WASHINGTON - China’s balloon that crossed the United States was equipped to collect intelligence signals and was part of a huge, military-linked aerial spy program that targeted more than 40 countries, the Biden administration said Thursday, outlining the scope and capabilities of the huge balloon that captivated the country's attention before the U.S. shot it down.
A fleet of balloons operates under the direction of the People's Liberation Army and is used specifically for spying, outfitted with high-tech equipment designed to collect sensitive information from targets across the globe, the U.S. said. Similar balloons have floated over five continents, according to the administration.
The statement from a senior State Department official offered the most detail to date linking China’s military to the balloon that was shot down by the U.S. last weekend over the Atlantic Ocean. The public details are meant to refute China’s persistent denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim Thursday that U.S. accusations about the balloon amount to "information warfare" against Beijing.
A Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte NC, United States on February 04, 2023. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
In Beijing, before the U.S. offered new information, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning repeated her nation's insistence that the large unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that had blown off course and that the U.S. had "overreacted" by shooting it down.
"It is irresponsible," Mao said. The latest accusations, she said, "may be part of the U.S. side’s information warfare against China."
China’s defense minister refused to take a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon issue on Saturday, the Pentagon said. China has not answered questions as to what government department or company the balloon belonged to, or how it planned to follow up on a pledge to take further action over the matter.
The U.S. offered a flatly contradictory characterization of the balloon and its purpose. It said imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes as it crossed the country showed that it was "capable of conducting signals intelligence collection" with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.
Jedidiah Royal, the U.S. assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that the military has "some very good guesses" about what intelligence China was seeking. More information was expected to be provided in a classified setting.
U.S. Navy sailors recovering a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Feb. 5. (US Fleet Forces)
The State Department official who provided details to reporters by email on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, which had already forced the cancellation of a planned visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The official said an analysis of the balloon debris was "inconsistent" with China’s explanation that it was a weather balloon that went off course. The U.S. is reaching out to countries that have also been targeted, the official said, to discuss the scope of the Chinese surveillance program, and is looking into potential action that "supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace."
The route of the Chinese suspected spy balloon. Source: DoD, AP
The official said the U.S. has confidence that the manufacturer of the balloon shot down on Saturday has "a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the" army. The official cited information from an official PLA procurement portal as evidence for the connection between the company and the military.
The U.S. House was expected Thursday to pass a resolution blaming China for a "brazen violation of United States sovereignty" and accusing it of trying to "deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns." The resolution was expected to get support from both Democrats and Republicans, reflecting growing bipartisan anger in Washington at what lawmakers see as Chinese aggression.
FBI Special Agents assigned to the Evidence Response Team process material recovered from the high-altitude balloon recovered off the coast of South Carolina. (FBI photo)
This is not the first time the U.S. government has publicly called out alleged activities of the People’s Liberation Army. In a first-of-its-kind prosecution in 2014, the Obama administration Justice Department indicted five accused PLA hackers of breaking into the computer networks of major American corporations in an effort to steal trade secrets.
Alleged hackers with the PLA were also charged in 2020 with stealing the personal data of tens of millions of Americans in a breach of the credit-reporting agency Equifax.
Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.