Chinese balloon gathered intelligence from sensitive US military sites – report | China spy balloon incident 2023

A Chinese spy balloon gathered intelligence as it flew over sensitive military sites in the US, despite efforts by the Joe Biden White House to thwart its espionage mission, new reports suggest.

China succeeded in flying the massive balloon over some military bases on multiple occasions and sent the information back to Beijing in real time, NBC News reported on Monday, citing two current senior US officials and one former high-level administrator. The balloon, which was the size of three school buses, was occasionally flown in a figure-eight formation over at least some of those sensitive sites before it was shot down in early February.

“The intelligence China collected was mostly from electronic signals, which can be picked up from weapons systems or include communications from base personnel, rather than images,” NBC’s report cited the officials as saying.

White House official John Kirby told reporters on Monday that he could not confirm NBC’s report, but said the US limited the balloon’s “ability to be able to collect anything additive”.

He added that the US government was able to study and analyze the balloon while it was in US airspace, saying: “We gained some useful context.”

The Pentagon said experts were still analyzing debris collected from the balloon after it was shot down on 4 February.

“I could not confirm that there was real-time transmission from the balloon back to (China) at this time,” said Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh, adding, “that’s something we’re analyzing right now.”

Beijing officials have vehemently denied that the balloon was a government intelligence-gathering asset, claiming that the US overreacted to what was an unmanned civilian vessel that had accidentally strayed off course. The balloon triggered a major national security incident and a diplomatic row, prompting the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to postpone a long-awaited visit to Beijing.

Once the balloon’s existence became public, its flight was closely tracked as it glided from Alaska to Montana, where the US Department of Defence stores some nuclear assets at the Malmstrom air force base. The balloon sped up as China tried to get it out of American airspace as quickly as possible, according to the officials cited by NBC.

The officials said that the Biden administration had limited China’s efforts to gather intelligence from sensitive sites by moving potential targets and by blocking the balloon’s ability to pick up and transmit electronic signals.

The balloon spent a week flying over North America before a US warplane shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February.

Biden’s administration played down the balloon’s capabilities at the time. But after it was shot down, the White House confirmed the vessel was carrying equipment capable of intercepting and geolocating communications. “It’s not a major breach,” Biden said after the balloon was destroyed. “It’s a violation of international law. It’s our airspace. And once it comes into our space, we can do what we want with it.”

The debris is still being analysed by American security experts. China has deployed similar balloons to collect intelligence over 40 countries on five continents, the US government has claimed.

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