The crew of the U.S. Navy spy plane that made an emergency landing in China this month failed to destroy all the sophisticated surveillance equipment in the plane, the Pentagon said Thursday.
Sen. Richard Shelby, head of the Intelligence Committee, said that, while the U.S. has "lost some ground," he does not see the damage as irreparable. One military official said the crew smashed some hardware with hammers and changed "key codes" for computerized information.
"That's the chance you take when you have a reconnaissance plane like that that's gathering data," said Sen. Shelby, R-Ala.
The crew has been praised for its heroic effort to destroy the eavesdropping gear, but crewmembers didn't get it all.
"It wasn't perfect, but we feel they did the best job that they could," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. Asked if some intelligence was lost, Quigley responded: "We feel there was."
He declined to characterize the size or type of damage done. The plane's 24 crewmembers will be questioned again after they return from their leaves of absence next month.
The spy plane, a Navy EP-3E, collided with a Chinese jet while patrolling over the South China Sea on April 1. The Navy says the Chinese pilot caused the accident by flying too close and striking one of the plane's four propellers. The Chinese claims the Navy plane swerved into the jet's path.
The Chinese jet crashed. Its pilot, Wang Wei, ejected but has not been found and is presumed dead. The U.S. plane, badly damaged, fell into an 8,000-foot dive before pilot Lt. Shane Osborn gained control and made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in China.
The crew was detained there for 11 days, and released only when the United States said it was "very sorry" for the pilot's death and emergency landing. U.S. officials debriefed them for two days to glean information about the incident. The plane remains in China.
The United States has demanded that the plane be returned, but talks with the Chinese over the incident have not resolved the situation.
One military officer said the plane is a significant technological windfall for the Chinese, who now have had nearly four weeks to pick through what was left after the crew spent a frantic half-hour erasing computer memories and destroying everything they could.
The National Security Agency, the government office responsible for collecting electronic intelligence, is conducting a review of the potential damage done by the loss of the top-secret aircraft, said two government officials familiar with the study.
"The damage assessment is still ongoing, but it's clear some stuff was lost," said one of the officials. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
"They weren't able to get everything," the official added, speakig of the crew.
Payne says the crew completed the emergency destruction checklist which had five or six steps but Pentagon officials say that won't stop the Chinese from reassembling some of the equipment, even piecing together those documents that were torn up by hand.
After returning to the U.S., crewman Lt. Richard Payne explained procedures for destroying equipment.
"We have a crash axe on board that's part of the standard emergency equipment," he said. "We use that by smashing keyboards, smashing hard drives."
When the plane was over water, the crew threw equipment and classified manuals out in weighted bags that would sink, but there was a limit to how much they could get rid of.
"Not everything is able to be jettisoned out because it's bolted down, bolted into the aircraft," he said. "What we could, we jettisoned."
Once over land, they could no longer throw classified documents out.
"The best we can do is shred it by hand on board the aircraft. That's what we started doing," he said.
After the plane landed, Osborn stalled for time while the crew made one last sweep.
"Anything that looked it was too big or you could read anything on it we'd shred it up some more," Payne said.
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