Talking About Defense: Are these spying missions necessary?

Was this trip necessary? That question-phrased in many ways, in many languages, over many years-has again been pushed front and center following the collision between a Navy EP-3E electronic eavesdropping plane and a Chinese fighter plane piloted by a reckless aviator.

If past is prologue, as it usually is on these spying missions that go awry, the U.S. government will at first holler about how vital these missions are and then, after a cooling-off interval, will quietly reduce or abandon them to placate the offended country and pursue larger, mutual interests.

President Bush, if he has his staff do some homework, will discover that Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon all did this. Indeed, the one break in the pattern was the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when Johnson's overreaction to what he thought was an attack on our spying ships pulled us into the decade-long morass that became the Vietnam War. A short history with pointed lessons for our new President is in order.

1960, Francis Gary Powers' U-2. The Soviets shot down the CIA pilot on May 1, while he was flying high over their territory photographing missile sites and other military installations. The U.S. government at first lied about this top-secret mission, saying the U-2 got lost while flying a weather mission for the civilian space agency. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev then produced Powers, sent pictures of the U-2 wreckage around the world, and canceled his scheduled summit meeting with an embarrassed Eisenhower. The supposed experts had assured the apprehensive President that neither Soviet anti-aircraft missiles nor fighter planes could reach the thin air where the U-2 would be flying. After publicly insisting that U-2 flights were vital to keeping up with threats behind the Iron Curtain, the Eisenhower administration quietly abandoned the flights and relied on other eavesdroppers, including radars on Turkish mountaintops and invisible satellites peering down from space.

1964, Gulf of Tonkin. The Johnson administration claimed that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy on Aug. 2 and 4, l964, while the ships were conducting electronic reconnaissance in the Gulf of Tonkin. The North Vietnamese government denied launching any attacks. President Johnson bombed North Vietnamese navy bases in retaliation, drawing the United States far deeper into the Southeast Asia quagmire. Robert S. McNamara, Johnson's Defense Secretary, who had insisted to skeptics in Congress that Hanoi had indeed attacked the destroyers, said years later that he was wrong. McNamara wrote that North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap convinced him in their face-to-face meeting in Hanoi in 1995 that a local commander, and not the government, had ordered the Aug. 2 torpedo-boat attack, and that no attack at all occurred on Aug. 4.

"Had we known, had I personally been able to prove that only one attack had taken place and that it had been ordered by a local commander (who believed North Vietnam's territorial waters had been violated both by the Maddox and Turner Joy as well as by covert operations carried out by the South Vietnamese with U.S. assistance)," McNamara wrote in his book, Argument Without End, it "is likely that President Johnson would not have ordered the first U.S. retaliatory air strike on the North."

1968, USS Pueblo. Eugene Fubini, a McNamara deputy, came up with the idea of converting innocent-looking cargo ships into seagoing spies packed with eavesdropping gear and technicians. Fubini and his Pentagon allies successfully argued that the Pueblo could collect as much intelligence about North Korea as it desired without interference, provided that the ship stayed in international waters. The North Koreans, however, did not follow the Pentagon script. Deploying gunboats, they surrounded the Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968; fired into the fleeing vessel, killing one crewman; boarded the American ship; and ordered it to sail to the North Korean port of Wonsan. The Pueblo's 82 surviving crewmen were tortured during their 11-month captivity in North Korea. Nevertheless, Johnson decided not to retaliate for the Pueblo seizure, and such eavesdropping missions by barely disguised Navy ships were ended.

To win the crew's release, the U.S. government on Dec. 23, 1968, signed, through Army Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward, two astonishing documents, the second of which makes the Bush Administration's "very sorry" statements about the loss of the Chinese pilot sound tame in comparison.

"The position of the United States government with regard to the Pueblo," said Woodward in the first statement, "has been that the ship was not engaged in illegal activity, that there is no convincing evidence that the ship at any time intruded into the territorial waters claimed by North Korea, and that we could not apologize for actions which we did not believe took place. The document which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans and is at variance with the above position. My signature will not and cannot alter the facts. I will sign the documents to free the crew and only to free the crew...."

Woodward then signed the second statement he had just disavowed. It said, in part, that "the government of the United States of America ... shoulders full responsibility and solemnly apologizes for the grave acts of espionage committed by the U.S. ship against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea after having intruded into the territorial waters of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and gives firm assurance that no U.S. ships will intrude again...."

1969, Nixon's Flying Pueblo. As a presidential candidate, Richard M. Nixon had assailed the Johnson administration's handling of the Pueblo crisis, only to be confronted with a similar one before he had been in office even 100 days. On April 14, 1969, North Korea shot down an unarmed Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan. All 31 men aboard the EC-121 died.

Like today with China, there were calls for retaliation then. Rep. L. Mendel Rivers, D-S.C., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said, "I don't think nuclear weapons should be needed, but if it requires that, let them have it."

Instead, Nixon decided against any retaliation-much to the distress of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Two aircraft carriers were sent to the Sea of Japan for a couple of weeks in a largely meaningless show of force. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird stopped all reconnaissance flights worldwide for four weeks-even off the coasts of the Soviet Union and Cuba-after which a decision was made to resume them near North Korea, temporarily with fighter escorts. And Nixon declared that the future of the flights would depend on future North Korean behavior.

"I can't conceive of any information these planes pick up that warrants the kind of risk they are taking," said J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in regard to the kind of eavesdropping EC-121s were doing off North Korea in the 1960s.

Rep. Otis G. Pike, D-N.Y., chaired a House Armed Services special subcommittee that conducted hearings on the losses of the Pueblo and EC-121. He posed the kind of question in 1969 that today's military leaders will be asked when Congress returns from its Easter recess next week:

"In your judgment," Pike asked of Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "has the knowledge we have gained in the last, say, three years from operations such as the Pueblo and the EC-121 off North Korea been worth the lives of 32 Americans, the loss of one ship and one aircraft, the imprisonment of 82 other Americans for a period of a year, and essentially the humiliation of the United States of America in this regard?"

"Mr. Chairman," Wheeler replied, "the intelligence that we gain by these types of activities, I think, is absolutely essential to the protection of our forces in South Korea. I don't know what the value of a human life is-it is great from our point of view. And I would certainly be loathe to try to sit down and figure the value of lives of 32 men, the loss of an aircraft, and a ship against a specific piece of intelligence we might have gained. The program though, Mr. Chairman, is absolutely essential. I believe it must be continued."

Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of today's Joint Chiefs, and his colleagues are expected to give the same kind of answer when asked about the worth of risking more airplanes to spy on China. Military commanders cannot get enough intelligence about potential enemies. It is their job to ask for as much as they can get. It is the job of the commander in chief to look at the bigger picture-to determine whether spying on an emerging superpower with old and unarmed U.S. Navy planes is worth the risk, given the abundance of other, stealthier spies, such as submarines lying off shore and high-flying satellites.

Hopefully, President Bush will consult with experts beyond generals and admirals before deciding whether to continue flights off China indefinitely. Do we stand to lose more than we could gain by continuing them, even though the Chinese were clearly at fault this time? The Chinese pilot acted like a crazy motorcyclist who tried to graze the front of a locomotive at every railroad crossing, just to panic the engineer in the cab.

Zealots from the far right, who on a certain level must feel great about having a new demon to replace the evil empire of the Soviet Union, may demand that our fighter planes escort and protect reconnaissance flights off China. This would be asking for far more trouble than that lone Chinese pilot ever caused. What would happen, for instance, if Chinese and U.S. pilots start mixing it up in the sky and somebody shoots the other guy down? Ask the restless ghost of Lyndon Johnson looking down on the Gulf of Tonkin.

In exchange for concessions from China, whose military preparations could be monitored by eavesdropping submarines and satellites, Bush could at least reduce the number of spy flights and conduct them a bit farther offshore. Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon survived such appeasement, after all, and there are big dividends in making China a friendly competitor rather than a hostile one. Time for cool, Mr. President, not the bloody shirt.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook