the cease-fire.
Doug Smith, the CIA’s station chief in Bosnia, recalled meeting with Stanisic and a group of disgusted Bosnian Serb officials in Belgrade. As Stanisic instructed them to cooperate with the CIA, Smith said, the assembled guests “shifted uneasily in their seats.”
Smith began meeting with Stanisic regularly, including once on a boat on the Sava. In typically dramatic fashion, Stanisic arrived late at the docks.
“He emerged out of the darkness with bodyguards” and spent much of the evening talking about his boss, Smith said. “He intensely disliked Milosevic. He went off on how awful Milosevic was -- dishonest and crooked.”
Asked whether Stanisic was capable of committing war crimes, Smith replied, “I think he would do as little bad as he could.”
At the time, CIA Director John M. Deutch was trying to clean up the agency’s image by cracking down on contacts with human rights violators. Years later, the “Deutch rules” were cited as a reason the agency hadn’t done better penetrating groups such as Al Qaeda.
But Deutch had no problems with Stanisic. He invited the Serbian to CIA headquarters in 1996, and an itinerary of the visit indicates that Stanisic got a warm welcome.
The Serbian spy chief was taken to hear jazz at the Blues Alley club in Georgetown, Va., and driven to Maryland’s eastern shore for a bird hunt. Deutch even presented Stanisic with a 1937 Parker shotgun, a classic weapon admired by collectors.
Deutch, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, declined to comment.
Stanisic’s expanding ties to the CIA became a source of friction with Milosevic, who worried that his top spy was plotting against him. In 1998, Stanisic was fired.
The ensuing years were chaotic. After a new campaign of violence against Kosovo, Milosevic was forced from office in 2000, arrested the next year and taken to The Hague, where he went on trial for war crimes and died of a heart attack in 2006. A series of political assassinations occurred amid suspicion that Stanisic was somehow still pulling the strings.
When Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic -- who had sent Milosevic to The Hague -- was assassinated in 2003, Stanisic was arrested and detained for three months. Then, without explanation, he too was sent to The Hague.
For the last five years, Stanisic has gone back and forth between Belgrade and the detention center in the Netherlands. His trial was postponed last year to allow him to return to Belgrade for treatment of an acute intestinal disorder that according to court records had caused substantial blood loss. If Stanisic’s health stabilizes, his trial is expected to resume this year.
Stanisic is still seen in Belgrade from time to time, occasionally greeted by well-wishers. But much of his life has crumbled. He is divorced from his wife, estranged from his children and spends alternating weeks in the hospital.
“The last time I saw him, he was connected to tubes,” said Dragicevic, Stanisic’s longtime deputy.
Sometimes Stanisic is in good spirits and talks of prevailing in his case. But most of the time, Dragicevic said, “he looks like a person who has already surrendered.”
“The person who was in charge of so many things, the person who was so very important and well-known, is now a very lonely one.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A chronology of events in the case of the Serbian spy chief
Born: July 30, 1950
April 1991: Stanisic and others in Serbian intelligence allegedly oversee establishment of “special units,” paramilitary groups later accused of atrocities against Bosnians and Croats.
1991: Special units allegedly “committed crimes in and attacked and took control of towns and villages” in Serb autonomous regions in Croatia.
1992: First meeting with CIA; begins clandestine cooperation with agency; turns over blueprints of bunkers built by Serb companies in Iraq.
March 1992 to 1995: Special units allegedly “committed crimes in and attacked and took control of towns and villages in the municipalities of Bijeljina, Bosanski Samac, Doboj, Sanski Most, Zvornik.” Simultaneously, Stanisic cooperates with CIA, providing information on Milosevic regime and conveying communications from the U.S. to his boss.
May-June 1995: Stanisic negotiates release of 388 U.N. hostages being held by Serb Republic in Bosnia.
June-July 1995: Stanisic orders Scorpions to Serb-controlled territory near Sarajevo. Scorpions capture Muslim men and boys fleeing Srebrenica. Scorpions take six male refugees into woods and execute them, videotaping the killings.
November 1995: Attends Dayton peace conference in the United States with Milosevic.
December 1995: Aids CIA in setting up clandestine bases in Bosnia to monitor cease-fire.
February 1996: Visits CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Meets with Director John Deutch, deputy George Tenet.
July 1996: Stanisic is sent to Pale to get Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to quit his position and withdraw from politics.
October 1998: Amid suspicions that he has become too close to the CIA, Stanisic is fired by Milosevic.
March-June 2003: Stanisic is arrested in Belgrade and transferred to The Hague.
2004: U.S. government submits CIA document to The Hague listing actions taken by Stanisic to help the West and defuse crisis in Balkans.
May-June 2008: Trial is adjourned; Stanisic is granted provisional release to seek medical treatment in Serbia.
Sources: International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia case information sheet; CIA sources; account Stanisic wrote in prison in October 2003