U.S.: Chinese balloon able to spy on communications
WASHINGTON — The alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S. was capable of collecting communications signals and was part of a broader People’s Liberation Army intelligence-gathering effort that spanned more than 40 countries, a State Department official said Thursday.
High-resolution imagery provided by U-2 spy planes that flew past the balloon revealed an array of surveillance equipment that was inconsistent with Beijing’s claim that it was a weather device blown off course, the official said in a statement provided on condition of anonymity.
The statement, released before State and Defense Department officials appeared before Congress in open hearings and closed briefings on Thursday, marks the fullest accounting yet for the Biden administration’s insistence over the course of a weeklong drama that the balloon was meant to spy on the U.S.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in an interview with CBS News that the Pentagon acted to limit what the balloon could learn about U.S. nuclear capabilities.
“Certainly all of our strategic assets, we made sure were buttoned down and movement was limited and communications were limited so that we didn’t expose any capability unnecessarily,” Austin said. He said Chinese balloons flew over parts of the U.S. in previous years, passing over Texas and Florida.
The U.S. is now trying to expose and counter broader Chinese spying efforts alongside allies, the State Department official said. It’s also looking at taking action against Chinese entities linked to the intelligence-gathering effort after identifying a Chinese balloon manufacturer that sells products to the Chinese military, according to the official.
The new details released on
Thursday, including the contention that the device was part of a broader military-directed fleet, will add to the strain on U.S.-China relations.
China refused a requested phone call between Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, right after the balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, according to the Pentagon.
“Over the last several months, the PLA has continued to view the mil-mil relationship as something that they can turn on and off to express displeasure with other things that are happening,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner told the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, referring to the People’s Liberation Army’s military-to-military relationship with U.S. counterparts. “We think that’s really dangerous. We continue to have an outstretched hand.”
China’s Ministry of Defense said Thursday it declined to talk with the U.S. over the balloon because “the use of force violates international practice and sets a bad precedent,” according to a statement from spokesman Tan Kefei. “The U.S. hasn’t created a proper atmosphere for dialogue,” he added, calling the downing of what China considers a civilian balloon “irresponsible.”