- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
Last month, former Army officer William Bennett was found murdered after being out with his wife on an early morning walk in a residential neighborhood in Lansdowne, Virginia. His wife Cynthia was badly injured but survived the March 22nd attack, which is being investigated by local and federal authorities.
In 1999, sources bring to our attention, Bennett was a retired Army lieutenant colonel working at the CIA on contract as a targeter during the 78-day NATO air war on Kosovo. He was one of the people, according to a former U.S. intelligence source, found responsible by the Agency for feeding the target into the system that resulted in the May 7, 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
CIA spokesman George Little told the Loudoun Independent that Bennett left his job at the Agency in 2000.
The former U.S. intelligence source says Bennett was fired as a consequence of the CIA investigation into how the Chinese embassy was targeted.
On April 8, 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that the CIA “has fired one employee and sanctioned six others, including a senior official, in the first official punishment of those involved in the deadly incident. …The State Department informed the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Saturday of the disciplinary actions by the CIA … The CIA declined to identify those who were disciplined for the bombing, which killed three Chinese civilians and wounded 27 others. But a U.S. official said the agent who was fired ‘was the one who selected the target . . . and essentially put the X on the map in the wrong place.’"
According to the former intelligence source, that one person fired by the CIA over the incident was Bennett.
The CIA would not confirm that. “When it comes to Bennett, the CIA has not commented on what his responsibilities were as a contractor, noting only that his service with the Agency ended in 2000,” CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano told Foreign Policy Saturday.
Gimigliano would not comment on whether extra security precautions were being advised for the other CIA officials who were reported as having been sanctioned by the CIA for the incident.
The bombing of the Chinese embassy was immediately declared a terrible mistake by the U.S. government, but it caused severe diplomatic strain on U.S. relations with Beijing. The U.S. government said the bombing of the Chinese embassy was the result in part of targeting based on old maps, that did not note that the Chinese embassy had moved to nearby the targeted location, the headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement.
“According to administration, defense and intelligence officials, the bombing was caused by a fundamentally flawed process for trying to locate the directorate’s headquarters in the New Belgrade section of the Yugoslav capital,” the New York Times reported in 2000. “Armed with only an address, 2 Bulevar Umetnosti, the officer who was dismissed used an unclassified military map to try to pinpoint the building’s location, based on a limited knowledge of addresses on a parallel street.”
“On the map, which the National Imagery and Mapping Agency produced in 1997, the building that turned out to be the embassy was not identified,” the Times report continued. “Instead, the map showed the embassy in its former location in central Belgrade. After a location was identified, the target was discussed during at least three meetings among C.I.A.officials, none of whom, evidently, questioned the identification process, the officials said. The target was then turned over to Pentagon officials, who, also without questioning it, put it on a list of targets to bomb in Belgrade.”
“It was the first and last target the C.I.A. selected during the war, Mr. Tenet testified last year,” the Times’ report said.
“China expressed strong dissatisfaction today with CIA disciplinary action taken against several employees in connection with the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and once again rejected U.S. conclusions that human error caused the attack,” the Washington Post reported days after the CIA announced the disciplinary action against the seven officers. “Beijing said it was not appeased by Saturday’s announcement."
The FBI has reportedly joined the Loudon County Sheriff’s office in investigating Bennett’s murder.
Update: More recently, before retiring, the Washington Post previously reported, Bennett, 57, had done stints as a contract worker, including training troops in Iraq. Cynthia Bennett, who had been hospitalized since the attack, is the director of procurement for the architect of the U.S. Capitol.
Update II: A CIA official said Monday, "At this point, there is absolutely no indication that Mr. Bennett’s murder had anything to do with his service with the army or the CIA. Naturally, you’d want to double-check with law enforcement, as it’s their investigation."
A spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office told Foreign Policy Monday: "All I can say at this point is, We haven’t ruled out any angle. Are there indications leading us in their direction? There is no indication leading us in that direction at this point but we certainly can’t rule it out. Where we are in the investigation, we can’t rule anything out." He said the LCSO has 13 investigators devoted full time to the case, and is being assisted by other federal agencies, including the FBI’s Washington field office. He said last he heard as of Friday, Cynthia Bennett was still hospitalized in critical condition.
UPDATE III: The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office said in an April 7 update that they have now begun to be able to communicate with Cynthia Bennett and are seeking four to five individuals: "Loudoun County Sheriff’s Investigators have begun communicating with a Lansdowne woman who was brutally attacked last month on Riverside Parkway. … Loudoun Deputies were initially called to the area around 5:38 a.m. on Sunday, March 22, 2009, for a report of a suspicious vehicle. The complainant stated they heard a commotion outside and observed a white panel van and several subjects outside. The van was further described as having no windows on either of the rear sides of the vehicle. The van returned to the area and left the scene again before authorities were contacted. A deputy arrived on the scene and conducted a foot patrol when the discovery was made. … The Loudoun Sheriff’s Office is currently seeking four to five individuals involved in the attack of the woman and the homicide of her husband. All of these individuals have knowledge of the attack, but have varying degrees of involvement in the activities that took place that morning. The Sheriff’s Office is making an appeal to the public to be aware of anyone who may be exhibiting changes in their behavior since the day of the attack. …"