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Chinese spy balloon got intel from sensitive military sites while flying over US: Report

Debris falling from the sky after a Chinese spy balloon was shot down by an F22 military fighter jet over Surfside Beach, South Carolina, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (Joe Granita/Zuma Press/TNS)
April 03, 2023

China collected intelligence from several sensitive U.S. military sites with the spy balloon that flew over the country in February, even as the U.S. worked to lessen its exposure to the balloon’s surveillance tech.

The intelligence gathered by China largely stemmed from electronic signals emitted either from weapons systems or communications between personnel, NBC News reported, citing two senior U.S. officials and one former senior administration official. Less intelligence was gathered via imagery.

The U.S. was able to move potential surveillance targets and stop some signals from being emitted, preventing China from collecting much more intelligence, the officials said.

The spy balloon’s path took it over Alaska and a broad swath of the American heartland before it was shot down over the ocean off of South Carolina. It flew near all three bases where the U.S. keeps land-based nuclear missiles and was observed lingering near one of them in Montana, as reported by NBC.

The officials also said the U.S. has not determined why a self-destruct feature on the balloon was not activated before it was shot down and collected for analysis. It is not clear whether the feature malfunctioned or China opted not to activate it, the officials said.

China insisted the balloon was being used for civilian weather research when winds blew it off-course over the U.S. The U.S. has maintained that it was part of a broader Chinese military surveillance program, though officials have said strong winds may have indeed pushed it away from intended targets in the Pacific Ocean. 

The spy balloon’s days-long voyage over the U.S. became a national fixation, brought already-tense relations with China to a historic low, and kickstarted a sequence of events that saw three additional objects shot out of North American skies in as many days.

Much about those three objects – which cost at least $1.6 million to shoot down – remains unclear, including what they were and where they came from. President Joe Biden has said they were likely commercial or recreational, and searches were called off before any of the objects were found.

This was a breaking news story. The details were periodically updated as more information became available.