It is only a passing reference in the Pentagon's annual spring report on Chinese military power, but it is one of the most provocative items.
Describing China's interest in space warfare, particularly in systems for attacking U.S. satellites, the Pentagon raises the possibility that China might be trying to develop "parasitic microsatellites" -- small satellites that attach themselves to larger ones to disrupt or destroy them on command.
The source cited in the Pentagon report for this suspected secret Chinese pursuit is a Hong Kong newspaper that in January 2001 published a story saying China had developed and ground-tested a parasitic microsatellite and would soon begin testing it in space. The Xing Dao Daily story has been cited two years in a row by the Pentagon -- in 2003 and 2004 -- both times with caveats saying the claim either "cannot be confirmed" or, more recently, "is being evaluated."
But the Defense Intelligence Agency, which wrote the reports, never tracked the origin of the newspaper story, according to Pentagon officials. Two U.S. specialists in space weaponry did -- and found it was lifted from a Chinese Web site of dubious repute.
"An examination of the January 2001 newspaper story casts strong doubts on the credibility of the story and its claims," Gregory Kulacki and David Wright write in a paper to be released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
China's interest in space weapons is not in dispute. Chinese publications contain many discussions of using anti-satellite systems to neutralize U.S. military advantages. What is at issue, say Kulacki and Wright, is whether U.S. analysts have exaggerated the threat and undercut the credibility of the Pentagon report by latching onto a seemingly fanciful claim.
"Our concern is the quality of information that is being presented to Congress and the public on this and other issues," the two write. "Such concerns are especially relevant given recent revelations about intelligence failures and the implications such failures can have."
The Pentagon declined to make the report's authors available. But a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, said that before deciding to mention the article, defense analysts compared it "with known information about this anti-satellite threat" and found it consistent with China's military doctrine and the country's known work on tiny satellites.
"The facts themselves contained within the Pentagon's report on China's military power are accurate and based on a number of sources, not just one press report," he said.
But Kulacki and Wright are not alone in worrying the Pentagon may be trying too hard to connect the dots -- or seeing some dots where none exist.
"I've been very concerned that both in the United States and in China, the source-checking is not as rigorous as it should be," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a specialist in China's space program who chairs a department on national security decision making at the Naval War College. "Both sides will read statements by individuals and translate them into official policy. This parasitic satellite story is like a game of children's telephone: Someone raises it as a point once and it turns into an official government program."
Using keyword searches on several large Chinese-language search engines, the UCS researchers traced the "parasite satellite" tale to an October 2000 story on a Chinese Web site specializing in military affairs. That story, written by Hong Chaofei, a self-described "military enthusiast," contains some of the same passages and much the same information in the later Hong Kong article, the UCS researchers found.
"Hong runs a Chinese-language Internet bulletin board filled with fanciful stories about 'secret' Chinese weapons to be used against Americans in a future war over Taiwan," Kulacki and Wright say. "The poor quality of his technical descriptions, his use of extremely provocative language and the nature of the other materials on his Web site call into question his credibility."
In considering the credibility of the Hong Kong article, the UCS researchers add, the Pentagon also should have taken into account the Hong Kong paper's conversion from a once "staid but unprofitable" publication into a tabloid after its sale in 1999.
If the Pentagon is looking for insight into Chinese work on space warfare, say Kulacki and Wright, it can find plenty of references to microsatellites, laser weapons and infrared sensors in other Chinese publications -- but little mention of parasitic satellites.
"A full-text search on China's National Knowledge Infrastructure, a collection of databases with more than ten million articles from Chinese periodicals published since 1994, returned only one citation using different combinations of the Chinese characters for 'parasite satellite,'" the UCS researchers say. "The term appears in a single speculative sentence, set off by quotation marks, and is described as an exotic potential use of small satellite technology that could be employed sometime far in the future."
Plexico, the Pentagon spokesman, called the UCS report "additional information" that "our analysts will evaluate fully and weigh against the other information they have." He said "no policy decisions" have been made based on the Hong Kong article.