Previous Chinese spy balloons that traversed U.S. soil under the Trump administration were classified as UFOs, The New York Times reported Wednesday, shedding additional light on the government’s knowledge of Chinese balloon-enabled surveillance.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said U.S. intelligence agencies began assembling the puzzle pieces indicating a large-scale Chinese balloon spying campaign “in the last several years, to include time during the previous administration” at a briefing Wednesday. However, it appears initial analysis lumped what turned out to be Chinese spy airships into broader reporting of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs), the intelligence community’s recasting of UFOs, at least through 2020, officials told the NYT.
The Biden administration’s military and intelligence community tracked the balloon at least as soon as it entered U.S. airspace, Ryder said. In addition, the U.S. was aware of China’s fleet of spy balloons by the time of the latest incident.
At least three Chinese spy balloons traversed U.S. airspace, and potentially more, under the Trump administration, according to officials and media reports. One more flew over U.S. territory near the beginning of the Biden administration, although it remains unclear how much awareness the U.S. government possessed at that time of the balloon’s role in China’s surveillance campaign.
Those balloons did pass over sites that would be of strategic interest to China, Ryder said, but he declined to offer further details.
Intelligence analysis slowly revealed the extent of China’s program, which spanned at least five continents and goes back years, officials have said, according to the NYT.
“This information was discovered after the prior administration left,” Politico reported on Feb. 5, citing unnamed senior administration officials. “The intelligence community is prepared to offer key officials from the Trump administration briefings on [China’s] surveillance program.”
Trump administration officials have denied knowledge of any Chinese balloon incursions under their watch.
Since the Department of Defense publicly revealed it was tracking a large, high-altitude surveillance balloon above Montana on Thursday, more information about the U.S.’ knowledge of China’s spying campaign has emerged. U.S. analysts believe Beijing is employing the balloons to collect information on military bases operated by the U.S. and its partners, which could be valuable in a conflict, according to the NYT.
Of 366 UAP reports intelligence agencies received between March 2021 and August 2022, six were attributed to airborne clutter, 26 appeared to be drones and 163 were characterized as balloons or balloon-like objects, according to the report. The rest “demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.”
Another classified intelligence report delivered to Congress in January highlighted at least two instances where a hostile foreign power conducted aerial surveillance on the U.S. using advanced, yet unidentified technology, the NYT reported.
“We maintain the capability to take down balloons,” Ryder confirmed Wednesday.
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