The plane carried twenty-four officers and enlisted men and women attached to the Naval Security Group Command, a field component of the National Security Agency. They were repatriated after eleven days; the plane stayed behind. The Pentagon told the press that the crew had followed its protocol, which called for the use of a fire axe, and even hot coffee, to disable the plane’s equipment and software. These included an operating system created and controlled by the N.S.A., and the drivers needed to monitor encrypted Chinese radar, voice, and electronic communications. It was more than two years before the Navy acknowledged that things had not gone so well. “Compromise by the People’s Republic of China of undestroyed classified material . . . is highly probable and cannot be ruled out,” a Navy report issued in September, 2003, said.
The loss was even more devastating than the 2003 report suggested, and its dimensions have still not been fully revealed. Retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, who flew patrols off the coast of Russia and served as a defense attaché in Beijing, told me that the radio reports from the aircraft indicated that essential electronic gear had been dealt with. He said that the crew of the EP-3E managed to erase the hard drive—“zeroed it out”—but did not destroy the hardware, which left data retrievable: “No one took a hammer.” Worse, the electronics had recently been upgraded. “Some might think it would not turn out as badly as it did, but I sat in some meetings about the intelligence cost,” McVadon said. “It was grim.”