(WASHINGTON) — U.S. intelligence agencies tracked the Chinese spy balloon from its launch in China and watched as it may have been inadvertently blown into U.S. airspace, a U.S. official has confirmed to ABC News.
The Washington Post was the first to report that the balloon may have been diverted from its original route and that the resulting incident and tensions with China might have been due, in part, to a mistake. It was said the balloon was on course to fly toward the U.S. territory of Guam when it took an unexpected turn north due to strong winds.
U.S. officials have said the intent of the balloon was for surveillance — not meteorological research as Beijing claimed. A State Department official said last week that the balloon had equipment “clearly for intelligence surveillance,” including antennas “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications.”
Over its weeklong journey over the U.S., the balloon first entered airspace over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 then traversed into Canada’s airspace before reentering U.S. airspace heading east. It was shot down in waters off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
President Joe Biden said he ordered the balloon be shot down when he was informed of its presence over Montana, but that his military advisers said it was too dangerous to conduct over land.
The incident added tension to the fraught U.S.-China relationship, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelling a planned trip to Beijing. Blinken and other U.S. officials called the balloon a “clear violation” of international law.
China has now accused the U.S. of flying several balloons into its airspace since the spring of last year, which White House spokesperson John Kirby flatly denied during an appearance Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“We do not deploy surveillance balloons over China,” Kirby said, though he declined to answer a follow-up question on whether the U.S. spies on China.
The Pentagon said earlier this month the balloon didn’t pose a physical threat, and that once it was detected the U.S. took steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection.
Crews have been working since the Feb. 4 take down to collect debris. A significant portion of the balloon’s reconnaissance section was recovered on Monday, a U.S. official confirmed to ABC News. One official said the payload is 30-feet long.
“Crews have been able to recover significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure,” Northcom said in a statement.
All senators received a classified briefing on Tuesday about the spy balloon and three other unidentified objects shot down over the weekend over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron. The intelligence community is considering as a “leading explanation” that those objects were for commercial or benign use, Kirby told reporters Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said senators will receive another briefing Wednesday “on the state of U.S. defense readiness with respect to China.”
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