The Chinese spy balloon that the U.S. shot down over the Atlantic Ocean last weekend carried high-tech equipment capable of collecting communications signals and other sensitive information, the U.S. government said Thursday.
The balloon had equipment that was “clearly for intelligence surveillance,” including “multiple antennas” that were “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications,” according to a statement by a senior State Department official. The official said the balloon is likely part of a huge aerial spy program operated by the Chinese military that has targeted more than 40 countries on five continents with high-altitude surveillance balloons similar to one the U.S. shot down.
The statement offered the most detail to date linking China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the balloon that traversed the United States. The public details are 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” against Beijing.
In Beijing, before the U.S. offered new information, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning repeated his 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, he said, “may be part of the U.S. side’s information warfare against China.”
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. China has not answered questions as to what government department or company the balloon belonged to, or how it planned to follow up on a pledge to take further action over the matter.
Austin told “CBS Mornings” in an interview that the balloon flew on a route that took it past ballistic missile fields and a B-2 stealth bomber base. But he said the Pentagon took steps to protect “strategic assets” — the U.S. nuclear force — from the balloon’s surveillance.
“[We] made sure that we were buttoned down and movement was limited and communications were limited so that we didn’t expose any capability unnecessarily,” Austin said in his first public comments since the balloon came down.
The U.S. official said the equipment carried on the balloon 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, to discuss the scope of the Chinese surveillance program.
The official provided details to reporters by email on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, which had already forced the cancellation of a planned visit to China earlier this week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
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 cited information from an official PLA procurement portal as evidence for the connection between the company and the military.
The Biden administration is exploring taking action against the Chinese entities linked to the military that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace, the official said. The Biden team is still discussing restrictions on outbound U.S. investment in China, and Congress will be consulted, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters Thursday.
On Wednesday, President Biden dismissed the idea that the incident would seriously damage relations with China.
“No,” the president told “PBS Newshour,” when asked if relations between the U.S. and China have “taken a big hit.” He said he hasn’t spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the incident, but said he previously “made it real clear to Xi Jinping that we’re going to compete fully with China, but we’re not looking for conflict.”
This is not the first time the U.S. government has publicly called out alleged activities of the People’s Liberation Army. In a first-of-its-kind prosecution in 2014, the Obama administration Justice Department indicted five accused PLA hackers of breaking into the computer networks of major American corporations in an effort to steal trade secrets.
Alleged hackers with the PLA were also charged in 2020 with stealing the personal data of tens of millions of Americans in a breach of the credit-reporting agency Equifax.