Chinese spy balloon contained technology to monitor communication signals, US says
The Biden administration has determined that the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, which was shot down by US jets on Saturday, was operating with electronic surveillance technology capable of monitoring US communications, according to a senior State Department official.
The balloon “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations” and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents.” It was “part of a PRC (People’s Republic of China) fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations” with a manufacturer tied to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the official added.
The official suggested that the US is eyeing sanctions for the presence of the balloon in US airspace — which US officials have repeatedly called a violation of US sovereignty and international law — noting the US “will also explore taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into US airspace.”
“We know the PRC used these balloons for surveillance,” the official said. “High resolution imagery from U-2 flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.”
Signals intelligence refers to information that is gathered by electronic means — things like communications and radars.
“The high-altitude balloons’ equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons. It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications. It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” the official added.
A recovery operation to secure debris from the balloon is ongoing with analysis continuing at an FBI laboratory in Virginia, but the officials’ remarks suggest the US has already established the balloon was operating with electronic surveillance technology.
However, the US has said it has been able to prevent the balloon from intercepting US communications.
“We could track the exact path of the balloon and ensure no activities or sensitive unencrypted comms would be conducted in its vicinity,” a senior administration official said this week. “The US military took immediate steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating any intelligence value to the PRC.”
President Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that bilateral relations with China had not been affected by the balloon fallout, but China reacted angrily to the shootdown, refusing a call with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a high-stakes trip to Beijing on Friday. New sanctions in response to the balloon would likely further inflame tensions.
“We know these balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations. These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),” the senior State Department official added.
“We are confident that the balloon manufacturer has a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the PLA, according to information published in an official procurement portal for the PLA,” the official added, noting that the “company also advertises balloon products on its website and hosts videos from past flights, which appear to have overflown at least US airspace and airspace of other countries.”
“These advertised balloon videos seemingly have similar flight patterns as the balloons we have been discussing this week,” they said.
China “has overflown these surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across five continents,” the official said, noting that “the Biden Administration is reaching out to countries directly about the scope of this program and answer any questions.”
“We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners,” they said.
The official said that based on China’s “messaging and public comments, it’s clear that they have been scrambling to explain why they violated US sovereignty and still have no plausible explanation — and have found themselves on their heels.”
“As we saw with the second balloon over Central and South America that they just acknowledged, they also have no explanation for why they violated the airspace of Central and South American countries,” they said. “The PRC’s program will only continue to be exposed, making it harder for the PRC to use this program.”
This story is breaking and will be updated.
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