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Sen. Richard Shelby on 'Wolf Blitzer Reports'

BLITZER: Welcome back. A U.S. Navy surveillance plane remains on the ground in China, 24 Americans remain in detention, and the two governments remain at an impasse.

Joining me now live from Capitol Hill, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby. Long before this incident, he called China "the No. 1 intelligence challenge" facing the United States.

Senator Shelby, thank you so much for joining us.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Our Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, had a chance earlier today to sit with China's ambassador here in the United States.

I want to play an excerpt and I want to give you a chance to respond to some of the points made by the Chinese ambassador. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YANG JIECHI, CHINESE AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: The Chinese side has every right to carry out an investigation. So the crew members are in China, because the investigation is going on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YANG: Our side has said it very clearly that the U.S. side should shoulder all the responsibility and should apologize to the Chinese side.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YANG: I think this issue is harmful to the relationship between China and the United States. And first of all, it's very harmful to China's interests, because it's our airplane which was lost, it's our man who has disappeared.

So I think an appropriate response from the American side to this incident would be in the U.S. interest and in our common interest.

FRANK SESNO, CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: How long will this go on?

YANG: I don't know. I think maybe you should ask some of your countrymen how long it should go on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Shelby, as you know, Secretary of State Powell expressed regret for the loss of that Chinese jet fighter pilot. Why shouldn't the United States simply apologize in order to get those 24 Americans back home?

SHELBY: Because simply we haven't done anything wrong. We haven't done anything, Wolf, willfully here.

This was an accident. Secretary of State Powell and others have said they regret this happened, we regret the loss of life, but it was an accident. And I think if the Chinese government would really look at it objectively, they will see that it is an accident.

But I can tell you I think it would be a mistake to apologize. An apology is not in order. If an apology was in order, I believe President Bush would have already done it, because he wants the 24 service people back, as I do.

But on the other hand, there's a lot at stake here. China, I believe, needs to reassess their situation here. They've got a lot to lose. They will create a lot of ill will. And what this will lead to I don't know.

But every hour, every day that they hold our people over there hostage they're making an awful mistake, in my opinion.

BLITZER: That's a strong word you used, "hostage." The State Department, the Pentagon, they've said the Americans are detained. But you're using the word "hostage."

SHELBY: Well, I'm using the word "hostage" because they're held against their will. They're not -- if they were detained, they would be. That's just a milder word.

But if you look, when someone -- look in the dictionary -- when someone is held against their will by a government here, I believe that hostage is in order. You can say they're a prisoner. They're certainly not able to move along on their free will. Otherwise, they would leave.

BLITZER: The Chinese ambassador in Washington said they need those Americans in order to conduct their investigation, what happened. What's wrong with that argument?

SHELBY: Well, I think they've had the Americans there more than a reasonable length of time. I thought they should have released them immediately.

You know, we're a great nation. China's a great nation. We have built and forged a much better relationship in the last 30 years. But a lot is at risk here. It goes both sides.

I believe President Bush and the administration's doing the right thing. They should never apologize.

BLITZER: What should Congress do, what can Congress do if this situation drags on?

SHELBY: I think what we should do is back the president. He's the commander in chief and he's the president of the United States, and that's what I believe most of the Congress will do. They should do that.

BLITZER: As you know, the United States has a lot of trade with China, a lot of U.S. exports, a lot of Chinese exports coming to the United States. China has a big surplus.

You were among those who did support normalizing trade relations with China. Should anything be done on that front?

SHELBY: Oh, I think we should be very careful there. But I think anything that's done as far as China, our relationship with them, should be enunciated and led by the president and his Cabinet. Until we hear from that, I don't think that's in order.

But what could happen -- it could happen by tomorrow, maybe even tonight -- they could release those prisoners. They could say come and get the plane, or what's left of it, and we could maybe move on to the next order.

We do regret what happened, but we shouldn't apologize for what happened, because we didn't create the situation. We didn't do the -- we didn't hit their plane. They hit our plane.

BLITZER: What about the damage assessment as far as the technology, the classified information aboard that surveillance plane? How much damage had been done to U.S. national security?

SHELBY: Wolf, we don't know and we won't know until our people are debrief, and we know exactly what was carried out. But our people are trained under dire circumstances to destroy certain documents, certain operating machines and so forth.

Were they done? Was this mission completed? We're not sure. But I have to believe that if they're trained right, they will react right.

BLITZER: Should the United States continue to engage in these kinds of surveillance flights off the Chinese coast as this standoff continues?

SHELBY: I think they should. I think we're in international airspace. We're operating ships there in international waters. We have a right to do it. I think we should continue to do that. But ultimately, that will be a call by the president and the secretary of defense.

BLITZER: As you know, senator, many of your colleagues in the House and the Senate are planning on going to China in the coming days, during the spring recess. Is this a good idea for members of Congress to be going to China while this situation continues?

SHELBY: Well, absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I was one of the ones that would be going to Japan, Korea and China. But I can tell you tonight that we're not going to go, I'm not going to go to China under circumstances where they're holding 24 of our service people. I think it would be the wrong signal to go right now.

BLITZER: Senator Richard Shelby, thank you so much for joining us.

SHELBY: Thank you.



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