The alleged Chinese spy balloon that transited across the U.S. last week was part of a broader, years-long surveillance program that the U.S. is gaining more insight into thanks to new intelligence collected about the device, a spokesman said.
The decision to let the balloon move across the U.S. before it was shot down off South Carolina gave intelligence agencies a unique opportunity to understand the Chinese program and counter threats from similar surveillance activities in the future, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder told a briefing.
“We are confident that what we’ve learned about this program enables us to be able to monitor and be on the look out” for these activities, Ryder said. He said the intelligence gathered “gets put into a broader library of information.”
The briefing added to Biden administration efforts to explain the true nature of what they say is a far more significant spying operation than was first known to the public when the U.S. announced last Thursday it was tracking the balloon. Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration for not shooting down the balloon until much later, and officials have repeatedly sought to explain themselves amid the uproar.
The U.S. saw the balloon before it entered U.S. airspace, but determined that it did not represent a physical threat, Ryder said. The balloon passed over sensitive sites including nuclear-missile silos in Montana but officials have said they were able to neutralize any intelligence risks it posed.
“They were over sites that would be of interest to the Chinese,” Ryder said, adding that China has “a lot of explaining to do.” On Tuesday, Ryder said China had rebuffed U.S. efforts to set up a call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.
China has said the balloon was a weather monitoring device that blew off course, and that the U.S. had no right to destroy it. U.S. embassies around the world have been asked to reiterate the U.S. certainty about the balloon’s intelligence-gathering capabilities during meetings with foreign counterparts, according to a person familiar with those instructions. That outreach is part of an effort to push back against China’s explanation, the person said.
Ryder said U.S. intelligence had picked up four balloons previously encroaching on U.S. territory. Three of those incidents took place during the Trump administration. He denied that the decision to let the balloon enter U.S. territory was an intelligence failure and reiterated the administration’s certainty about the balloon’s purpose as an intelligence-gathering tool.
“It’s very difficult to determine why they did this,” since China can gather more intelligence on the U.S. from their satellites in orbit, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed told reporters in a call Tuesday.
The U.S. will “probably gain more from this intelligence operation than the Chinese” so it’s an “awkward moment” for China, Reed said.
(c) 2023, Bloomberg · Peter Martin, Tony Capaccio