Sensors and electronics pulled from waters off South Carolina, says military, after White House says Beijing’s surveillance program dates back years
The US military has recovered “significant debris” from a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down this month, the Pentagon has said, after the White House claimed China had been operating a high-altitude balloon program spying on the US and its allies for many years.
The US Northern Command said in a statement: “Crews have been able to recover significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure.”
The balloon, shot down off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February, was the first of a series of mysterious objects shot down by the US military over an eight-day period in North American airspace.
However, China’s surveillance program, according to John Kirby, the US national security council spokesperson, dated back to at least the administration of Donald Trump, which he said was oblivious to it.
“It was operating during the previous administration, but they did not detect it,” Kirby said.
“We detected it, we tracked it. And we have been carefully studying to learn as much as we can. We know that these PRC [People’s Republic of China] surveillance balloons have crossed over dozens of countries on multiple continents around the world, including some of our closest allies and partners.”
There will be an all-senators classified briefing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning, the office of the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said, and the White House’s office of national intelligence will brief John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, on Wednesday, CNN reported.
Separately in Japan, the Fuji News Network reported on Tuesday that Tokyo had concluded that the object that flew over Japanese waters near the south-western region of Kyushu in January last year was mostly likely a Chinese spy balloon.
Monday’s briefing took place amid growing criticism of the Biden administration for not revealing everything it knew about the unprecedented and extraordinary sequence of events beginning with the downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast on 4 February.
Biden, Kirby said, directed a broad assessment of China’s intelligence capabilities when he took office. In response to recent events, Kirby said Biden had also now directed an interagency team “to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks”.
Kirby was unable to offer new details about the three most recent objects, including the missile strike on Sunday on an unidentified “octagonal” flying object above Lake Huron, Michigan, and other high-altitude objects shot down over Yukon, Canada, on Saturday and Deadhorse, Alaska, the day before.
But he said that authorities would know more once debris had been recovered from remote locations and analyzed. He said all three were much smaller and at a lower altitude than the Chinese spy balloon, but their origin, composition and purpose remained unknown.
“We assessed whether they posed any kinetic threat to people on the ground. They did not. We assessed whether they were sending communication signals. We detected none. We looked to see whether they were maneuvering or had any propulsion capabilities. We saw no signs of that,” he said.
“[But] while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out.”
He said all three were shot down in “an abundance of caution to protect the security, our security, our interest and flight safety”.
The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, suggested on Monday the objects were part of a “pattern” of surveillance of the US and its allies by China and Russia, and an American air force commander said the US military had spotted Chinese spy balloons in the Middle East in “the recent past”.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, echoed those comments, saying: “I think obviously there is some sort of pattern in there. The fact that we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention.
Trudeau said that Canadian authorities had deployed “significant resources” to attempt to recover the object shot down over Lake Huron.
The Florida Republican Marco Rubio, vice-chairperson of the US Senate intelligence committee, claimed that unidentified aircraft had operated “routinely” over restricted American airspace for years.
“This is why I pushed to take this seriously & created a permanent [unidentified aerial phenomenon] taskforce two years ago,” he said in a tweet.
In a press briefing on Sunday, a senior air force officer said he could not eliminate the possibility of extraterrestrial activity. “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything at this point,” Gen Glen VanHerck, head of North American airspace defense command (Norad), said.
But at the briefing on Monday the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said that the objects did not come from outside Earth. “There is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns. I wanted to make sure that the American people knew that,” Jean-Pierre said.
Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense, echoed VanHerck, saying: “We have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week.”
Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday in Brussels that he suspected the incidents were part of an ongoing strategy of spying by Nato’s rivals.
“What we saw over the US is part of a pattern where China and also Russia are increasing surveillance activities on Nato allies,” he said, urging member nations to maintain vigilance.
Lt Gen Alexus Grynkewich, commander of US air forces central, appeared to back up Stoltenberg’s assessment, telling reporters on Monday that Chinese spy balloons were spotted transiting the Middle East in the recent past, according to foreignpolicy.com.
Meanwhile, Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is reportedly weighing a meeting with his counterpart in China’s government, Wang Yi, at a three-day security conference in Munich scheduled to begin 17 February, according to Bloomberg. Blinken had postponed what would be the first visit to Beijing by a senior US diplomat since 2018 in response to the Chinese balloon’s intrusion.
Source : The Guardian