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Who Bugged Jiang Zemin's Airplane?

Friday, 25 January 2002 12:00 AM

According to reports published by the Financial Times, Chinese officials stated that it was unclear when the aircraft was fitted with the bugs. The spying devices were reported to be very small and operated by satellite.

The aircraft, a Boeing 767-300ER, was originally purchased by Delta Air Lines in June 2000. The aircraft was later re-sold to China United Airlines – a Chinese air force-run airline – and customized for executive use by Jiang by a modification company in Texas.

The bugs were detected in September 2001 after the plane emitted a strange static whine during test flights in China. One device was found in a bathroom and another in the headboard of the presidential bed.

The discovery comes just before a planned summit between President Bush and Jiang in Beijing next month. According to the Financial Times, Jiang was said to be furious about the find.

Chinese spokesman Sun Yuxi wouldn't say whether President Jiang Zemin would bring up the reported bugging when he meets with President Bush.

Sun insisted that China was a "peace-loving country" that was no threat to other nations.

"So it is highly unnecessary to bug China," stated Sun.

Western intelligence sources, however, quickly disputed Sun's comments. The U.S. and China clashed over espionage issues in April last year when a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy plane collided over the South China Sea. The aerial collision destroyed the PLAAF (People's Liberation Army Air Force) F-8 fighter jet, killing the Chinese pilot, and grounded the U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries surveillance plane inside China.

"Tactical gathering of intelligence is a realistic part of the arsenal of any state that wishes to protect itself from those countries with competing or hostile interests," said Scott Newark, former executive director of the Canadian Police Association and commentator on Canadian national security issues.

"At long last, this appears to be a mutually understood concept insofar as dealing with the PRC is concerned, which is a welcome development for the free world," said Newark.

"If they didn't play bumper cars with our recon planes, we wouldn't have to do such a 'horrible' thing," said Douglas Brown of the Nathan Hale Institute.

"Somebody in engineering is getting chewed out," noted Brown.

In addition, Chinese intelligence officials are concerned that the Chinese army may have planted the surveillance devices. Twenty Chinese air force officers are being questioned on suspicion of negligence and corruption, and two officials from the China Aviation Supplies Export and Import Corporation are in Chinese custody.

"Could the U.S. do this?" noted Richard Fisher, a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. "Sure."

"Could the Chinese do this to themselves? Absolutely. The PLA, which will fly and maintain the aircraft, has many reasons to listen in on its leaders. But regardless of who is really to blame – and we may never know – Jiang appears intent on using this incident to embarrass President Bush on the eve of his visit in February," stated Fisher.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to comment on the bugging incident. In addition, the CIA and National Security Agency also refused to comment on record about the Chinese discovery.

"Hey ... 27 outta 40 ain't bad," quipped one intelligence source who requested that he not be identified.

The Chinese airline in question, China United, is known to be operated by the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). According to a 1994 U.S. military report, the Clinton administration knew that China United Airlines was owned by the PLAAF.

Documentation obtained using the Freedom of Information Act shows that China United Airlines is actually one of several businesses wholly owned and operated by the PLAAF.

"China United Airlines (CUA) is a commercial entity of the PLA Air Force," states a 1994 report on the Chinese military issued by Lt. Col. Dennis Blasko, former U.S. defense attaché to Beijing.

China United has been very successful as a front company operating in the West for the Chinese military. In 2000, the Chinese air force obtained 10 U.S.-made airliners for use as military aircraft. According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, the PLAAF obtained the 10 Boeing 737-300 jet transports through a purchase by China United.

U.S. defense intelligence officials confirmed that the Chinese air force is currently operating the 10 Boeing China United airliners as military troop transports.

According to its own website, the PLAAF-owned airline also operates a small fleet of Russian-made Ilyushin IL-76 jet transports. The IL-76 four-engine jet is the current front-line PLAAF military troop transport, and the Chinese civil version is frequently armed with a cannon located in a rear turret.

In fact, the China United Airlines IL-76 transports dropped paratroopers, tanks and artillery directly onto the battlefield during 2000 Chinese military exercises in the fall.

China United Airlines also operates a sophisticated spy aircraft for the PLAAF. China United aircraft B-4138, a Russian-made TU-154M three-engine airliner, flies under an international civilian number as a passenger plane.

Defense analysts confirmed, however, that B-4138 is actually a Chinese air force spy plane equipped with sophisticated radar and communications equipment. The heavily modified TU-154M airliner is equipped with an array of communications antenna on the rear and a huge radar dome on the bottom of the aircraft.

"The Tu-154M is indeed from China United," stated Richard Fisher.

"It is equipped with a new Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) system," noted Fisher, pointing out the characteristic tub-like radar dome that dominates the lower half of the Chinese spy plane.

"This Tu-154M is likely involved in research for the development of SAR systems that can be used in a similar fashion to the U.S. JSTARS, which provided unprecedented battlefield awareness to U.S. commanders in the Gulf War. For the PLA, this and future SAR aircraft will help to manage military operations over Taiwan and to find critical targets for air and missile strikes," concluded Fisher.

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According to reports published by the Financial Times, Chinese officials stated that it was unclear when the aircraft was fitted with the bugs.The spying devices were reported to be very small and operated by satellite. The aircraft, a Boeing 767-300ER, was originally...
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Friday, 25 January 2002 12:00 AM
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