CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod reports there is no consensus over whether they are "spies" or "captives," "detainees" or "hostages." If U.S.-China relations have entered uncharted territory over the dispute, so has the lingo.
The pentagon has officially designated the crew as detainees, which among other things gives them an extension on filing their income tax returns.
But U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has begun calling them hostages.
In a new poll, 55 percent of respondents agree with Hyde's term. The survey of 1,025 adults was done Friday through Sunday and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Asked about that finding, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The president understands the concerns of the American people. He shares them. It's a justifiable concern to the American people."
For his part, Fleischer Tuesday referred to the crewmembers as "our folks in Hainan island."
The confusion over nomenclature stems from the complexity of the dispute.
"There isn't any direct precedent," said Hannum. "Most of the other cases that we have have been people caught in territorial waters or flying over the territory of the country, as with Gary Powers in 1960."
Powers, shot down over the Soviet Union, spent two years in prison there. But that case was clearer, the pilot's son says.
"When my father was captured, there was nothing the American government could do to demand his release they were caught spying outright over the former Soviet Union," said ?? Powers.
The different circumstances may best explain the administration's concern over semantics in the current, much murkier case. Not saying "sorry" is more than just saving face to take blame for the collision would be to admit fault. That, in turn, could then put the crew at much greater risk.
"I think that is the key issue, because it's clear that if they fell into Chinese territory without any involvement of the Chinese government, then the Chinese will be free to treat them as they wanted to," explained Hannum.
However, if China had anything to do with forcing the plane to Chinese soil, the crew seems to become less like "captured spies" and more like "hostages".
There is a precedent for a phony apology, although in different circumstances.
When North Koreans hld, humiliated and beat 82 crewmen of the U.S. spy ship Pueblo for 11 months in 1968, the men were freed when the chief U.S. negotiator issued a formal apology he said later he did not mean.
The odd solution allowed for face-saving on both sides North Koreans had an admission of U.S. guilt for their purposes and Americans disavowed what they had said for their own domestic consumption.
However, experts point out, relations with China are much different from those between America and North Korea in the sixties.
Even if the countries could agree on the terms and if there were legal precedent to clarify the situation it probably wouldn't resolve the issue.
"The tendency of the U.S., as with almost any other government, has been to use the term 'international law' for self-serving purposes," said Kevin Jackson. "When it benefits them, they invoke it. When it doesn't benefit them, they conveniently ignore it."
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