U.S. mapping agency scrutinized after Chinese Embassy fiasco
May 14, 1999
From Correspondent Gene Randall
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the wake of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, many fingers have been pointing at one government bureau -- the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA).
A joint operation of the Pentagon and the CIA, NIMA provided a map that put the Chinese Embassy in the wrong area of the Yugoslav capital. Defense Secretary William Cohen said the mistake led to the accidental bombing of the embassy by NATO.
Although NIMA disclaims any responsibility, defense attorneys for the Marine aviators charged in last year's ski gondola tragedy in Italy said a NIMA map contributed to that disaster as well.
Twenty people died when a Marine jet clipped a ski lift cable, sending the gondola plunging to the ground. Defense attorneys contended that the cable was not on the NIMA map provided to the Marine pilots.
The errors associated with NIMA have led to questions from some in Congress about how well the agency is operating.
"I think it is working, but I don't think you could say it is working well -- not after such a glaring mistake," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in reference to the embassy disaster.
However, an intelligence official told CNN that the databases NIMA depended upon to make its maps of Belgrade "did not reflect the information necessary to avoid this tragedy."
Translation: Blame for what happened in Belgrade must be shared by the entire intelligence and defense community, not just NIMA.
Former CIA Director Robert Gates said there is no quick fix for these kinds of breakdowns -- but that increasing budgets for mapping operations would be a good start.
"Data-based issues, like mapping, tend to fall by the wayside when there is a crunch on resources," Gates said.
Shelby said that without reforms "the implicit message is that there will be more, not less, of these kinds of things that will pop up."
Yugoslavia says village death toll tops 100
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