A Chinese spy balloon managed to gather intelligence from several sensitive U.S. military sites, despite the Biden administration’s attempts to prevent this, as reported by two current senior U.S. officials and one former senior administration official. The balloon, controlled by China, performed multiple passes over certain sites, sometimes flying in figure-eight patterns, and transmitted the collected data back to Beijing in real time, according to the officials. The gathered intelligence mainly consisted of electronic signals, rather than images.
The officials acknowledged that the administration’s efforts to relocate potential targets and hinder the balloon’s ability to collect electronic signals limited the amount of intelligence gathered. The Defense Department pointed to previous statements made by senior officials in February that the balloon provided “limited additive value” to China’s intelligence capabilities.
A Defense Department spokesperson reiterated the “limited additive value” of the collected intelligence and could not confirm real-time data transmission to China. National Security Council spokesperson Kirby John declined to provide details about the types of electronic signals or communications accessed by the balloon.
Critics, including Republican Senators Steve Daines and Roger Wicker, have expressed concerns over the administration’s handling of the situation. China has maintained that the balloon was an unmanned civilian airship that accidentally deviated from its course and claims the U.S. overreacted by shooting it down.
The downed balloon, which entered U.S. airspace over Alaska on January 28th, had a self-destruct mechanism that could have been remotely activated by China. However, it is unclear if this function was not triggered due to a malfunction or a decision by China. The U.S. eventually shot down the balloon on February 4th off the coast of South Carolina, and officials are still examining the recovered debris.