We now know that the balloon lifted off Hainan island in China in January and officials tracked it as it flew across Guam and Hawaii before turning sharply north across Alaska. It was tracked for a full week before making its way across the rest of the US, according to reports by CBS News.
Although it is not known precisely what the Chinese were hoping to learn about our infrastructure, there are a lot of questions surrounding why the intelligence community permitted the balloon to make its way across the whole country, where it flew over highly sensitive nuclear and military facilities.
It took until February 2 for officials with the Pentagon to confirm that they had been tracking it. At the time, they said they had chosen not to shoot it down because of the potential damage that could be caused by the debris. A US official said that after the US announced it was tracking it, the balloon began proceeding quickly toward the East Coast. It wasn't until it was off of the coast of South Carolina that a US fighter jet shot it down on February 4.
Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley has said that it is going to be challenging to find the debris because of where it was shot down, which also raises questions about why it was shot down where it was when there was so much time to devise a better plan.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) commended Biden for eventually shooting the balloon down in comments on CBS’ Face the Nation, but he asked why it took so long for him to make a move.
“He allowed a full week for the Chinese to conduct spying operations over the United States, over sensitive military installations, exposing not just photographs but the potential of intercepted communications. And-and more broadly, I think this entire episode telegraphed weakness to [President] Xi [Jinping] and the Chinese government.”
He wondered whether it would have been shot down at all if no one had taken pictures of it and it hadn’t made the news. After all, the Biden administration did and said nothing despite knowing about it well before the public did.
“And at the end of the day, I think the only reason they shot it down is because it made it into the news and they felt forced to as a matter of politics rather than national security. That’s a bad message for the Chinese government to hear,” he said.
While China maintains that the balloon is used for weather monitoring purposes and veered off course, State Department officials have said that it contained equipment they believe is “clearly for intelligence surveillance” and included several antennas that have the power to collect and geolocate communications.
In a written statement, one State Department official noted: “The high altitude balloon’s equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons.” They added that it had solar panels that were big enough to generate the power needed for operating multiple sensors for collecting intelligence.
Department of Defense Press Secretary Brig. Gen Patrick Ryder said that China has been operating an elaborate espionage program since at least 2018, with numerous spy balloons being identified across five continents over the years.
Once the news emerged that China was flying a spy balloon across American airspace, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken moved to postpone his planned trip to the country.
Sources for this article include: