Times-Call (Longmont)

U.S. says China balloon could collect intelligen­ce signals

- By Matthew Lee and Eric Tucker The Associated Press

WASHINGTON >> The China balloon shot down by the U.S. 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 Biden administra­tion declared Thursday, citing imagery from American U-2 spy planes.

A fleet of balloons operates under the direction of the 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 U.S. said. Similar balloons have sailed over five continents, according to the administra­tion.

A statement from a senior State Department official offered the most detail to date linking China’s military to the balloon that was shot down by the U.S. last weekend over the Atlantic Ocean. The public details outlining the program’s scope and capabiliti­es were meant to refute China’s persistent denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim Thursday that U.S. accusation­s about the balloon amount to “informatio­n warfare.”

President Joe Biden defended the U.S. action.

And, asked in an interview with Spanish language Telemundo Noticias whether the balloon episode represente­d a major security breach, he said no.

“Look, the total amount of intelligen­ce gathering that’s going on by every country around the world is overwhelmi­ng,” he said. “Anyway, it’s not a major breach. I mean, look ... 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.”

On Capitol Hill, the House voted unanimousl­y to condemn China for a “brazen violation” of U.S. sovereignt­y and efforts to “deceive the internatio­nal community through false claims about its intelligen­ce collection campaigns.” Republican­s have criticized Biden for not acting sooner to down the balloon, but both parties’ lawmakers came together on the vote, 419-0.

In Beijing, before the U.S. offered its new informatio­n, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespers­on Mao Ning repeated her nation’s insistence that the large unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorolog­ical airship that had blown off course and that the U.S.

had “overreacte­d” by shooting it down.

“It is irresponsi­ble,” Mao said. The latest accusation­s, she said, “may be part of the U.S. side’s informatio­n warfare against China.”

Underscori­ng the tensions, China’s defense minister refused to take a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon issue on Saturday, the Pentagon said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned weekend trip to Beijing.

The U.S. flatly contradict­ed China’s version of events, saying that imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes 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 U.S. assistant defense secretary for the Indo-pacific, told a Senate Appropriat­ions subcommitt­ee that the military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligen­ce China was seeking. More informatio­n was expected to be provided in a classified setting.

Senior FBI officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the bureau said just a few pieces of the balloon had arrived at the FBI’S Quantico, Virginia, lab for investigat­ion. 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.”

According to two U.S. officials, the balloon recovery efforts were temporaril­y suspended on Thursday due to high seas. They said some balloon debris was intact on the ocean floor and divers had recovered potentiall­y high-value equipment over the past day and a half. Another official said that some of the recovered equipment components had English writing or markings on them but it wasn’t clear if they were American parts or from another English speaking country. The official said the more highly technical parts recovered did not have any overt markings.

Much of the debris is concentrat­ed in two separate sections of an area 15 football fields long and 15 fields across, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivit­y of the collection process.

The State Department official, providing details to reporters by email, also on condition of anonymity, said an analysis of the balloon debris was “inconsiste­nt” with China’s explanatio­n that it was a weather balloon that went off course. The U.S. is reaching out to countries that have also been targeted, the official said.

The U.S. has confidence that the manufactur­er of the balloon shot down on Saturday has “a direct relationsh­ip with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the” army, the official said, citing an official PLA procuremen­t portal as evidence.

State Department spokesman Ned Price would not identify the other countries the U.S. says have also been targeted. Nor would he reveal how the U.S. knows there have been Chinese incursions over those countries’ territory, 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 Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 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 with determinat­ion and resolve,” Sherman said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “We will make clear to the PRC that violations of our sovereignt­y and the sovereignt­y of other countries are unacceptab­le.”

At a separate Senate subcommitt­ee hearing, lawmakers repeatedly pressed administra­tion officials, including Pentagon military leaders, about why the balloon was not shot down over sparsely populated areas of Alaska.

And they questioned whether allowing the balloon to transit such a large area set a precedent for future spying efforts by China and others.

“It defies belief that there was not a single opportunit­y to safely shoot this spy balloon prior to the coast of South Carolina,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-maine. “By the administra­tion’s logic we would allow the Chinese to fly surveillan­ce balloons over the Pentagon or other sensitive sites and populated areas.”

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