- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

A highly classified U.S. operation that promised to provide important perhaps even geopolitically explosive insights into China's international conduct is suddenly compromised. As a result, Beijing is spared the embarrassment, or worse, that might have followed. So is a U.S. government anxious to improve relations.

This could describe the news that Chinese President Jiang Zemin's security services last fall discovered highly sophisticated listening devices placed aboard a modified Boeing 767 intended for his use.

Interestingly, it also describes an incident that occurred in this country in 1996.

On that occasion, a "princeling". the term applied to family members of Beijing's leadership who exploit their powerful "connections" to profit in business was about to be nabbed by American law enforcement authorities. He had been identified in a sting operation as the prime mover behind an arms-smuggling network that intended to put 2,000 Chinese-made AK-47 automatic rifles into the hands of American street gangs.

Worse yet, the well-connected entrepreneur expressed a willingness to provide even more formidable firepower, including anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and armored vehicles, to the drug lords he thought were his customers.

Shortly before the princeling arrived in this country to consummate the initial deal at which point he was expected to face prompt arrest, interrogation and prosecution someone leaked the story to the American press. He never set foot on U.S. soil, escaped American justice and spared both his own government and the Clinton administration the problem of trying to limit the damage such an affair would inevitably cause in U.S.-Chinese relations.

At the time, furious law enforcement personnel let it be known that they thought the sting had been deliberately compromised by U.S. officials in the White House or State Department. The actual facts in this case have never come to public light. But the earlier episode inspires a question about the compromise of the Chinese bugs:

Might someone privy to what was, presumably, a tightly compartmented U.S. intelligence operation have deliberately tipped the Chinese off to the fact that their new presidential aircraft was wired for sound?

To be sure, China which is said to have discovered these "state-of-the-art," "satellite-activated:" listening devices within a month of the plane's delivery in September is putting out the word that the bugs were discovered when they began emitting static during flight trials.

Alternatively, Chinese counterintelligence may have detected their presence during a routine electronic sweep of the new plane.

Still, if one reflects on the kinds of things that might have been learned from monitoring Mr. Jiang's unguarded conversations, it would appear that "Friends of China" would have even more to be concerned about in this instance than if the gun-runner with close ties to the regime in Beijing had been successfully apprehended.

For example, what if Mr. Jiang were overheard confirming arrangements for further Chinese transfers of missile- and/or nuclear-related technology to clients like Pakistan, North Korea, Iran or Iraq, who may be U.S. targets before the war on terrorism is over? What if he were overheard outlining Beijing's plans for expanding its hegemonic influence in the Pacific rim at the expense of the United States, its allies and interests?

Or perhaps we might have secured confirmation of insidious Chinese activities in our own hemisphere. He may have shed important light on China's role in supporting Colombia's Marxist narco-traffickers known as the FARC, its connections to the ever-more-despotic Hugo Chavez, who has announced his desire to replicate the Maoist revolution in Venezuela, or its plans for expanding China's military and intelligence "footprint" beyond the electronic listening facility it is using to "bug" the United States from Cuba.

We might also have received evidence that previous threats made by senior military officers to use China's modernizing offensive ballistic missile force to attack Los Angeles or other American targets were not unauthorized statements by "rogue" officers, but reflect official policy for dealing with what the Communists call "the main enemy," namely the United States.

It is, of course, possible that the Chinese found the bugs all by themselves. It may even be, as some are speculating, that Mr. Jiang's plane was wired by domestic rivals jockeying to succeed him. One thing is clear, however: "Friends of China" are doubtless breathing a sigh of relief that they are not having to do what the Clinton administration routinely did "spin," conceal or otherwise apologize for hard evidence that China is no friend of the United States.

A thorough investigation should be conducted to determine whether an American with such sentiments might have compromised the operation that would have collected this sort of unwanted evidence. Unfortunately, the logical place for such a review, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), seems ineligible to conduct it since the board is chaired by one of China's best American friends, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Certainly it is to be hoped that, when President Bush heads to China next month, he will not express any regret to his hosts over a failed U.S. intelligence operation. The only cause for regret, as with the foiled sting aimed at the princeling gun-runner, is that the United States was denied insights it urgently needs into China's true character and agenda.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for the Washington Times.

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