The source echoed the fears of many Pentagon officials that the Chinese are unlikely to ever return the plane.
"The chances of getting this airplane back are pretty close to nil," he said.
The official said he had seen four images from two KH-11 "Keyhole" satellites, which are clear enough to see details, including racks of the plane's equipment sitting on the tarmac around the aircraft and damage to the EP-3's propeller, engine and wing.
The EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island after a Chinese fighter sent out to intercept the aircraft instead collided with it. The Chinese fighter and its pilot are still missing. China has blamed the United States, claiming the aircraft violated its airspace, which the U.S. says is not true.
The sun-synchronous KH-11s pass over the Earth at an altitude of about 500 miles twice a day, taking high-resolution snapshots. The electro-optical pictures have better than 1-meter resolution and are beamed to a U.S. ground station in near-real time.
The EP-3, an electronic signals surveillance aircraft, is loaded with sophisticated equipment used to collect intelligence on an adversary's weapons, command and control capabilities and operations. The equipment is mounted on metal racks inside the shell of the 100-foot-long plane, which carries a crew of 24.
The EP-3 could not have landed in a better place for China or a worse one for U.S. military intelligence. Hainan Island is host to one of China's largest electronic-signals-intelligence complexes and is manned by experts who can glean critical information on the aircraft's capabilities if they gain access to the Navy's EP-3, also a "SIGINT" collector, Pentagon sources said. Hainan is also home to a major Chinese satellite-communications intercept facility.
The United States says that the aircraft, because it made an emergency landing, should be considered sovereign territory like a U.S. Embassy and is therefore off-limits to the Chinese.
President Bush on Monday warned China against "further" tampering with or damage to the aircraft.
"The airplane itself, military aircraft of all countries in situations like this, have sovereign immunity. That is, no other country can go aboard them or keep them," U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Dennis Blair said Sunday in a press conference.
However, the Navy presumes Chinese boarded the plane shortly after it landed on a military base on Hainan Island. The last radio message from the crew said it was being ordered to shut down its operation.
In the event of just such a landing, the crew was trained to destroy classified paperwork and wipe clean computer memories, and may have even physically destroyed some of the equipment.
"If I were them I would have been pitching stuff out the back," said a U.S. intelligence official.
The Chinese military is well known for its ability to reverse-engineer sophisticated equipment that is, deconstruct a finished product to discern how it works and its capabilities, and then re-create it for its own use, the official said.
Pentagon officials say they were concerned the aircraft would never be returned. They speculate that China will say it is holding it as evidence of supposed U.S. violation of international law.
They made clear Tuesday that even if the Chinese strip and dismantle the aircraft to reverse-engineer it, the U.S. would still, for political reasons, demand its return.
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