On PRC's seizure of U.S. EP-3

by Wm. Robert Johnston
18 May 2001

Dear Editor:

Ben Brown's editorial on U.S. military accidents is highly selective in the cited facts. I am surprised that he would imply the Chinese have a legitimate complaint over the EP-3 spy plane incident.

This was a collision between a slow lumbering U.S. plane over international waters and a supersonic, highly manueverable Chinese fighter plane from a squadron with a history of aggressive, reckless flying. Any pilot can tell you that the Chinese fighter pilot approached closer than any sensible pilot would--unless the pilots of both aircraft have trained together in aerobatic manuevers. The Chinese were undeniably at fault in the collision.

Moreover, to imply the U.S. would have similarly detained Chinese airmen is ludicrous. I challenge Mr. Brown to produce a comparable incident where the U.S. was clearly at fault, but then detained the foreign victims, harassed them, threatened to charge them with murder, refused to honor statements on diplomatic access, and proposed holding them hostage for financial compensation.

While the U.S. has culpability in other incidents Brown cites, he still omits details. The Chinese embassy was in a war zone (and gathering military intelligence against the U.S.). Italian pilots or Japanese submarines are unlikely to cause accidents as described because the U.S. is shouldering much of the human and financial costs of defense for these countries.

Of course, the U.S. should accept appropriate responsibility. It was extremely impolitic for the Navy to allow the USS Greeneville's captain to escape dishonorable discharge after he admitted lapses in procedure.

What I found facinating about Brown's editorial is that he overlooked the best examples. For instance, in August 1998 President Clinton, against the advice of his highest advisors, ordered cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan. The attacks were supposedly against terrorist camps and a chemical weapons factory, respectively, tied to Osama bin Laden.

The strikes on Afghanistan necessitated illegal overflights of Pakistan. The strike on Sudan killed a custodian at what turned out to be merely a medical drug factory. The U.S. has since had to reimburse the factory's owner to avoid admitting in court that it had little or no evidence of nefarious activities at the factory.

These strikes were too soon after the African embassy bombings to qualify as a considered response to these acts. However, they did occur the day of Monica Lewinsky's grand jury testimony. Many, if not most, world countries interpreted the strikes as a deadly ploy by Clinton to divert political attention from his sexual improprieties and his obstruction of justice.

We need a law professor to comment on whether this was an international war crime.

(printed in The Brownsville Herald 22 June 2001)

© 2001, 2003, 2008 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 27 January 2008.
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