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U.S. Navy Officer Involved With China Surveillance Charged With Espionage

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An active-duty Navy officer has been charged with espionage. Lieutenant Commander Edward Lin had held a sensitive surveillance job. For the last eight months, though, he has been in custody at the Navy brig in Chesapeake, Va., while the investigation is ongoing. The Pentagon says it is unclear whether Lin was spying for China or for his native Taiwan. NPR's Tom Bowman has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is Chinese navy. Foreign military airplane, you are approaching my military airfield. Please go away quickly.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: That's a Chinese officer trying to shoo away a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft just last year in a recording released by the US. The American pilot holds his ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities outside national airspace. I am operating with due regard that's required under international law.

BOWMAN: Commander Lin also flew on surveillance missions, and now he's being charged with espionage, attempted espionage and making false statements. And while the charging documents don't mention a name, officials confirmed to NPR that officer is Commander Lin. Now officials are trying to determine whether the charges merit a court martial.

Commander Lin is a Naval flight officer, a backseater on an EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft where he managed the collection of electronic signals, including intercepted conversations. The knowledge of such collection is highly prized, officials say, and could offer foreign governments detailed information about how to counter U.S. technology. That's why the charges against Lin are so troubling.

PAUL PILLAR: For that to be compromised would be a significant compromise...

BOWMAN: That's former CIA official Paul Pillar

PILLAR: ...Both from the standpoint of an adversary finding out what sort of knowledge the U.S. government has and what sort of activities it is undertaking.

BOWMAN: And then there are the technical details of collection that Lin would possess.

PILLAR: Everything from frequencies to the range of the instrumentation that would be certainly useful to adversaries, especially adversaries who are themselves the targets of such collection operation.

BOWMAN: The charging documents only say the officer passed secret information on national defense to representatives of a foreign government on two occasions and attempted to provide information on three more occasions.

The charges come at a time of heightened tensions in the Pacific, with China trying to assert more and more control over the South China Sea and placing military installations on disputed reefs. President Obama wants to do what officials say is a pivot to Asia, focusing attention on an important economic region many say was neglected after years fighting terrorism.

In fact, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is now on a trip to the region to strengthen relations with Asian leaders. And despite China's territorial claims, Carter told a Washington audience early this year that the U.S. would continue such surveillance and freedom of navigation efforts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASH CARTER: We're going to keep doing what we've always done, what we've done for 70 years. We're going to fly and sail and operate where international law permits, period.

BOWMAN: Commander Lin was profiled by the Naval News Service in 2008 when he was stationed in Hawaii and spoke at a naturalization ceremony. He recalled he was 14 years old when his family moved to the U.S. from Taiwan. I always dreamt about coming to America, the promised land, Lin told the audience. I grew up believing that all roads in America lead to Disneyland. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.