For Years, China Runs Spy Balloon Programme: Pentagon
When similar balloons passed over US territory four times during the Trump and Biden administrations, the US did not immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance balloons, according to Pentagon press secretary Brig Gen Pat Ryder
The Chinese balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina was part of a large surveillance programme that China has been conducting for “several years,” according to the Pentagon.
When similar balloons passed over US territory four times during the Trump and Biden administrations, the US did not immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance balloons, according to Pentagon press secretary Brig Gen Pat Ryder.
However, he stated that “subsequent intelligence analysis” enabled the US to confirm their involvement in a Chinese spying effort and learn “a lot more” about the programme.
He refused to reveal any new information about the previous balloons. Ryder would only say that the balloons flew over “sites that would be of interest to the Chinese” when pressed.
One of the possible incidents occurred in February of this year.
A year ago, Hawaii's adjutant general, Maj Gen Kenneth Hara, tweeted about a balloon over Kauai. He stated that the US Indo-Pacific Command “detected a high-altitude object floating in the air near the Hawaiian Islands” and dispatched aircraft to intercept it. They visually confirmed it was an unmanned balloon with no identification markings, according to him.
Ryder refused to say whether this was one of the four previous incidents discussed by the US. The balloon was not shot down, according to Pacific Air Forces, the Air Force command in the Indo-Pacific.
On Saturday, a US military fighter jet shot down a recent balloon. The Navy and Coast Guard are still working to recover and analyse pieces of the downed balloon.
North American Aerospace Defense Command, according to Ryder, began tracking the recent balloon as it approached US airspace. It passed north of the Aleutian Islands on 28 January and then moved mostly over land across Alaska and into Canadian airspace before returning to the US over northern Idaho on 31 January, according to US officials.
On Wednesday and Thursday, top administration officials briefed members of Congress on the Chinese balloon surveillance programme in classified sessions.
Among those expected to brief lawmakers were Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence; Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State; Gen Glen VanHerck, Commander of US Northern Command; and Colin Kahl, Under-Secretary of Defence for Policy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US has briefed dozens of countries on the programme, which has been active on five continents, according to officials.
“The US was not the only target,” he said at a news conference with visiting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Blinken stated that he and Stoltenberg discussed the “systemic and tactical challenges” that China presents to the alliance, as well as the importance of combating them.
Foreign countries that the US believes have been surveilled in the past, as well as NATO allies would be included.
The briefings were still going on Wednesday and the State Department sent a cable to all US embassies and consulates outlining the administration's case against China and instructing American diplomats to discuss these points with their host governments.
The cable, however, is less specific than what was briefed to allies and partners.
Meanwhile, Navy divers off the coast of South Carolina began pulling pieces of the downed Chinese spy balloon from the ocean floor on Tuesday, using sophisticated reconnaissance drones dubbed the Kingfish and the Swordfish to locate the debris.
Ryder said agents from the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are cataloguing the debris and transporting it for further processing.