What kinds of documents does the CIA have on world leaders? What do they involve and how detailed are they? Do the CIA assessments differ from the ones we are familiar with from the mass media? And if they do, in what respects? Are they more sober and less sensationalist? Are they free from ideological bias? What is the methodology used and what sources?

These are some of the questions that led me to file a FOIA request to the CIA regarding the politician whose activities have marked the entire decade in the Balkans after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the violent destruction of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ): the former Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006). Milošević was NATO's main enemy in the war it waged against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in Spring 1999 and was presented as the European equivalent of Saddam Hussein. He was overthrown in October 2000 with the help of the Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA. Milošević ended his days in the Hague Tribunal prison unit in March 2006 under the circumstances many still consider suspicious.

Nobody has (publicly) asked the CIA about Milošević before and, as he died more than 10 years ago, it was reasonable to expect that I could be provided with some interesting, historically significant, and newsworthy information.

What I got, after the whole process was over, was definitely interesting and newsworthy (otherwise, I would not be writing about it), but hardly historically significant. In fact, I should say that, from what the CIA sent me, I learned more about the seriousness (and the lack thereof) of its information declassification and release process than any hidden secrets about Milošević.

The Process

It all started on February 17, 2016, when, via the Muckrock news site, I filed a FOIA request asking for "all files relating to Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006)." I included in the request the link for Milošević's biography on Wikipedia and stated that no proof of his death should be required because it was widely reported by the media all over the world.

I did not wait very long for the reply. On March 14, 2016, Michael Lavergne, CIA Information and Privacy coordinator, wrote back stating that my request had to be modified. Allegedly, my request was "so broad as to impose an unreasonable burden on the Agency" and hence could not be processed. He added that my request should be made more specific and (curiously) gave the example of requesting "biographical reports with the date range between 1989 and 2000."

I decided that this was a hint, and I wrote back on April 2, 2016 requesting "all biographical reports regarding the Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević between 1982 and 2000." I changed the starting date on purpose because I knew that Milošević began to be directly involved in Communist politics in the early 1980s while he was still the chief banker of the Bank of Belgrade. In the end, this made no difference as I only got the documents from the 1990s anyway. Apparently, the CIA had already decided what to release at the time of my first letter.

And, so, two and a half months later, on June 15, 2016, I received another letter from Michael Lavergne. He told me that my request was successfully processed and that the CIA search turned up 8 documents on 15 pages, which, as I could see myself, were approved for release on June 10, 2016.

One document was released in full, while the seven others were collated together and moderately redacted, allegedly, on the basis of the statutory FOIA exemptions b(1) and b(3). As I will show, the CIA arbitrary imposition of these exemptions is actually the most interesting and newsworthy element of this whole FOIA epistolary adventure.

The Content1

The document which was released in full is a one-page lapidary presentation of Slobodan Milošević's biography: professional history, education, personal data, and languages spoken. It bears the date of August 7, 1997. All the information provided here is well-known. The only curious piece of data is that it stated that Milošević "drinks scotch and smokes cigars." Why was this included? Most likely, to exploit these personal preferences as Milošević's weaknesses. Perhaps it signaled a way to make him feel at ease, or bribe him, or even, more dramatically, to poison him. During the Cold War, this was apparently the standard operating procedure for the CIA's main opponent, the KGB. The Mitrokhin Archive for instance revealed that the KGB planned to poison the long-time Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito with a jewelry gift box.2 It was only the sudden and mysterious death of Stalin that put a definitive end to these plans.

The other seven documents are more lengthy summaries of Milošević's activities and personal traits and (as already pointed out) are moderately redacted. They cover the period from June 23, 1992 (the date of the first document) until August 12, 1999 (the date of the last document). For the ease of presentation and understanding, in the analysis and discussion below, I will refer to them as DOC-1, DOC-2, etc.

DOC-1, written on June 23, 1992, when the war in Croatia was in full swing and the war in Bosnia had just begun, describes Milošević as "a clever tactician" who knows well how to manipulate the Serbian and Yugoslav political scene in order to remain in charge. It also chronicles Milošević's influence over the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, to the point of quoting the statement of the Croatian Serb politician Jovan Hadžić that Milošević was "the greatest politician alive." It describes Milošević's strategy as based on "an emotional national appeal" and judges it to be successful.

DOC-1 also broadly addresses the political forces and actors critical of Milošević. In fact, the focus on the opposition will be one of the key features of all seven DOCs. The number of the opposition actors discussed will multiply as the time goes by and as Milošević comes to be seen as more and more of an obstacle to the goals of the Clinton administration foreign policy in the Balkans. For now, however, Milošević appears to be held in high esteem. In the section entitled "One on One," which obviously relied on those who knew Milošević personally, he is described as "as impressively articulate, self-confident, and in command of his brief in face-to-face meetings." DOC-1 goes on to state that he is not only "usually affable and relaxed during meetings in his office," but also "a master at thinking and acting under pressure." One gets the impression that the CIA was enthralled by him.

However, and this is very important to note in order to understand the CIA modus operandi, this whole paragraph completely disappears from DOC-3 and all subsequent reports. In other words, after 1995, as Milošević is quickly being morphed into an enemy of the U.S. foreign policy agenda in the Balkans, the CIA censors its own reports. Nobody (not even those with security clearances) must know that not so long ago, Milošević was described as "affable," "impressively articulate," and "a master at thinking and acting under pressure." Milošević now has to be turned into a villain, an evil-doer, and soon enough, in the last report (DOC-7 of August 12, 1999), he will be described as an indicted war criminal. But the key question we need to ask is who really changed the most. Was it Milošević, or was the U.S. foreign objectives? Was the rest, then, fabricated to fit the story of the day?

Another example is even more striking in this respect. It concerns one sentence and its radical revisions by the CIA report writers. Considering that the sentence dealt with an event in the 1980s, nothing in the event itself could have changed. However, as I will show, the interpretation was doctored by the CIA in order to make it more in line with the politically profitable negative image of Milošević.

In DOC-1, there is a following sentence: "In April 1987, Milošević captured international attention with his dramatic appearance at a protest meeting of Kosovo Serbs, where he initiated an inflammatory campaign to 'right the wrongs' they were suffering and demanded rapid progress toward full democracy and a market economy." Now the second part of the sentence about "rapid progress toward full democracy and a market economy" does not fit at all with the Milošević narrative we know today. How can a politician who advocates such goals become a public enemy of the U.S.? Obviously, he can't. And so, the CIA decided to doctor this part of the sentence. It was first modified and then it completely disappeared.

Already in DOC-3 of December 7, 1995, the sentence is different. Instead of "[he] demanded rapid progress toward full democracy and a market economy," it states "[he] issued demands for rapid progress toward full democracy and a market economy, according to press [redacted] reporting." So now it is no longer a statement of fact (the way it was in 1992), but it is "according to press [redacted] reporting." The degree of reliability has been intentionally decreased by the CIA report writer, not because new information suddenly surfaced about the April 1987 event, but in order to sow doubt about the apparently positive impression of Milošević (as the champion of democracy and free market) in the minds of those reading the report.

That my interpretation is correct is further confirmed by the fact that this entire second part of the sentence is completely left out of DOC-6 of October 15, 1998 and the sentence itself is radically reformulated. In DOC-6, the sentence reads "in April 1987, Milošević captured international attention with his dramatic appearance at a protest meeting of Kosovo Serbs, where he initiated an inflammatory campaign to right the wrongs he claimed they were suffering (emphasis mine)."

Not only were the mentions of democracy and market economy gone, but now even the sufferings of the Kosovo Serbs were put in question. While the 1992 CIA report writer had no doubts about them (from the source more reliable than the press), for the 1998 CIA report writer (writing 11 years after the event), the sufferings themselves were no longer genuine, but were only "claimed" (alleged) by Milošević. When we put this in the political context of the day by pointing out that it was precisely in 1998 that the U.S. (as the leader of NATO) was putting the finishing touches on the plan for the Kosovo war, it appears understandable why the sufferings of the Kosovo Serbs at the hands of the Kosovo Albanian nationalists in the 1980s had to be denied by making them a figment of Milošević's imagination.

The Redactions

There is also a word to be said about the redactions in these reports. Allegedly, they were made on the basis of the statutory exemptions (b)(1) and (b)(3) which deal with the issues relating to the presidential executive orders and the CIA Act of 1949. However, considering that the same information was often repeated from one report to another, I was able to discover several instances where the same sentences that were declassified in one report were (again) classified in another and vice versa.

For instance, in DOC-1, one reads that "his [Milošević's] father, an orthodox priest,3 abandoned his family and then committed suicide. Milošević's mother also killed herself, according to the press reports." These two sentences come after the sentence "Milošević was born in Požarevac on 20 August 1941," and precede the sentence "Milošević joined the Communist Party at 18." However, in DOC-2, I found that the sentences about Milošević's parents have been redacted. There is a blank space between the statement on Milošević's birth and on his becoming a member of the Party. The redaction is supposedly based on both the (b)(1) and (b)(3) exemption, but how can that be the case if the same sentences have already been declassified in the earlier report?

There are such appearing/disappearing redactions in every report. Remember the sentence about Milošević's preferences for scotch and cigars. It has been redacted in all the reports except one. In addition, there are also cases where it seems that the blank space of a redaction hides something trivial, or even nothing at all.

This leads to two important questions to consider. Is this process of making selective redactions the outcome of shoddy, irresponsible work on the part of those in charge of declassifying the CIA documents? Or, alternatively, perhaps there is nothing of real significance in the documents released to the public (because genuinely secret documents are securely locked away or destroyed) and the blank spaces of redactions are used to give the documents the fake aura of importance as they act like some kind of empty fantasy screen for the projection of various "conspiracy theories"? There is probably something of both, though I would lean toward the second alternative.


In the end, the most significant take-away from the FOIA files the CIA sent to me has very little to do with Slobodan Milošević, his personality, allies, and political activities. All information about him provided in these reports has been in the public domain for a long time ago, and some of what was reported was not even factually correct.

The most important lesson from all of this is that the CIA is ready and willing to censor and doctor its own reports in order to make them suit the foreign policy agenda of the given presidential administration. What we learn from the reports is that the CIA tells its government clients what they want to hear about given geopolitical issues or foreign leaders, and not what it should do as the impartial, non-partisan intelligence agency: tell it the way it is and stick to the facts.

Do I need to stress how toxic this kind of "politicizing" of intelligence analysis can be for the U.S. national security as well as its image in the world? And yet there is no evidence that what is done today is any different from what we now have a proof was done in the 1990s with the files on Slobodan Milošević.
Filip Kovacevic, Newsbud-BFP Analyst, is a geopolitical author, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro. He received his BA and PhD in political science in the US and was a visiting professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia for two years. He is the author of seven books, dozens of academic articles & conference presentations and hundreds of newspaper columns and media commentaries. He has been invited to lecture throughout the EU, Balkans, ex-USSR and the US. He currently resides in San Francisco. He can be contacted at
  1. The entire correspondence and the documents are available at
  3. This information is not correct. The father of Slobodan Milošević was not an orthodox priest. Although he completed the Theological Faculty in Belgrade, he was never ordained and instead became a professor of Russian language in Montenegro. Milošević's uncle also committed suicide. See