Observation Deck

Could American Spooks Provoke War with Beijing?

U.S. intelligence agencies are turning spy missions into provocations in the South China Sea.


In May, the U.S. Defense Department invited a CNN team onto the Navy’s newest, most sophisticated spy plane, the P-8A Poseidon. After taking off from Clark Air Base in the Philippines, pilots flew the aircraft near three islands in the South China Sea, where Chinese reclamation and military building projects are taking place. The operation, however, wasn’t just intended to collect intelligence. It appears it was also meant to provoke a hostile reaction from China and, thanks to the news cameras on board, use that response for propaganda — to blatantly tell the world that America thinks China’s territorial claims are illegal and dangerous.

The Chinese sent eight strong warnings to the plane. “This is the Chinese navy,” said one radio operator. “Please go away … to avoid misunderstanding.” Later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the flight “very irresponsible and dangerous” and noted that Beijing would “take the necessary and appropriate measures to prevent harm to the safety of China’s islands and reefs as well as any sea and air accidents.”

When CNN broadcast its story, it played a recording of the warnings, and Jim Sciutto, the correspondent who had been on the plane, dutifully adopted the Pentagon’s party line as his own. “China’s enormous land grab … [is] alarming,” Sciutto said. “It’s hard to see how this tension doesn’t escalate going forward.” To reinforce the need for alarm, the network also featured former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who cautioned that war is “absolutely” a possibility. (CNN did not present opposing viewpoints on the complex legal issues involved in the South China Sea.)

The incident is just one confrontation in a duel now escalating between the United States and China. This September, the Pentagon blamed China for allowing military jets to make an unsafe maneuver by passing in front of the nose of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Yellow Sea. The following month, the U.S. Navy penetrated the 12-nautical-mile limit that China claims as territory around its artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago — a deliberate challenge to Beijing’s self-declared sovereignty. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress, “We will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits and whenever our operational needs require.” China’s Foreign Ministry responded to the incident by stating that Beijing “will not condone any action that undermines China’s security.”

American history shows that this perversion of purpose — turning missions into provocations — is fraught with hazard. Half a century ago, for instance, the Pentagon ordered a National Security Agency (NSA) spy ship, the USS Maddox, to breach North Vietnam’s territorial limit in the Gulf of Tonkin. The series of events that ensued (namely false reports of attacks on the ship) led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized the use of force in Southeast Asia and catapulted the United States into a war that killed millions of people.

But even routine intelligence missions that do not defiantly breach boundaries sometimes go terribly wrong. The NSA has a long history of risky air and sea operations that have turned deadly. Deep in the agency’s Maryland headquarters, in fact, is a wall of black granite with the names of more than 150 personnel killed on such missions.

During the Cold War, more than 50 U.S. and allied aircraft were attacked by the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea; at least 15 NSA spy planes were shot down. In one incident, a plane was patrolling 32 miles off China’s coast on Aug. 22, 1956, when Chinese fighters were spotted approaching. Minutes later, halfway through an alert message back to its base, the plane crashed into the East China Sea, killing all 16 crew members. Although there was never proof, it was presumably shot down. Afterward, in a secret meeting at the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower told Adm. Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “We seem to be conducting something that we cannot control very well. If planes were flying 20 to 50 miles from our shores, we would be very likely to shoot them down if they came in closer, whether through error or not.”

Similar concerns weigh heavy in the ongoing American-Chinese standoff. In the spring of 2001, for example, an EP-3 NSA eavesdropping plane operated by the Navy collided with a Chinese military jet sent up to observe it. As the Chinese craft plunged down, killing the pilot, the damaged U.S. plane was able to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Had it crashed, it’s very likely that many members of Congress immediately would have accused China of purposely shooting down the EP-3 and killing two dozen crew members. And there’s a good chance the next step might have been war. (Beijing set the crew free, but not before analyzing top-secret documents and sensitive NSA gear found on the plane.)

As tensions continue to mount between the United States and China, it’s time to take a closer look at U.S. spying practices and determine which ones aren’t worth the risks involved. Certainly, zooming planes over islands in the South China Sea — with or without a media team present — to draw Beijing’s ire seems unwise. But it’s also important for the White House and intelligence agencies to formally assess, through some kind of coordinated review process, which routine missions are no longer necessary. With so many spy satellites now in orbit, able to photograph even small objects on Earth and eavesdrop on everything from cell phones to radar signals, the need for expensive air and sea operations may be overkill: spying for the sake of spying, sometimes with lethal consequences.

Given that the purpose of intelligence should be to prevent wars rather than start them, the current U.S. administration would do well to ask when espionage is necessary to national security — and when it simply means playing with fire.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of FP under the title “Cloak and Dagger.”

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

 Twitter: @WashAuthor

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