Jim Lehrer discusses the future of U.S. surveillance flights with Rear Admiral Eric McVadon (ret.), a former pilot and naval attache to China, and James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets, an upcoming book about the National Security Agency
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite yesterday's diplomatic breakthrough, Beijing and Washington continue to spar over American eavesdropping flights along China's coast. The future of those flights, which Washington says occur over international waters at least 12 miles off Chinese territory, will be a major focus of upcoming diplomatic talks starting next week. In Beijing today, a government spokesperson addressed the topic of the upcoming meeting.
ZHANG QIYUE, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China (speaking through interpreter): The agenda of the talks will include first, the reason of this incident, and second, the U.S. Side should stop any reconnaissance activities around Chinese coast.
SPENCER MICHELS: But within hours, the U.S. National Security Adviser said Washington had no such intentions.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, National Security Adviser: Surveillance flights are an extremely important part of an American national security strategy that really is very much devoted not just to our own security, but to that of our friends and allies to keeping peace and stability in Asia Pacific. We are not going to do anything to undermine our broad national security strategies. But we're going to continue to do what is most effective for our national security strategy, and we're going to continue to do it in a way that gets the job done.
SPENCER MICHELS: The main mission of the EP-3 spy plane is to monitor activity of ships and planes. It can also to pick up radio, radar, phone, e-mail and fax traffic. The flights, according to the Pentagon, are a legitimate practice around the world. Rear Admiral Craig Quigley is the Defense Department spokesman.
REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY, Pentagon Spokesman: This was overt, routine surveillance and reconnaissance, which is carried out around the world on a pretty regular basis by a variety of nations, the United States among them. But it is carried out in international air space under international rules.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Chinese complaint is not a new one. In an editorial Tuesday, the Army Daily said the flights "are by no means conducted out of good and peaceful aim, but obviously carry a hostile nature, posting serious threats to China's security and interest." And on the NewsHour last week, China's ambassador in Washington said Beijing has long objected to the flights.
YANG JIECHI: The U.S. Airplanes were flying over the exclusive economic zones of China, and there China has all kinds of rights, sovereign rights and other rights and jurisdiction and China, being the coastal country, has the right and the responsibility to maintain peace and tranquility and orderly status in that area. And, besides, the U.S. airplanes actually interfered with the freedom of Chinese airplanes on the high seas in this case, and really it's against the agreed consensus reached between the two sides last year that one should avoid dangerous actions.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Pentagon, however, says the real danger is caused by Chinese jets that tail the U.S. EP-3 planes too closely.
REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY: Well, there have been instances in the last few months of times where we have felt that the Chinese fighter aircraft that came out to intercept our surveillance and reconnaissance flights got too close, and we let the Chinese know that in communications with them.
SPENCER MICHELS: Talks between the U.S. and China start next Wednesday, but the site has not yet been determined.
JIM LEHRER: More on the China surveillance now, from retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, a former navy pilot and U.S. Naval attaché to China, and author James Bamford. His new book, "Body of Secrets," about the national security agency, is due out later this month. Admiral, how important are the surveillance flights to the security of the United States?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.), U.S. Navy: Well, I think they are very important. And maybe I should focus it on the security of Taiwan. Of course we are interested in that. And I think this is one of the ways that we determine very precisely how we could best be effective if we ever get into that situation, God forbid, where we have to intervene in a Taiwan crisis. We will be much more effective that way, we will be kicking ourselves if we find in some future time that we didn't take full advantage and be ready to counter whatever the Chinese can throw at us. But I think maybe the most important point is if the Chinese know this, it deters that sort of action.
JIM LEHRER: It doesn't really -- it doesn't really involve our national security then. It involves our role in protecting other people's security, correct?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Yes, but, of course, the U.S. has significant security interests in Northeast Asia.
JIM LEHRER: How would you comment on that -- the importance of these flights specifically to us? JAMES BAMFORD, Author, "Body of Secrets:" Well, I think the intelligence is mostly redundant because we have other ways to collect the intelligence, we have huge listing posts that pick up most of the same signals and we have satellites that can pick up radar signals and any kind of signals almost. In addition there, is an easier way to collect it. And that's using these large Boeing 707s that we have that can collect virtually all the signals in the area. The advantage --.
JIM LEHRER: And they fly at a higher altitude.
JAMES BAMFORD: Higher altitude.
JIM LEHRER: And further away.
JAMES BAMFORD: And further away, that's right; but they use these flights mostly for provocative reasons, because the closer you get to the coastline, they start -- the Chinese start turning on more radar systems. And they start communicating about this plane flying there, and that is what they want. They want to generate these electronic signals and then pick them up. So it's a fairly provocative mission, and in the past we've lost several hundred men who have flown these missions who have been killed in shoot downs and various other kind of incidents.
JIM LEHRER: So, I hear you correct, you don't think it's worth the commotion?
JAMES BAMFORD: I think there is an easier way to collect intelligence, and I don't think this is it.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Well, I think there are some very specific tactical advantages to be gained by using the EP-3 in this case. And so I would be very disappointed if we find that we begin to back down on that case. So I think that it is beneficial for us.
JIM LEHRER: Is it worth the price? In other words, is the benefit worth the -- my word a moment ago was commotion? Is it worth the trouble that we are now going to go through to maintain these flights?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): I think so. And, as Mr. Bamford points out, there have been shoot downs in the past. However, those have been quite sometime ago. I don't anticipate that the Chinese are going to take our aircraft under attack. I think in fact that what we'll end up with is some sort of new arrangement where the flights will be able to be conducted preventing these sorts of incidents.
JIM LEHRER: What about that, Mr. Bamford -- first of all the shoot downs -- the Chinese have not shot down any of our planes before, have they?
JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, they have.
JIM LEHRER: They have?
JAMES BAMFORD: They shot down a plane very much like this in the 1950s killing 16 people and President Eisenhower at the time said if we had one of the Chinese planes off our coast between 20 and 50 miles, we would just shoot it down.
JIM LEHRER: So - but I mean there haven't been any recent things since the 1950's, right?
JAMES BAMFORD: Not recent planes but we lost ships, we lost the Pueblo and the Liberty and so forth.
JIM LEHRER: Another thing - make sure -- see if you all can clear up, Admiral Quigley and everybody has said this is routine. Everybody in the world is doing what we are doing. Is that true, Mr. Bamford?
JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, it's routine; we do it all the time.
JIM LEHRER: I don't mean me we; is everybody else doing it?
JAMES BAMFORD: No, not that I know of. The Chinese has never -as far as I know -- flown flights along our coast. The Soviets almost never flew flights along the coast. They would use these trawlers out in the ocean to pick up intelligence, so it's -- as far as I know -- the U.S. is the most aggressive and the largest user of this kind of intelligence.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): It may be better to put it this way, Jim: Maybe we are better at it but other people do it as well and they do it as well as they can. The Chinese aircrafts were doing this -- are well behind us. But, of course, they are interested in what is going on with our forces in the Far East. You're absolutely right; they are not flying off the coast of the United States. But they are flying in that area where our forces are operating. Of course they are interested in what is happening in Taiwan and so forth. There are many, many nations that conduct these sorts of flights.
JIM LEHRER: For instance? I mean, what other nations are doing that we know about and why are they doing it?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Well, maybe the ones that are important, the Soviet Union and China, both conduct these sorts of things. And, of course, there are other ways to carry out a very similar mission. You can do it with ships and you can do it with land-based facilities but those are countries I'm quite confident in saying undertake similar missions.
JIM LEHRER: Some people haves criticized, particularly in China and elsewhere, Mr. Bamford, that there is an element of arrogance to this on part of the United States. We can fly our planes anywhere we want to and spy on anybody we want to and it's legal; we're going to continue to do that. How do you feel about that charge?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I think it's probably true. The U.S. -- this is this is in-your-face intelligence collection. It's not subtle. Intelligence is supposed to help prevent wars, prevent tensions. These have the opposite effect. In addition, what we do is we fly these every single day -- 12 hours a day -- up and down the coast as if it was the height of the Cold War with Russia. There is a big difference between our relationship with China and our relationship during the Cold War with the Soviet Union -- but it doesn't seem that the people directing these missions sort of get that.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): We don't fly them every day. Yes, we fly a great many of them. But it's also worth taking into account - remember, that China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. We refuse to stop flying these flights. I think that is something of a balance and that puts it in perspective.
JIM LEHRER: What about the use of the word "provocative." Mr. Bamford has used that several times now. And you've said it yourself. We want China to know we are watching them?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Yes.
JIM LEHRER: So it's kind of a fine line, is it not?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Yes, but of course, as long as you remain in international air space, then it is at least legal by those provisions. And if this were a perfect world, then you might say, no, we don't want to do that. But, given the situation I've just described, there are reasons for doing things that probably make us appear a bit arrogant in the eyes of others. We try to do it carefully. We try to do it judiciously. We have developed with China this military maritime consultative agreement so that we can do these things more safely. And I think that it is recognized that there is a purpose for this. Certainly there are questions that can be asked and by the way we ask ourselves those questions very frequently.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bamford, also the Pentagon spokespeople have said and the President said today - we had it in our news clip a while ago -- that there are rules for these kind of things and the United States follows those rules. There was nothing that those 24 crew members were doing on the airplane that was the least bit over any line. Was he right about that?
JAMES BAMFORD: Sure, and if I stood in front of your house 24 hours a day and looked at your house, and I'm perfectly legal standing on the sidewalk. But I think you would probably take that as harassment at some point. There is a point where you can reach moderation here. And the admiral says we don't do it every day. The last schedule I saw there was at least 200 times a year. That is just the Navy; that's not counting the Air Force, which also does it. So, it is about every day. And the question is, you did it today. Do you have to do it again tomorrow and the next day? We are not in a situation where we are waiting for the Chinese to launch missiles at us.
JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the admiral's point? We want the Chinese to know we are watching them. And there is a point to be made beyond just the simple -- there may be other ways you can collect the information, but there is no better way to send the message, hey, we are watching you guys?
JAMES BAMFORD: What sense does that make?
JIM LEHRER: Admiral?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Well, I think it makes a lot of sense. And, remember, that the Chinese are trying to send us a signal in saying how important Taiwan is to them. And I think we have to send the signal that says we got your signal and here is ours back.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bamford, I'll ask you to speculate wildly at that point. But what do you think the Chinese position is going to be on Wednesday when these meetings begin? Are they going to call for an absolute abolishment of these surveillance flights?
JAMES BAMFORD: Oh, sure, they'll probably start off with a position like that. You start off with your most radical position and then bargain down. But I think they'll probably push that, and the U.S. will want to push the fact that they should keep their fighters, you know, 100 feet, 200 feet, or whatever from their wing tips. But the problem is there are accidents that happen. When accidents happen, nobody can predict it. And that's when you get into a lot of trouble. That is what happened here. In the Vietnam War we had a routine eavesdropping mission off North Vietnam on a ship called the USS Mattox. There was a mistaken message sent to that ship. The end result was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the Vietnam War. So these routine eavesdropping missions do have consequences sometimes.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Well, yes, they have consequences. But I would suggest that if you don't conduct them, there are also consequences that is have to be taken into contract.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral, do you believe that the consequences of though incident are going to be that the surveillance flights are going to continue, the Chinese are going to continue to send fighter planes up and the status quo will continue?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): I think it will be roughly the status quo. We certainly may make some adjustment. I'm hoping that what we'll do is bring to bear rules that will prevent this sort of thing that just happened. And I think that is very, very likely in this case. First we'll try to decide what happened and get a measured view from both sides to understand the real cause of the accident then move on from there to establish some rules - for example, about how close the intercepts might be or whether there are other stipulations that could be made - and certainly to develop a mechanism so when incidents do occur, that they can be calmly examined by both sides so as to improve the rules and keep improving all along.
JIM LEHRER: But the U.S. Will insist that the flights continue?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): I believe they will.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen thank you both very much.