Chinese Balloon Had Tools to Collect Electronic Communications, U.S. Says
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration provided its most comprehensive description of the Chinese spy balloon that traversed the United States last week, saying on Thursday that the machine was part of a global surveillance fleet directed by China’s military and was capable of collecting electronic communications.
The conclusions were outlined in a State Department document, which said the U.S. military had dispatched Cold War-era U-2 spy planes to track and study the balloon before a fighter jet shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.
China’s spy balloons have flown over more than 40 countries across five continents, the Biden administration said, and appear to be made by one or more companies that officially sell products to the Chinese military. That finding underscores questions among U.S. officials over the ties between some civilian-run enterprises in China and the country’s military, in what American officials call “military-civil fusion.”
The U.S. surveillance planes took images of the balloon while it was still in the air. Its visible equipment, which included antennas, “was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment on board weather balloons,” the State Department said — a rebuttal to the Chinese government’s assertion that the balloon was a civilian meteorological machine that had strayed off course.
The balloon episode has led to a surge in U.S.-China tensions at a time when the relationship is already at one of its lowest points in decades. Although top American officials say they intend to keep channels of communication with China open, the clashing narratives over the balloon are sowing more conflict. And the Biden administration has begun a campaign to inform countries around the world of the extent of China’s spy balloon program and its violations of sovereignty, in the hope that other nations will push back against Chinese espionage activities.
Investigators from the Pentagon, F.B.I. and other agencies are examining the debris that the U.S. Navy has pulled from the shallow waters off the South Carolina coast. F.B.I. officials said Thursday that they were analyzing material from the balloon’s body, wiring and small amounts of electronics found floating on the water, all from debris that was handed over starting Monday.
Investigators believe that the bulk of the electronics is scattered on the bottom of the ocean, F.B.I. officials said. The balloon was 200 feet tall and had a payload the size of a regional jet, U.S. officials said earlier.
Some officials said learning exactly what kinds of communications information the balloon could collect is a top priority. Officials have said they have not found any evidence that suggests the balloon could carry weaponry.
Investigators are also looking to see whether any of the balloon’s equipment uses technology from American or other Western companies, U.S. officials said.
Any such discovery could spur the Biden administration to take harsher actions to ensure that companies do not export technology to China that could be used by the country’s military and security agencies.
The Chinese Spy Balloon Showdown
The discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the United States has added to the rising tensions between the two superpowers.
President Biden and his aides have already imposed broad limits on the sales of “foundational technologies” to China. Most notably, the U.S. government announced last October that it was barring American companies from selling advanced semiconductor chips and certain chip manufacturing technology to China. The new rules are also aimed at preventing foreign companies from doing the same.
The goal of the export controls is to cripple China’s development of advanced technologies, particularly tools used by the Chinese military. Mr. Biden has stressed the importance of maintaining independent supply chains in critical sectors, a point that he highlighted in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
U.S. officials said they expect the recovered balloon parts will give them some insight into how Chinese engineers are putting together surveillance technology.
“We’re analyzing them to learn more about the surveillance program,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Wednesday. “We will pair that with what we learn from the balloon — what we learn from the balloon itself — with what we’ve gleaned based on our careful observation of the system when it was in our airspace, as the president directed his team to do.”
The State Department said in its document that the U.S. government was confident that the company that made the balloon had direct commercial ties with the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military, citing an official procurement portal for the army. The department did not name the company.
“The United States will also explore taking action against P.R.C. entities linked to the P.L.A. that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace,” the State Department said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the P.R.C.’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners.”
The department said the company advertises balloon products on its website and has posted videos from past flights that apparently went over U.S. airspace and that of other nations. The videos show balloons that have similar flight patterns as the surveillance balloons that the United States has been discussing this week, the agency said.
The State Department document said the downed balloon’s array of antennas was “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications,” while its solar panels were large enough to produce power to operate “multiple active intelligence collection sensors.”
Intelligence agencies have concluded that the antennas were capable of locating communications devices, including mobile phones and radios, and collecting data from them, U.S. officials say. But they do not know exactly what kinds of devices were being targeted, two officials said.
Radio frequencies can be detected by orbital satellites. Mobile phone signals are harder to detect from space but reach as high as where the balloon was drifting, at 60,000 feet.
Intelligence agencies do not yet know, officials say, whether the balloon was supposed to fly over parts of the United States — including over nuclear weapons sites — or was blown off course or suffered mechanical failure.
Officials say they are confident that they prevented the balloon from collecting any sensitive data from U.S. nuclear sites and other military bases. The U.S. government also took steps to protect official communications, but officials said they were unsure what the balloon collected.
Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, told a Senate committee on Thursday that the spy balloon episode “put on full display what we’ve long recognized — the P.R.C. has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.”
The Pentagon has said that a second balloon drifting last week over Latin America was also conducting surveillance, though China asserts that was a civilian balloon used for test flights.
The presence of the balloon in the United States last week ignited a diplomatic crisis and prompted Mr. Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to Beijing, where he had been expected to meet President Xi Jinping of China. Mr. Blinken said the balloon had violated U.S. sovereignty and was “an irresponsible act” by China.
After a U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon, the Chinese government said the United States had overreacted and violated international convention, and that China had “the right to respond further.”
The Chinese government also said the balloon belonged to China and should not be kept by the United States.
The U.S. government says it has discovered instances of at least five Chinese spy balloons in American territory — three during the Trump administration and two during the Biden administration. The spy balloons observed during the Trump administration were initially classified as unidentified aerial phenomena, U.S. officials said. It was not until after 2020 that officials closely examined the balloon incidents under a broader review of aerial phenomena and determined that they were part of the Chinese global balloon surveillance effort.
The New York Times reported Saturday that a classified intelligence report given to Congress last month highlighted at least two instances of a foreign power using advanced technology for aerial surveillance over American military bases, one inside the continental United States and the other overseas. The research suggested China was the foreign power, U.S. officials said. The report also discussed surveillance balloons.
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that China’s spy balloon program is part of a global surveillance effort designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world. With the flights, Chinese officials are trying to hone their ability to gather data about American military bases — in which it is most interested — as well as those of other nations in the event of a conflict or rising tensions, U.S. officials say. The program has operated out of multiple locations in China, they say.
China’s National University of Defense Technology has a team of researchers studying advances in balloons. And as early as 2020, People’s Liberation Army Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese military, published an article describing how near space “has become a new battleground in modern warfare.”
Helene Cooper contributed reporting.