The United States said Thursday that the Chinese balloon shot down by the U.S. military over the weekend was capable of collecting intelligence signals and was part of a Chinese military surveillance program around the globe.
“The high-altitude balloons’ equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons,” a senior State Department official said in a statement, dismissing Beijing’s contention that the downed balloon was collecting weather data.
The comments came as the FBI continues to collect wreckage from the balloon that was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet on Saturday over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of South Carolina.
“These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army,” the State Department official said. “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 said the manufacturer “advertises balloon products on its website and hosts videos from past flights, which appear to have overflown U.S. airspace and airspace of other countries. These advertised balloon videos seemingly have similar flight patterns as the balloons” identified by the U.S. as having violated the airspace of dozens of countries.
“It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications,” the official said of the balloon and the parts that have been recovered. “It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.”
FBI special agents assigned to the Evidence Response Team process material recovered from the high-altitude balloon recovered off the coast of South Carolina. The material was processed and transported to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va.
The official added that from China’s “messaging and public comments, 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.”
Asked about the State Department assessment, a senior FBI official said he could not definitively say whether the balloon was collecting intelligence signals, noting that FBI specialists had thus far recovered only “a very small portion” of the balloon’s payload.
“I don’t think we’re in a position, based on what we’ve seen, based on the facts that we have at the FBI and what the personnel have examined, to give you a determination,” the official said during a press call with reporters. “It’s just too early for us.”
The FBI was in contact with the U.S. military’s Northern Command as early as February 1 because of suspicion the balloon had an electronics payload, the official said.
FBI specialists arrived on the scene late Sunday to examine the debris, transporting the first batch of evidence to its lab in Quantico, Virginia, on Monday, the official said.
‘Very early’ for assessment
The little evidence that the FBI has gathered so far consists of the balloon and canopy, some wiring and “a very small amount” of electronics, the official said.
The balloon payload has sunk to the seabed, and FBI and Navy dive teams continue to search for evidence and bring it to the surface for potential transportation to Quantico.
“I think it’s very early for us to assess what the intent was, and how the device is operating,” the official said.
China on Thursday dismissed the U.S. accusations as “information warfare against China.” Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning repeated Beijing’s insistence that the large, unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that was accidentally blown off course and that the U.S. had “overreacted” by shooting it down.
“It is irresponsible,” Mao said at a daily briefing.
The State Department and defense officials have heightened their criticism of Beijing’s surveillance efforts as U.S. forensic experts examine parts recovered following the shoot-down. They say China has flown the surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across at least five continents.
The U.S. says it has identified five such Chinese balloon flights over the U.S. in recent years, including three during the administration of former President Donald Trump that went undetected at the time, and one earlier during the White House tenure of President Joe Biden. The most recent flight traversed the continental U.S. for eight days, passing over key military installations before it was shot down.
The U.S. said it was exploring a reprisal against Chinese entities linked to the balloon-spying operation.
“We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address [China’s] larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners,” the State Department said.
Amid a growing political uproar over the incident, the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously on Thursday to condemn Beijing over its use of the balloon in violation of U.S. sovereignty.
The resolution “sends a clear, bipartisan message to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and to our adversaries around the world that this kind of aggression will not be tolerated,” Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that sponsored the resolution, said in a statement.
Other Republican lawmakers have said the Biden administration should have acted sooner to take down the balloon.