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U.S. aims to declassify some intel on Chinese surveillance balloons in other countries

The Biden administration, likely the State Department, is expected to share some of the declassified information as early as Wednesday.
U.S. Navy sailors recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C. on Sunday.
Navy sailors recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Sunday.Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson / U.S. Navy

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is working on declassifying U.S. intelligence that includes details of China’s flying surveillance balloons above dozens of other countries around the world, according to three administration officials.

The U.S. shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon Saturday off South Carolina after its trek across the continental U.S. The administration officials said China has used similar balloons to conduct surveillance of other countries’ infrastructure and sensitive sites.

The administration, most likely the State Department, is expected to share some of the declassified information as early as Wednesday, but the process continues, the officials said.

They said Biden administration officials plan to brief the dozens of countries the U.S. believes have been subject to surveillance by China’s balloons violating their airspace. The U.S. believes Chinese surveillance balloons have flown in the airspace of more than 40 countries, two officials said.

Some of the countries may already be aware of the incidents through their own intelligence, officials said. They also said some of the countries may not want to publicly disclose that China has flown a surveillance balloon across their airspace. The Biden administration doesn’t plan to name the countries publicly, officials said, and it’s not clear how revealing or new the downgraded or declassified intelligence will be to these countries or to the public.

Two officials didn’t know whether the balloons had flown over U.S. military bases or assets in various countries around the world or whether the administration has data granular enough to definitively state the balloons’ tracks.

A senior Biden administration official said Sunday that Chinese surveillance balloons had flown over the continental U.S. before — once during the Biden administration and at least three times during former President Donald Trump’s term, a discovery that was made after he left office.

Once officials concluded that the objects in the previously unidentified sightings were Chinese spy balloons, they chose to conceal from China how they had unmasked the balloon flights, a U.S. official with knowledge of the matter said.

Administration officials have said the U.S. has already been discussing with allies its concerns about balloon over the U.S. and the challenge that Beijing’s program presents globally. But the intelligence set to be declassified this week will go further, officials said.

“Other regions of the world have also been subjected to these brazen violations of sovereignty, as well,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday. “We think it’s important in the first instance that we share as much as we can because, these are challenges that many of us have and will continue to have to confront together.”