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CNN WOLF BLITZER REPORTS April 3, 2001; Tuesday

Spy Plane Standoff

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: A CNN special report: Spy Plane Standoff. American diplomats finally meet with the crew of the Navy surveillance plane held by China.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident.


BLITZER: But Beijing blames the United States for the collision, which brought down a U.S. fighter, and demands a U.S. apology.

As relatives of the crew keep an anxious watch, the Pentagon worries about its personnel and the top secret technology aboard the EP-3 aircraft. We will go live to our correspondents around the world, from Beijing to the White House. From Hainan Island to the Pentagon.

Viewers in the United States and around the world, welcome to our special report: Spy Plane Standoff, day three. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

U.S. diplomats in China have met with the 24 crew members from the Navy surveillance plane that was forced to make an emergency landing on the island of Hainan. President Bush says the military personnel are in good health and are not being mistreated, even as he demands they be allowed to go home.

Later in the day, Secretary of State Colin Powell described the crew as "detained and incommunicado," which he calls unacceptable. So the standoff continues.


BLITZER (voice-over): President Bush is stepping up his tone, putting China on notice the crew must be released and the plane returned immediately.

BUSH: This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries. To keep that from happening, our servicemen and women need to come home. BLITZER: China insists it's the victim, as a Chinese F-18 fighter jet crashed into the South China Sea, its pilot missing. It says its airspace was illegally invaded and is calling on the U.S. to end surveillance flights off its coast.

ZHU BANGZAO, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY (through translator): They should apologize to the Chinese side and take full responsibility to the entire incident.

BLITZER: U.S. officials say they will make no apology, that this was clearly an accident in international airspace during a routine mission. They say the crew was in peril and needed to land as quickly as possible. China's ambassador was summoned to the State Department to discuss the matter.

POWELL: I must say, I'm a little concerned about the way in which the Chinese government has handled matter; we could have resolved it much earlier I think, and without creating the level of interest that there is and level of difficulty we have encountered.

BLITZER: All this comes at a sensitive moment in U.S.-Chinese relations, as the United States debates what advanced military technology to sell to Taiwan; and also tension over the recent defection of the senior Chinese officer to the United States.


BLITZER: For the latest on the crew and the plane, let's go to Lisa Rose Weaver on Hainan Island, the center of all the activity. She joins me live by telephone.

Lisa, tell us the mood on the actual island. What are you hearing and seeing?

LISA ROSE WEAVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, the U.S. counselor officials have been hold up in hotel rooms now for several hours. They seem very tense. I passed them in the halls occasionally; they are just not talking. It has been nearly ten hours since they had their initial meeting of over one hour long with Chinese officials where they achieved the only clear success right now, in having seen the 24 crew members who we are told are healthy.

Nonetheless, they do remain in Chinese custody in a military guest house and the damaged spy plane, the EP-3, is still on the ground where it made its emergency landing on Sunday. There appears to be no break on that issue. Amid all the diplomatic interpretations of this standoff, the U.S. refusing to apologize. The Chinese refusing to return the air crew members or the airplane.

The on the ground popular explanation from people I have been speaking to is that China cannot give up the plane or the crewman now; to do so would simply be to lose faith -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa Rose Weaver, thank you very much. It's now exactly almost 72 hours -- it's Wednesday morning in Hainan Island, 72 hours, since the incident. Pentagon officials here in Washington meanwhile are releasing new details about the crew in the last minutes of the plane's fight. CNN military correspondent Jamie Mcintyre joins me live from the Pentagon -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Pentagon said that the plane was damaged by the Chinese fighter jet but we didn't know how bad. Now, it turns out, the crew of the Navy plane had a near brush with death.


MCINTYRE (voice-over): The Navy's EP-3 surveillance plane is seen here in a Chinese news agency photograph. Its nose sheered off from a midair collision with a Chinese fighter jet. Two propellers are severely damaged. U.S. officials say the plane's pilot had to fight to save his aircraft, which took a frightening 8,000 foot dive before landing safely on Hainan Island. The plane is packed with sophisticated super secret listening devices ,seen here in photographs obtained by CNN of a similar aircraft.

Sources tell CNN that U.S. intelligence indicate that Chinese authorities have begun to strip the plane of its highly classified equipment, in defiance of Washington's claim that any such action violates any such law and custom.

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: Not like this was a choice. The aircraft commander clearly felt that the aircraft was in danger and he had 24 lives that he was responsible for.

MCINTYRE: The Pentagon continues to maintain that the slow moving Navy reconnaissance plane was on a standard flight path, well known to the Chinese and did not turn into the Chinese F-8 fighter jet that collided with the American plane's right-wing.

CAPTAIN WILLIAM MARRIOT, WING COMMANDER: A flying pig. It does not maneuver well, the air crew is trained to go straight and level. They don't practice formation flying.

MCINTYRE: Pentagon sources say, despite the harrowing plunge, the plane's crew radioed it was able to destroy data, erasing hard drives, and disabling equipment even before the plane landed; but it's still unclear how much of a intelligence bonanza the Chinese may find inside.

JOHN PIKE, DIRECTOR, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: If the Chinese acquired and kept a fully capable Aries intelligence plane with all the mission software and intelligence types intact, that could be a major set back for American military intelligence.

On the other hand, if the Chinese just spend a few days looking around the airplane, and the crew has erased all the intelligence, it might learn a little bit, but not enough to make a difference.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MCINTYRE: Pentagon officials say China taking a hard line in fear that could signal a new Cold War in Asia. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is listing the 24 crew members as detainees and charges that China is holding them illegally -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie Mcintyre at the Pentagon, stand by. We will be back to you in the program shortly to discuss more details on the EP-3 surveillance plane.

While there may be differences within China on how to proceed, publicly Beijing is taking an aggressive stance, saying China is the victim in this affair, and demanding an apology from the U.S. Let's go live to Beijing to Rebecca MacKinnon, our CNN bureau chief.

Rebecca, the U.S. is making it clear there will be no apology and no decision to stop those surveillance flights off the coast of China. Does that mean there will be a stalemate in this entire affair?

REBECCA MACKINNON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well that is likely to go over not well here at all in China. Chinese government is focusing on the plight of its citizen; the Chinese airman who was lost in the South China Sea still has not been found. There is loss -- most likely been a loss of Chinese life in the situation, while the U.S. Crew is being held in Hainan, there has been no loss of American life. So, from the Chinese perspective -- from the Chinese government's perspective, Chinese leaders cannot afford but to take a fairly hard line on this situation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Rebecca, there's been a lot of speculation about two schools of thought within China hard-liners in the military intelligence community and others perhaps in the foreign ministry; political types who are concerned about China's economic ties with the U.S. and the West. How serious of a split is there, if in fact there is a split?

BLITZER: Well, Wolf, we don't know exactly what is going on behind the closed doors of the Chinese leadership compound. But what we know is that two years ago, after a U.S. warplane bombed a Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, there was a division in the Chinese leadership between the more moderate elements and foreign ministry who wanted to minimize the damage of the situation and move on; get China into the WTO and so forth.

And then more hard line elements in the military, other more conservative elements in the party, who felt that in order to retain its credibility, the leadership really did need to take a hard line. They did have public opinion, very much behind them in the initial several weeks after that incident and they very much did take a hard line at that time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Rebecca MacKinnon, thank you very much.

The Bush administration meanwhile, is showing its impatience with China's failure to return the plane and its crew and is warning a fallout from the incident. Let's go live to senior White House correspondent John King. John, I know you have been briefed by high-ranking officials. You have more details about the fate of the crew and that plane?

JOHN KING, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. A senior U.S. official telling CNN the crew is being kept two to a room at a Chinese military guest house, and as of now, no further meeting scheduled with U.S. officials, no permission from the Chinese government for those crew members to reach out and contact their families.

U.S. officials saying there will be a demand for more access if the crew is not released within the next 24 hours, the priority now obviously, on trying to win the release. But a great sense of frustration here in the Bush White House with the lack of response from Beijing, senior administration officials saying the president and his team understands it takes times in the Chinese system for a decision to be made, but already talk here of, quote, "moving up the ladder," that is going around from the diplomatic channels suggested by the Chinese, and perhaps the president, if this is not resolved by this time tomorrow, picking up the phone and calling the Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

BLITZER: John, you have heard the speculation of two schools within China, but there's a lot of speculation -- there are also two school of thought here in Washington within the Bush administration, some hard-liners wanting speedy, tougher action, others saying let diplomacy play itself out. What can you tell us about this?

KING: Divisions within the administration and throughout Washington; U.S. relations with China always one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics.

Some in the pro-business community believing engagement with China is the best way to build a prosperous trade relationship that they say benefits the U.S. economy; others in the conservative camp -- say, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, saying the Chinese should not be trusted and should not be engaged because of religious persecution and the like.

And look across this administration: from the vice president to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the top deputies at both the State Department and the Defense Department -- during the Clinton administration, all critics of what they viewed as too soft approach on Beijing. The president's tone changed dramatically today as this standoff dragged on. We are told that was because of warnings from some conservatives that if he did not adopt a tougher line, there might be a revolt on the Republican right.

BLITZER: John King at the White House, thank you very much.

Up next: an anxious community watches and waits. We will go live to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state, home base of the surveillance plane's crew.

And later: who's right? The fate of the U.S. crew and aircraft may depend on a blend of international law and diplomacy. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back. The crew members detained on Hainan island are based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state. The community there is putting up yellow ribbons. CNN's James Hattori is there, he joins us now live. James, what it happening over there?

JAMES HATTORI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are told that here on Whidbey island there are seven family members of the aircraft crew that's detained in China. The rest of the families are scattered in other parts of the United States, all of course, are keeping an anxious vigil.


HATTORI (voice-over): Flight operations continue as usual at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, but the mood is far from normal. Families members awaiting word of their loved ones in China are said to be upset, frightened, even angry.

CAPTAIN BILL MARRIOTT, WING COMMANDER: Of course we didn't have all the answers that they wanted. Why can't they talk to their spouses? Why can't they see their spouses?

HATTORI: In a sign of solidarity, local residents tied yellow ribbons around the streets of Oak Harbor, just off base. One family member in New York expressed the frustration all are likely feeling.

BARBARA DESTEFANO, FAMILY MEMBER: I wish they would follow international law and release them as soon as possible unharmed. And I know it sound horrible, I really don't care about the plane, you know, I just want -- I want the people returned.

HATTORI: But politics and diplomacy will decide when China releases the 24 crew members of the EP-3e surveillance aircraft, identical to this one on Whidbey island.

Candy Marriott has been coordinating help for the families.

CANDY MARRIOTT, FAMILY SPOKESWOMAN: You know, it's always in the back of your mind. Your husband or your spouse performs a very dangerous job, goes on dangerous missions, and it's scary. But I know my husband is very well-trained.


HATTORI: It's of some comfort that reports indicate that all the crew members being detained in China are in good condition, unharmed. But, Wolf, as one friend of the family members here put it: "They'd love to get a phone call from China about now."

BLITZER: James, when was the last time these crew members actually saw their families here in the United States? HATTORI: This part of the wing deployed from here to Okinawa in the first week of March. Normally, their tour of duty would have ended and they'd be back here sometime in June. Of course, assuming that some sort of a release occurs, there might be a reunion before that.

BLITZER: James Hattori, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, thank you so much for joining us.

Up next: the way out of this standoff may lie in the creative use of diplomacy and international law. And we'll take a closer look at the EP-3, and learn why the Chinese may be taking a closer look as well. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report: "Spy Plane Standoff." Resolving the situation will likely take diplomatic and political maneuvering, because international law goes only so far to resolve some of the points of contention.

More on this from CNN senior Washington correspondent Charles Bierbauer.


CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): With the personal safety of the EP-3 crew now clearer, the security of the plane and its secrets remains a U.S. concern.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have said that the plane should not be violated. It is protected in our judgment from that kind of intrusion.

BIERBAUER: Chinese officials say the plane is not protected as sovereign U.S. territory as an embassy would be.

ZHU BANGZAO, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): If this plane is sovereign American territory, how did it land in China?

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: It is common diplomatic practice to not have that aircraft subject to inspections or boardings unless you are so specifically invited by the nation that owns the aircraft in the first place.

BIERBAUER: Experts in international law say a solution lies more in the tradition of providing safe harbor for a ship or plane in distress than in any international treaty.

The U.S. may be arguing a double standard. During the Cold War, a Soviet pilot defected, landing his MiG-25 fighter, similar to this, in Japan. The U.S. did not return the plane until it had been dismantled and examined.

The Chinese were faced with the legal deadline for allowing the U.S. officials to see the crew. PROF. JAMES FEINERMAN, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER: We have a consular convention with China which says that any U.S. citizen can be detained in China no longer than 48 hours without being granted access to diplomatic consular officials.

BIERBAUER: The assertion that the mid-air collision was in Chinese airspace is based on China's claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea and the airspace above them.

BIERBAUER (on camera): International law won't support that. Other countries in the region adhere to a 12-mile territorial limit. The U.S. plane would have been over international waters until it sought a place for an emergency landing.

Charles Bierbauer, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: In our "Leading Edge" segment: what makes the EP-3 surveillance plane so unique and invaluable? CNN military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre joins us once again live from the Pentagon to explain the plane's technical capabilities. Jamie, under a worst-case scenario for the U.S. military, if the Chinese keep the plane, dismantle it bit by bit, what is the U.S. worst nightmare, fear?

MCINTYRE: Well, The worst-case scenario would be if the crew, because they were preoccupied with trying to save the plane, were unable to erase all of the data on the hard drives.

This plane, while it's a sophisticated surveillance plane, the real magic to it is not so much in the hardware, which is kind of old, but in the software that is in the computer, sophisticated programs that allow the United States to pick up individual conversations, to sort through various electronic signals, to record the frequencies of radars, the Chinese radars, picking up all kinds of information and storing them on hard drives.

The crew is supposed to erase those hard drive, erase the software and then damage the equipment if they have time. If they didn't have that, the Chinese would get a pretty clear picture of exactly what United States knows and how it knows it.

BLITZER: Would it be another fear that the Chinese potentially could copy this equipment and perhaps share it with others who are not necessarily friendly to the United States?

MCINTYRE: Well, it's possible because China is known to have proliferated technology. But I think the bigger fear is that simply China would be able to use that information to gain a capability that it doesn't have itself. Plus, it could do things, like change radar frequencies to make the future eavesdropping that much harder for U.S. planes.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon, thank you very much. Just ahead: a look at our other top stories, including another rocky day on Wall Street. How low can it go? And will the slowing economy force the U.S. Postal Service to end Saturday delivery? Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back. In other news: earnings warnings and concerns over the U.S.-Chinese standoff sent stocks tumbling on Wall Street today. At the closing bell, the Dow Industrials plummeted 292 points to 9,485. The tech-heavy Nasdaq dropped almost 110 points to 1,673, its lowest close since October, 1998.

Turning now to the Middle East: Israeli helicopters fired rockets at Palestinian targets in Gaza today, injuring dozens of people. Israel says the operation was in retaliation for a Palestinian mortar attack that critically injured a baby and wounded his Israeli mother. Tomorrow, the two sides are set to meet for their first high-level talks in more than a month.

In Yugoslavia today, President Vojislav Kostunica rejected calls for the immediate transfer of his predecessor, Slobodan Milosevic, to the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal. Mr. Kostunica says Milosevic should be tried at home first on domestic charges, then be prosecuted on war crimes. But not in The Hague, in a court in Belgrade. Milosevic was arrested Sunday in an armed standoff at his residence.

A jury in Miami has just convicted a man of stalking tennis star Martina Hingis. Dubravko Rajcevic faces up to four years in prison on stalking and trespassing charges. He followed Hingis around the world despite repeated warnings to stop. The defendant said he was in love with the tennis star.

Saturday mail delivery could become a thing of the past here in the United States. Faced with slowing business and huge projected losses, the U.S. Postal Service is considering cutting back delivery to five days a week, and possibly merging facilities. The agency is said to be facing a 2 to $3 billion loss this fiscal year.

Before we leave you, this reminder: you can read my daily on-line column and get a preview of each night's program on our WOLF BLITZER REPORTS Web site. Just go to cnn.com/wolf.

That's all the time we have for our special report. Please stay with CNN throughout the night. At the top of the hour, Larry King talks with a man whose son is one of the crew members on the ground now in China.

Up next: Greta Van Susteren. She's standing by now to tell us what she has -- Greta.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST, CNN'S "THE POINT WITH GRETA VAN SUSTEREN": Wolf, two big names are in the news tonight: Darryl Strawberry, does he belong in jail? And Barbra Streisand, she's taking Democrats to task. Why? We'll talk about that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Greta. Sounds good.

Tomorrow night, we'll have more on the standoff between the United States and China. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "THE POINT WITH GRETA VAN SUSTEREN" begins right now.

Copyright 2001 Cable News Network