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STANDOFF WITH CHINA: U.S. AIRCRAFT HELD

Spy Craft Could Reveal Vital Military Secrets, Experts Say

April 03, 2001|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The seizure of a Navy spy plane by the Chinese could cost the Pentagon vital information about how China's military operates and might inflict wider damage if Beijing shares U.S. secrets with other potential adversaries, defense officials and experts said Monday.

The EP-3 reconnaissance plane that was forced to land in China on Sunday after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet functions like a huge, electronic vacuum cleaner. With a variety of sensitive antennas, it picks up signals that reveal how Chinese ships, planes and ground installations communicate with one another and gather information on potential targets.

If the Chinese gain access to the plane's top-secret equipment, they could find out what the Pentagon knows--and what it doesn't know--about their communications and operations. With that knowledge, they could change their methods and develop countermeasures, thus depriving Americans of what would be a powerful advantage in wartime.

"They could develop a good sense of how they look to us," said Daniel Goure, a former Pentagon official now at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia think tank. "And it's very important to . . . find out what the other guy can read."

It remained unclear late Monday whether the Chinese had boarded the plane to try to obtain the secrets, or whether the plane's 24-member crew was able to destroy its gear before the EP-3 landed.

Defense officials said the crew members have an "emergency destruction plan" for quickly eliminating eavesdropping equipment and data they have collected.

Some of the information is in the form of paper documents that can be shredded; other material is in computer software and electronic media that can be quickly erased.

But there also is hardware that might have to be destroyed, including the antennas, for example, and special-purpose "signal-processing hardware." U.S. officials said that in the final moments before the spy plane landed, the crew may have been trying to destroy the hardware with hammers and axes.

Crew members probably had 10 to 15 minutes between the time they knew the plane was damaged and the time it landed, defense officials said. One senior official speculated that they probably were able to destroy much of the hardware in that time.

Another risk is that the "crypto gear" that the military uses to encode its own messages might fall into Chinese hands. The encryption codes are changed every few days, however, so their value is limited, the official said.

The military sometimes uses special grenades and burning chambers to destroy sensitive documents and equipment. But such gear is risky to use aboard an aircraft, experts said.

Some analysts speculated that the Chinese might try to sell some information gleaned from the EP-3 to countries that are buying Chinese military or commercial goods, such as Iraq.

The loss of the EP-3's secrets would be a serious setback, requiring a laborious rebuilding process, several analysts said. But it might not be a catastrophe.

"It's an annoying loss . . . but not devastating," said Jeffrey Richelson, a specialist in satellites and intelligence technology at the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said after a briefing by National Security Agency officials that he believed there will be "some loss" of U.S. intelligence, "although we can't be sure yet how great that will be."

The EP-3 is one of 12 aircraft of its kind. The planes are in constant demand by regional U.S. military commanders because of their ability to gather tactical information.

The 24-member crew of the plane includes three pilots and a navigator, plus technicians and mechanics. Along a windowless fuselage, the technicians sit at a row of "watch stations," searching for and analyzing signals and gathering data.

The crew includes linguists who can interpret conversations in foreign languages. But the crew is more concerned with radar signals than radio communications, experts said.

The mother of one crew member, a linguist, said she was "keeping busy, staying close to the family" and listening to news reports for information about her son, Curtis Towne, and the rest of the crew.

"I know my son would be upset with me if he knew I was upset," said Marta Towne, a first-grade teacher in Hayward, Calif. "So I'm not going to worry unduly. He knows what to do."

James Bamford, author of "Body of Secrets," a book about the National Security Agency, said the plane would probably be carrying an electronic "order of battle," showing which military installations in the area use which frequencies.

During the Cold War, communist countries shot down a number of U.S. spy planes and recovered some intelligence-gathering gear. That was the case, for example, in the downing of the U-2 spy plane flown by U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers.

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