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Beijing claims the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters.

The U.S. defense official said the Chinese harassment was part of what has been termed legal warfare, or “lawfare,” the use of international laws to try to deny access to areas near coasts by foreign ships and aircraft.

The official said it is important for the Navy not to give in to such harassment because of the risks of limiting freedom of navigation, which is a vital interest for both the United States and its allies in Asia.

The Chinese ships closed to within 50 feet of the ship, blocked its path and threw wood and debris in its path. The U.S. protested the harassment.

The Impeccable is one of five U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ships that are under the Military Sealift Command's special mission ships program.

The ship was conducting operations near Hainan island, where China has a submarine base and where new Chinese ballistic missile submarines will be deployed.

At the time of the incident, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs stated that U.S. vessels would “continue to operate in those international waters, and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around that.”

However, the defense official said doing so will be more difficult because of the Impeccable's response.

Capt. Jeff Breslau, a Pacific Command spokesman, denied that the Impeccable's response to the harassment was harmful.

“USNS ships are noncombatants,” Capt. Breslau said. “All the actions Impeccable took that day were both prudent and correct, which does not set a bad precedent.”

Syria intelligence failure

Former United Nations Ambassador John R. Bolton is faulting U.S. intelligence agencies for missing early signs of a covert Syrian nuclear program when he first raised the issue in 2003.

The secret Syrian nuclear plant was confirmed by a defecting Iranian scientist and led to a daring Israeli air strike on the al Kibar plant in September 2007.

“Key elements of our intelligence community (IC) fought against the idea of a Syrian nuclear program for years,” Mr. Bolton stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Mr. Bolton said that in mid-2003 he waged a “a bitter struggle” with members of several intelligence agencies over the Syrian nuclear program.

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