WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday it may be possible to fly a damaged U.S. surveillance plane from the Chinese military base where it has remained since an April 1 collision with a Chinese fighter.
"The preliminary view is that it may be possible to repair it sufficiently to fly it out, but that's not clear yet. We'll know later this week," Rumsfeld told NBC's Meet the Press.
He added that President Bush would make the final decision, "but I think that certainly it would be logical it would be flown out."
Before a team of technicians began inspecting the $80 million plane last week, it was unknown whether the Navy aircraft had sustained structural damage that would make it unsafe to fly.
The collision damaged two of the surveillance plane's engines and one of its four propellers. It also caused the plane's nose cone to break off, and pieces of metal punctured parts of the fuselage.
"It's an $80 million aircraft, and it's ours. One would think you'd want it back, and we do. And I would suspect we'll get it back," Rumsfeld said on CBS' Face the Nation.
The inspection team reported Friday that it could be flown, although U.S. defense officials said it was too early to know how extensive the repairs might be.
The EP-3E collided with the Chinese jet as the U.S. plane was conducting surveillance off China's southern coast. China held the 24-member U.S. crew for 11 days after they made an emergency landing on Hainan island in southern China.
The plane was packed with sensitive electronic eavesdropping equipment used to collect intelligence on China's military. U.S. officials have said they believe the EP-3E crew managed to destroy the most sensitive information and equipment before they left, but that China probably has gained some valuable insights from examining the plane.
Also Sunday, Rumsfeld took the blame for confusion last week from a Pentagon memo that mistakenly called for the suspension of all U.S. military contacts with China.
"There's no question that I made a mistake. A mistake was made," Rumsfeld said on CBS. "To the extent there's any fault ... to be assigned, it's certainly as much mine as anyone else's and I'm in charge."
The memo from Rumsfeld's office to senior military and civilian officials in the Pentagon said the secretary had directed "the suspension of all Department of Defense programs, contacts and activities with the People's Republic of China until further notice."
Hours after the memo leaked and reported worldwide by U.S. news organizations, a spokesman for Rumsfeld said the memo was a mistake and that an aide had gotten it wrong.
Rumsfeld said Sunday that he had been examining U.S.-Chinese relationships almost from the moment he took office but after the plane collision, he immediately suspended aircraft and ships from visiting China and limited all social contacts.
"We are reviewing all of the things that we are doing" on a case-by-case basis, he said.
The president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said Bush believes a "productive and fruitful relationship with China" is still possible.
But, she said on Fox News Sunday, "Clearly, the way that the Chinese handle the fact that we have a plane on the ground will have an effect on how we see U.S.-China relations."
For its part, China expressed displeasure last week with Bush's proposal for a national missile defense program, warning that Bush could spark a new arms race.
The president said the United States would work with its allies and seek to protect them as well from ballistic missile attacks from rogue nations.
Leading Democrats such as House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt if Missouri, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota warned Sunday that such a program could be seen as a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
"I think that's another major concern, and then obviously losing our relationship with our allies, and fracturing the very fragile relationship with China are also issues we've got to be very concerned about," Daschle told ABC's This Week.
Rice said on ABC that the treaty "belongs to another era, when we had an implacably hostile relationship with the Soviet Union."