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Chicago Sun-Times
April 15, 2001

Spy missions to go on despite plane collision

By Lynn Sweet

Tensions after the United States-China plane collision won't stop the Pentagon from eavesdropping on the world's hot spots.

"The U.S. will continue to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance flights," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday.

As the world's only superpower, the United States is the only nation that conducts global "EP," military shorthand for electronic patrol--hence the plane designation EP-3E. Other countries conduct such listening flights in international airspace, including China. But the activities of the other nations are limited to their regions.

The Air Force handles most of the eavesdropping chores over the European theater, while the Navy collects electronic intelligence in the Pacific Command. The 24 crew members detained in China for 11 days after their damaged plane landed on Hainan island were Navy personnel based on Whidbey Island in Washington.

"It is practically unthinkable that the U.S. would retreat from this kind of passive intelligence collection in international airspace," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.

Electronic intelligence gathering, known as "e-lint," was conducted only in the most primitive way during World War II, became more sophisticated during the Cold War and now is routine, said James Mulvenon, an associate political scientist and China specialist at the RAND think tank.

"People have this crazy image that we scoop up everything," Mulvenon said.

Rather, U.S. surveillance targets only a small number of countries, where the military and political situation presents threats and where relations are tense. The surveillance is overt, though details are closely held.

"The fact that these flights go on is not secret," Aftergood said. "The timing of the flights are not discussed by the Pentagon."

Between the Internet, with an abundance of sites describing E-series aircraft, and the massive publicity surrounding the China standoff, the surveillance is "becoming less and less secret every day," he said.

During long trips, flight crews amass an assortment of intelligence: Radar technicians look for bursts of electronic activity. Communications specialists seek coded transmissions and check military frequencies. Linguists translate phone conversations, while photographers pick out images, including submarine sightings.

To the ongoing consternation of some members of Congress, Russia maintains a land-based listening post in Lourdes, Cuba, to grab what it can from antennas aimed at the United States.

During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union flew long-range reconnaissance flights in international airspace off the East Coast of the United States from the Lourdes base. During that period, the United States "routinely sent U.S. fighters up to take a look and escort [the Soviet planes] for a while, but in all of those cases, they were in international airspace and complying with international law," said Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley.

Other countries eavesdrop "as a matter of routine, just as we do. And one of the countries that does that is China," Quigley said.

China flies electronic intelligence missions to monitor Taiwan and look in on Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Vietnam, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines. Israel regularly listens to electronic signals from its neighbors. Britain and France are believed to have similar capacity. Russia runs surveillance flights to check on countries it borders, including China.

Aftergood said the trend is toward using more unmanned surveillance planes, especially given the collision in China.


World's hot spots shift as our priorities change

U.S. airborne surveillance patrols prioritize their missions.

Countries in the top tier, with the most U.S. surveillance, are China, Iraq, Iran, Russia and North Korea, according to research analysts James Mulvenon and Steven Aftergood.

Iraq, with patrols of its northern and southern no-fly zones following the Gulf War, probably is subject to the most surveillance.

Pakistan and India rank in a second tier, with the United States interested in the nuclear capacities of the rival nations.

In recent years, more attention has been paid to Afghanistan in an effort to trace communications from organizations associated with terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Renegade states such as Libya do not receive constant attention unless there is some crisis because the country has limited military capacity.

At times, and in other parts of the world, the surveillance may focus on piracy and drug trafficking.

--Lynn Sweet

Copyright 2001 Chicago Sun-Times

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