PSST, WANNA BUY SOME YANKEE SPY SECRETS?

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

Last week, communist China got the Olympic gold. But a few months back, it hit a mother lode of our country's top military secrets -- courtesy of U.S. Navy Lt. Shane Osborne and his recon plane flight crew.

This intelligence disaster has been totally covered up -- not from the Chicoms, who know exactly what they got, but from the citizens of this land who lay out a trillion bucks every three years to keep themselves safe from the latest Pentagon-announced bogeyman. The reason for this skullduggery is the Pentagon's survival plan: If the public knows the truth about its screw-ups, they might wake up and demand that more of their tax dollars go toward education, health care, taking care of the nation's vets -- and putting every lost kid in the USA in boot camp. You know, issues that help the people, not the arms' merchants.

Word is that Osborne and the rest of the flight-deck crew were so busy keeping their damaged plane in the sky, they plumb forgot to update the intelligence whiz kids in the back about the change in landing plans.

The intell bunch, who'd been told the plane was ditching in the drink, went flat-out destroying durable intelligence hardware that could survive the bath. Stuff that could easily be recovered by a Red deep-water salvage operation. They did heroic work tossing gathering devices out a hatch while the broken bird was doing roller-coaster loopity-loops.

Except the scenario changed, and the plane landed at a not-so-friendly military spy base.

By the time the aircraft rolled to a stop to be greeted by an armed welcome wagon, the hard stuff was at the bottom of the ocean floor. But that still left a lot of critical intelligence materials the spooks either didn't have time to trash or didn't need to because Davy Jones' saltwater locker would do the rest.

One key item among dozens scooped up by the Reds was a laptop system known as the "lunch box," which contained the decryption software for a host of supposedly ultra-secure data links employed by our worldwide adversaries. And the bad guys weren't the only targets -- the plane was equipped to prowl the global skies sucking intelligence from friend and foe alike.

Ironically, U.S. Navy red tape played a major part in providing Beijing with its coup. A Navy SOP that requires each classified item to be inventoried prior to destruction slowed the shredding effort down. You know, "One each ATPC-104 in seven copies." "Check." "Initial here on all copies." "Check." "All right, let's speed it up. It's just about time for Chinese takeout. One each ATPC-105 ..."

One would have thought the Navy would have learned from its last major intell giveaway -- when the USS Pueblo was captured off North Korea 32 years ago. The treasure-trove of secret goodies turned over to our Cold War enemies that time around cost countless lives and did similar damage to our security.

Now, besides selling missiles and other military hardware to nations like Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Cuba, China can provide eager shoppers with the latest info on how we've been reading all that rogue mail -- and everyone else's -- along with the latest made-in-China countermeasure devices and techniques.

Osborne's flight-deck crew did a great job of wrestling that sick plane to the ground, and the folks in the back went about doing their thing with equal courage. Sadly, it's now a national tragedy that the front didn't keep the back in the loop about what was going down.

Congress needs to investigate what happened and also get an answer to the question that many vets are asking: Why didn't the aircraft ditch? If the reason was to minimize casualties, then the Pentagon has it all wrong, because the secrets gained by our enemies have now put tens of thousands of our military personnel at an inestimable risk.

And despite the current fad toward risk aversion, the military is all about risk. Sometimes the few must sacrifice for the many. That's why a 37-year-old can retire with a pension for life. Serving your country is a dangerous duty -- or at least it used to be.

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(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
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