U.S. officials confirmed on Monday that the Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S. in February transmitted sensitive military information to China in real time. The Chinese government continues to claim it was a weather balloon that had blown off course.
Two senior U.S. officials and one former senior administration official told NBC News that the balloon collected electronic signals as it flew over multiple military sites, sometimes flying in figure-eight formations. The electronic signals can be transmitted from weapons systems or obtained through communications from base personnel before it was shot down on February 4, officials said.
The balloon first entered U.S. airspace as it flew over Alaska on January 28 before making its way through Canada and re-entering the U.S. over Montana. President Joe Biden eventually gave the go-ahead to shoot down the spy balloon, which was the size of three school buses when it was over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. After receiving backlash for not shooting it down earlier, Biden said at the time that he was waiting to take the balloon down until it would not pose a risk to civilians on the ground.
A senior defense official said at a press briefing in February, “The PRC has claimed publicly that the high-altitude balloon operating above the United States is a weather balloon that was blown off-course. This is false.” He continued, “This was a PRC surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposefully traversed the United States and Canada. And we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites. Its route over the United States, near many potential sensitive sites, contradicts the PRC government’s explanation that it was a weather balloon.”
Officials told CNN they knew the direction the balloon was taking and could proactively shut down its military communication systems to censor signals on the bases before the balloon could access them. Meanwhile, China has repeatedly denied obtaining any surveillance information, saying the U.S. overreacted, but officials are still looking into which company, department, or organization was responsible for the balloon, NBC reported.
The remains of the balloon were collected by the U.S. Navy and are still being examined by the FBI, but little information has been gleaned from the debris. CNN reported the FBI is still trying to determine what algorithm was used for the balloon’s software, how it worked, and how it was powered and designed.
After the balloon was shot down, Biden said the balloon was “not a major breach,” The Guardian reported, but added, “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.”