U.S. to explore punishing China over spy balloon, official says
“High resolution imagery from U-2 flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations,” the official said, referring to the Air Force’s high-altitude reconnaissance plane. The equipment aboard the spy balloon was “inconsistent” with what would be aboard a weather balloon, as it had “multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications.”
The solar panels were large enough to power that kind of intelligence activity, noted the official, who provided the information on the condition of anonymity to reveal sensitive intelligence and internal considerations.
But in a briefing hours later, the FBI said it couldn’t confirm the intent of the balloon based on what it has so far recovered.
“I don’t think we’re in a position based on what we’ve seen, based on the facts that we have at the FBI … to give you a determination. It’s just too early for us. Again, we’re only seeing a very small portion of the balloon’s payload at this point,” a senior FBI official said. “We have literally not seen the payload, which is where we would expect to see the lion’s share of the electronics.”
So far, FBI agents on the scene have only collected parts from the balloon that were floating on the surface, the officials said, including the canopy, wiring and some electronics. The rest is at the “ocean bottom” and will take a long time to recover due to weather, another senior FBI official said. When asked about what the balloon could have been used for, the officials said there simply hasn’t been enough evidence collected to know.
Asked about who manufactured the balloon’s parts, the FBI said it also hadn’t yet determined that.
“We aren’t in a position at this point to have that information,” the first FBI official said.
The two FBI officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss updates with the agency’s investigation into the balloon.
The State Department official said that Beijing’s forces deploy balloons — like the one that traversed the United States last week before it was downed over the Atlantic Ocean last Saturday — to surveil foreign nations. It’s an acknowledgement that the spy balloon is part of a Chinese military effort to keep tabs on the U.S. and more than 40 countries across five continents.
The People’s Liberation Army often uses balloons to conduct surveillance operations, the official continued, adding that the balloon manufacturer “has a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the PLA.”
The People’s Republic of China’s “program will only continue to be exposed, making it harder for the PRC to use this program,” the official asserted. “It’s clear that they have been scrambling to explain why they violated U.S. sovereignty and still have no plausible explanation — and have found themselves on their heels.”
The intelligence release comes just one day after Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters that China’s spy-balloon program had been in operation “for several years.”
In a Wednesday interview with CBS News, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described actions the U.S. took to secure its most sensitive secrets and equipment as China’s balloon hovered overhead. “All of our strategic assets, we made sure that we were buttoned down and movement was limited so that we didn’t expose any capability unnecessarily,” he said.
Reports indicate the China spy balloon program is headquartered on the southern Chinese island of Hainan. The Biden administration had previously said there had been at least three instances of overflights while Donald Trump was in office, and one during the current president’s tenure.
The Biden administration released the information the same day that senior administration officials briefed both houses of Congress.