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Chinese spy balloon carried 'multiple antennas' for collecting signals intelligence, State Dept. says

Photos by U-2 planes confirmed the presence of the equipment, and debris collected so far includes electronics. An official said what's collected is cumulatively the size of a small car.
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The Chinese balloon that flew above the U.S. for eight days included “multiple antennas” capable of collecting signals intelligence, a senior State Department official said Thursday, and the balloon maker has proven ties to the Chinese military.

While China condemned the U.S. for destroying what it said was a weather balloon, the State Department official described the balloon as carrying equipment designed to collect communications and threatened action against Beijing.

According to the official, photos taken by high-altitude U-2 planes confirmed the presence of the equipment, including “multiple antennas … likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications” and “solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.” The equipment was “inconsistent” with that aboard weather balloons.

NBC News was first to report the U-2 flybys.

The balloon was shot down by a missile off of South Carolina on Saturday. A senior U.S. official briefed on the matter says that so far the amount of equipment recovered from the surface of the ocean is cumulatively the size of a small car.

The Pentagon said February 2 it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high over the United States, reviving tensions between the two countries just days ahead of a rare visit to Beijing by the top US diplomat.
A balloon in the sky over Billings, Mont., in images taken Feb. 1 . The Pentagon said Thursday that a suspected Chinese spy balloon was hovering over the area.Chase Doak / AFP - Getty Images

The senior State Department official said that the U.S. is confident that the manufacturer of the balloon “has a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the [People’s Liberation Army], according to information published in an official procurement portal for the PLA.”

The balloons are part of a fleet “developed to conduct surveillance operations” that are often undertaken at the military’s direction, the official said. 

“The United States will also explore taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace,” the official said, using the initials for the People's Republic of China. “We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners.”

The FBI said Thursday that it arrived on the scene to collect balloon debris on Feb. 5, the day after the balloon was shot down, and that debris from the balloon was first transported to the bureau on Feb. 6.

The debris recovered includes the long white balloon or canopy, some wiring and a few pieces of electronics, said the FBI.

A senior FBI official familiar with the operation said the bureau has tasked “additional specialists to help with screening and specifically assessing electronic components that might be recovered during the operation.” 

Much of the evidence remains underwater, the FBI said, and most of the evidence recovered was on the surface. All of the debris is being decontaminated to remove saltwater.

The official said the FBI has not yet evaluated the balloons capabilities, but "has seen nothing that would contradict" the assessement by other U.S. government entities of the balloon’s purpose.

On Wednesday, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said that the U.S. has gathered extensive information about the Chinese surveillance balloons over time and will be able to detect them in the future.

Ryder said at a news conference that “in terms of monitoring these and collecting on them, we have been able to put together a body of knowledge that enables us to be able to detect them and act.”

U.S. officials said previously that there had been multiple Chinese balloon flights over American territory during the former Trump administration and another during the Biden administration. 

Ryder gave no further details about the routes of those flights or other information, but said the U.S. government later determined some of those sightings were Chinese high-altitude spy balloons.

“What we do know is that in some cases, whereas some of these balloons previously had not been identified, subsequent analysis, subsequent intelligence analysis did enable us to indicate that these were Chinese balloons,” Ryder said.

He added, “We’ve acknowledged publicly that we know that they were looking to surveil strategic sites, to include some of our strategic bases in the continental United States.”