Many Americans were horrified that President Joe Biden allowed an enormous, high-tech Chinese spy balloon to float across the U.S. mainland in February, moving slowly over strategic military installations as it went, collecting data and sending it off to Beijing in realtime, before shooting it down over the Atlantic Ocean.
Administration officials assured us they were able to jam the balloon’s data collection mechanisms to block it from receiving – and transmitting – sensitive information picked up along the way. Few Americans will be surprised to learn those assurances were false.
One former and two current senior administration officials told NBC News the balloon “was able to gather intelligence from several sensitive American military sites, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to block it from doing so.”
China was able to control the balloon so it could make multiple passes over some of the sites (at times flying figure eight formations) and transmit the information it collected back to Beijing in real time, the three officials said. The intelligence China collected was mostly from electronic signals, which can be picked up from weapons systems or include communications from base personnel, rather than images, the officials said.
The three officials said China could have gathered much more intelligence from sensitive sites if not for the administration’s efforts to move around potential targets and obscure the balloon’s ability to pick up their electronic signals by stopping them from broadcasting or emitting signals.
The National Security Council referred NBC News to the Defense Department for comment. The Defense Department directed NBC News to comments from February in which senior officials said the balloon had “limited additive value” for intelligence collection by the Chinese government “over and above what [China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low earth orbit.”
The balloon first entered U.S. airspace off the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, according to an ABC News timeline. But we didn’t hear about it until it was detected and photographed by a civilian in Montana on Feb. 2. This forced the Biden administration to admit they’d been aware of its presence for days.
Despite the fact that the balloon had flown over large expanses of wilderness which provided ample opportunity to shoot it down, administration officials claimed they had not done so due to concern over casualties on the ground. In a written statement after the balloon was shot down, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload.”
The Chinese brushed off U.S. concerns about the balloon’s presence, maintaining it was merely a meteorology balloon that had blown off course. Yet it had conveniently hovered over the nuclear missile silo field at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, and over or near military sites in Wyoming, Nebraska and Missouri.
NBC reported that “once the balloon’s existence became public, China increased its speed, officials said, in attempt to get it out of U.S. airspace as quickly as possible.”
On Feb. 4, the balloon was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.
Amidst the madness of that surreal and sorry saga, there was a silver lining.
Although relations between the world’s top superpowers have always been characterized by mutual distrust, China’s hatred of America has gone largely unchallenged by most Democratic and even some Republican lawmakers. But this episode marked a major turning point. China’s provocative actions may have accomplished what would otherwise have been impossible: uniting Americans against a common enemy.
Even Democrats were forced to admit that, rather than being a mere fellow competitor on the world stage, China poses a serious threat to America. In other words, the gloves are off.