The reported bugging of China’s new presidential aircraft, a specially fitted Boeing 767, is unlikely to cause a rupture in relations with the United States, U.S. analysts said yesterday.
The White House and State Department were publicly silent on the subject, declining to comment on the disclosure or say whether Beijing had protested or otherwise contacted Washington about it.
“We never discuss these kinds of allegations,” White House spokesman Taylor Gross said.
It was understood in Washington that there has been no communication on this subject involving either the U.S. or Chinese governments. A former U.S. government official with close ties to the administration said he believed there would be no lasting impact. He said a Chinese official in Beijing told him Friday there had been no official protest.
The disclosure comes one month before President Bush is scheduled to travel to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Mr. Bush was at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat yesterday and received his usual intelligence briefing.
Newspaper reports yesterday said Chinese authorities discovered the bugs during a test flight last October. That Beijing has not protested to Washington three months after the discovery suggests the possibility that Chinese authorities have reason to suspect their own people played a role in the episode, analysts said.
The Washington Post quoted unidentified sources as saying Chinese aviation and military officers believe U.S. intelligence agencies planted the listening devices believed to be 27 of them aboard the plane while it was being fitted in the United States with a special bathroom and other accommodations for Mr. Jiang.
Boeing delivered the plane to Delta Air Lines in June 2000, and it was resold to China United Airlines the air force-run airline that ordered the aircraft and customized for Mr. Jiang’s executive use by several modification companies in Texas.
Two of the companies, Gore Design Completions and Dee Howard Aircraft Maintenance, issued a statement Friday saying they had received no complaints about their work on the plane, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
“I know that we had no culpability whatsoever in this. All we did was put an interior in it,” Jerry Gore, president of Gore Design, told the paper.
Both Boeing and Delta had no comments yesterday.
The Post reported that after the listening devices were discovered, 20 Chinese air force officers and two officials involved in negotiations for the airliner were detained and are being investigated for negligence and corruption. It also said a senior air force officer is under house arrest for his role.
The Chinese government made no public comment on the matter.
The Financial Times of London reported that tiny listening devices were hidden in the jetliner’s upholstery, including in the president’s bathroom and the headboard of his bed. It cited unnamed Chinese sources.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who was traveling with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Tokyo yesterday, said he was aware of the news reports but declined comment. In Washington, department spokeswoman Brenda Greenberg had no comment on whether China had lodged a diplomatic protest.
Bates Gill, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said that if as reported in news accounts the bugs were found before the plane went into use as Mr. Jiang’s personal aircraft, then China’s intelligence loss would be minimal and the scandal may blow over fairly quickly.