More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 76

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

Working as a journalist in a war zone it is, of course, one’s job to gather information. Early in the Croatian war, the HV (Croatian Army) realised this.

Lots of young Croatian men returned to their homeland from places like Canada and Australia. Some had journalistic training. So, instead of putting them in uniform, it sent them out into the field posing as journalists to gather intelligence.

Similarly, the British set up a so-called Public Information Centre next to its base in Vitez in central Bosnia. The PIF was a cross between a social club for visiting journalists and a communications centre where they could also use telephone and fax facilities provided by the Ministry of Defence. This was not an altruistic endeavour on the MOD’s part. Journalists came in from all over Bosnia regaling each other and the military with tales of their discoveries. These were duly noted.

It is a very fine line between information and militarily-sensitive material and that always presented me, working for a magazine like Jane’s Intelligence Review with particular dilemmas.

It was, indeed, my job to both gather information of a military nature and then to analyse it. Most journalists collected information of a more everyday nature: human interest stories, stories relevant to the national interest and dramatic tales of derring-do which would read well in the paper. On the battlefield, all information is important. Indeed, the tiniest detail can complete an otherwise confusing jigsaw. However, most journalists are not over-concerned with the military significance of their everyday filing.

For me, it was a little different. Not only was I collecting, very often, highly sensitive material but I was directly charged with assessing its importance and effects. I really was only interested in sensitive material. What I heard and observed that day in Gornji Vakuf, I was immediately aware, was of great significance.

Fortunately, as I was not working as a daily newspaper reporter, I had some time to reflect upon it. A couple of days later, I heard that the US team had been seen in Mostar by other journalists and I then knew it was only a matter of time before the story got out; I felt I was fully off the hook in writing it up.

Arms and money now entered Bosnia. The chief of US military intelligence in the region was General Michael Hayden, who was at the meeting. He headed up the day-to-day operation. He was Director of the US European Command Intelligence Directorate, based in Stuttgart from May 1993 to October 1995.

The US would now acquire some curious bedfellows. Iran Air jumbos had flown some arms consignments in through Zagreb airport in the spring of that year, the Croats taking a cut on everything, but the really big operation was about to start; massive shipments of arms bring flown into the very large military airport at Tuzla in the north of Bosnia.

This was known as Operation Rescue. I went up to the airport in the spring and summer of 1995 and found the control tower, and the radar installations, being operated by men wearing the shoulder flashes of the elite US army Rangers (this provided another exclusive which went to The Washington Post after I had filed for Janes).

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