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Bugging of Chinese plane shouldn't harm relations

That's what one U.S. expert says about reports of devices found in the presidential jet. But neither country is talking about the episode.

©Associated Press
January 20, 2002

The reported bugging of China's new presidential aircraft, a specially fitted Boeing 767, is unlikely to cause a rupture in relations with the United States, U.S. experts said Saturday.

The White House and State Department were silent on the subject, declining to comment on the disclosure or say whether Beijing had protested or otherwise contacted Washington about it.

"We never discuss these kinds of allegations," said White House spokesman Taylor Gross.

Newspaper reports Saturday said Chinese authorities discovered the bugs during a test flight last October. That Beijing has not protested to Washington, three months afterward, suggests the possibility that Chinese authorities have reason to suspect their people played a role.

The Washington Post quoted unidentified sources as saying Chinese aviation and military officers believe U.S. intelligence agencies planted the listening devices aboard the plane while it was being fitted in the United States with a special bathroom and other accommodations for President Jiang Zemin.

The CIA had no comment.

The Post reported that after the listening devices were discovered, 20 Chinese air force officers and two officials involved in negotiations for the airliner were detained and are being investigated for negligence and corruption. It also said a senior air force officer is under house arrest.

The Chinese government had no comment.

The Financial Times of London reported that tiny listening devices were hidden in the jetliner's upholstery, including in the president's bathroom and the headboard of his bed. It cited unidentified Chinese sources.

Bates Gill, a China expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, said Saturday that if -- as reported -- the bugs were found before the plane went into use as Zemin's personal aircraft, then China's intelligence loss would be minimal and the scandal might blow over fairly quickly.

"My sense is this will not have any lasting effects" on U.S.-China relations, Gill said. "This can, in a relatively short period of time, be set aside as simply a failed intelligence operation. In fact it shouldn't surprise anyone in the United States or China that someone is trying to collect intelligence."

Chinese officials were puzzled as to how and when the bugs were planted, the newspaper reports said. China had carefully monitored the plane's construction at the Boeing Co. plant in Seattle, and the fitting of its interior by several aircraft maintenance companies in San Antonio, Texas.

The disclosure comes one month before President Bush is scheduled to travel to Beijing to meet with Jiang.

U.S.-China relations have been topsy-turvy in recent years, and controversy over spying is not new. Last April, a Chinese fighter intercepted and collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane over the South China Sea, forcing the Navy plane to make an emergency landing on a Chinese island. The fighter jet crashed, killing its pilot.

The Navy plane had been collecting electronic intelligence on the Chinese military, and China protested that such missions were violating its national sovereignty. China released the EP-3E crew only after the Bush administration publicly stated it was sorry for what happened.

Previous buggings

Last year, the European officials investigated reports of a U.S.-led spy network dubbed Echelon that allegedly snoops on the phone calls, faxes and e-mails of Europe's business community. U.S. officials have not acknowledged the existence of such a system and have said American agencies do not engage in industrial espionage.

In December 1999, the U.S. government expelled a Russian, Stanislav Borisovich Gusev, who was using a device in his car, parked near the State Department, to pick up transmissions from a bug planted in a conference room.

Reports emerged last year that the U.S. government built a tunnel under the Soviet Embassy in Washington during the 1980s to eavesdrop. Officials believe Robert Philip Hanssen, an FBI agent who pleaded guilty last year to spying for Moscow, might have betrayed the operation.

Work on a new U.S. Embassy in Moscow was halted in 1985 after listening devices installed by Soviet construction workers were discovered throughout the building. American officials concluded the bugging was so extensive that the building could not be used for diplomatic purposes.

After the Kremlin installed electronic bugs in U.S. Embassy typewriters about two decades ago, the Soviets were able to read sensitive U.S. diplomatic correspondence from Moscow for several years.

In 1978, U.S. Marines discovered Soviet agents burrowing a tunnel under the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The hole was packed with electronic gear -- and a Soviet agent wearing headphones, according to news reports.

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