U.S. to ‘explore’ punishing China over spy balloon, official says

The official, who described this information on the condition of anonymity to reveal sensitive intelligence and internal considerations, 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.

“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, the official noted.

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.

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