China’s spy balloon traversed the United States for a week in February, collecting intelligence over several sensitive American military sites. During that time, the balloon reportedly communicated with Beijing using an American internet service provider, according to NBC News, which cited two current and one former U.S. officials familiar with the assessment. This connection emerged as a primary means that U.S. intelligence agencies could track the Chinese spy balloon’s location and gather crucial information throughout its transit.
The alleged communication channel enables the Chinese spy balloon to transmit burst transmissions or collections of data to Beijing over short periods. The company remains unnamed, but it has denied that the Chinese balloon used its network.
Intelligence officials believe that the balloon was gathering information about electronic signals from weapons systems or personnel at those sites. It is also likely that the Chinese spy balloon was collecting images of the sites.
It needs to be clarified whether these signals were transmitted back to Beijing in real time but were captured by the sensor devices on the balloon and stored for later use. However, the U.S. intelligence community is not overly concerned about the information the Chinese spy balloon collected because it is far less sophisticated than what satellites can gather at similar sites.
The U.S. military did not shoot down the Chinese spy balloon while it was over land because doing so would have increased the chances of civilians or infrastructure being hit by debris. The Pentagon weighed the risks of harming people with falling debris against the potential value that the Chinese spy balloon could provide to the nation’s security and concluded that it was not worth the risk. The decision to let the spy balloon continue its journey was made by a group of military and defense officials led by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, and by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was traveling to China for his first visit as a Biden cabinet member.
A Pentagon official suggested that letting the spy balloon continue its journey to Beijing resulted from a desire not to “ratchet up tensions ahead of Secretary Blinken’s trip.” The Chinese government criticized the United States for escalating the incident. It warned that such speculation and hysteria could hurt bilateral relations. The United States has not responded to the Chinese criticism. A Pentagon official said the military will continue to monitor the Chinese spy balloon’s progress and is taking steps to ensure that it does not endanger air traffic or people on the ground. The official added that the military is examining options to shoot down the balloon once it enters international waters, making it more difficult for China to salvage the device’s information and send it back to Beijing. The official declined to provide further details.