WASHINGTON – The Chinese spy balloon shot down Saturday had carried devices to intercept sensitive communications, the State Department said Thursday,offering the first proof that the balloon was on an espionage mission.
The Pentagon flew high-altitude U-2 spy planes to examine the gear dangling from the 200-foot balloon and found that it had the ability to conduct “signals intelligence collection operations,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
The spy balloon’s incursion into the United States caused a diplomatic rupture with China, prompting Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s decision to cancel a trip to Beijing. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress expressed outrage at the incident and demanded answers from the Biden administration.
On Thursday, members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee were scheduled to hear a classified briefing by State and Defense Department officials.
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The Pentagon waited until the balloon passed over land to shoot it down off the coast of South Carolina Saturday, seeking to avoid deaths and property damage. In doing so, the military allowed the balloon to pass over and spy on the most sensitive strategic sites in the continental United States – nuclear missile siloes and military bases.
The balloon’s spyware payload, the size of a regional jetliner, had “multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications,” according to the spokesperson’s statement. He was not authorized to speak publicly. Pentagon officials have said that the balloon’s predictable path allowed them to shield sensitive sites from such collection devices.
The balloon had solar panels large enough to power “multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” according to the statement. The Chinese government operates a fleet of such spy balloons, whose activities are directed by the Chinese Army.
There have been at least five spy balloon incursions into U.S. territory, according to the Pentagon and State Department.
Meanwhile, federal authorities involved in the analysis of the balloon’s components said they were “very early in the process” of recovery, senior FBI officials familiar with the matter said Thursday.
Balloon materials being to FBI lab
The materials were being transported from the scene to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia for examination. So far, teams have pulled parts of the balloon’s canopy and some wiring from the ocean’s surface, but the bulk of the material remains underwater, the officials said, describing the debris field as a “large-scale scene.”
There was no evidence to indicate that the airship possessed any offensive capabilities, the officials said. It was not immediately clear how long the recovery effort might take.
On Wednesday, a senior Pentagon official disclosed some additional details about the balloon and China’s broader “dirigible collection program.”
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary said that the Chinese balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina last Saturday was part of an extensive global surveillance program that the Beijing government has been conducting for “several years.”
Previously: Chinese spy balloon flew over other US missile and nuclear weapons sites, lawmaker says
Ryder confirmed that similar Chinese balloons passed over U.S. territory on four occasions during the Trump and Biden administrations, but said the U.S. did not immediately identify them as surveillance balloons until later, after it had conducted “subsequent intelligence analysis.”
Ryder also said that by allowing the balloon to cross over numerous sensitive U.S. military sites, the Pentagon was able to learn “a lot more” about the program.
“In terms of where they’re coming from, I can’t go into the specific location other than to say China, and the last thing I’ll say is that this last week provided the United States with a unique opportunity to learn a lot more about the Chinese surveillance balloon program, all information that will help us to continue to strengthen our ability to track these kinds of objects,” Ryder said. “We know that they were looking to surveil strategic sites, to include some of our strategic bases in the continental United States.”
Ryder told reporters that the Chinese balloon surveillance program has operated “over at least five continents in regions like Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Europe, again, it demonstrates why, for the Department of Defense, that China remains the pacing challenge, and something that we’ll continue to stay focused on.” .
The Pentagon spokesperson also said the Chinese surveillance balloons have varied in both size and capability, but he had no comment on what kind of intelligence they might be collecting, including the one shot down on Saturday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China spy balloon sought secret US communications: State Department