The Chinese balloon shot down by the US was equipped to detect and collect intelligence signals as part of a huge, military-linked aerial surveillance program that targeted more than 40 countries, the administration of US President Joe Biden said on Thursday, citing imagery from US military aircraft.
A fleet of balloons operates under the direction of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and is used specifically for spying, outfitted with high-tech equipment designed to gather sensitive information from targets across the globe, the US said.
Similar balloons have sailed over five continents, the administration said.
A statement from a senior US Department of State official offered the most detail linking China’s military to the balloon that was shot down by the US last weekend over the Atlantic Ocean.
The public details outlining the program’s scope and capabilities were meant to refute China’s denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim on Thursday that US accusations about the balloon amount to “information warfare.”
Asked during an interview with the Spanish-language Telemundo Noticias television program whether the balloon was a major security breach, Biden said: “No.”
“The total amount of intelligence gathering that’s going on by every country around the world is overwhelming,” he said. “It’s not a major breach.”
On Capitol Hill, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to condemn China for a “brazen violation” of US sovereignty and efforts to “deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns,” voting 419 to zero on the motion.
The US contradicted China’s claims that it was a weather balloon that strayed off course, saying that imagery of the balloon collected by its aircraft as it crossed the country showed that it was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection” with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.
Jedidiah Royal, the US assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific region, told a US Senate Appropriations subcommittee that the military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligence China was seeking.
Senior FBI officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity said only a few pieces of the balloon had arrived at the FBI’s Quantico, Virginia, lab for analysis.
So far, investigators have parts of the balloon canopy, wiring, and what one official called “a very small amount of electronics.”
The official said it was “very early for us to assess what the intent was and how the device was operating.”
Two US officials said some balloon debris was intact on the ocean floor and divers had recovered potentially high-value equipment.
Another official said that some of the recovered equipment had English writing on them, but it was not clear if they were from the US or another English-speaking country.
Washington is confident that the manufacturer of the balloon has “a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor” of its army, the official said.
Washington is reaching out to countries that have also been targeted, the official said.
US Department of State spokesman Ned Price would not identify the other countries targeted, nor did he reveal how the US knows, saying to do so could compromise intelligence sources and methods.
The release of new information appeared part of a coordinated administration response, with multiple officials appearing before congressional committees to face questions about the balloon.
Testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said officials had taken “all necessary steps to protect sensitive information” and had been able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment.
“We will continue to answer the dangers posed by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] with determination and resolve,” Sherman said. “We will make clear to the PRC that violations of our sovereignty and the sovereignty of other countries are unacceptable.”
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