Chinese surveillance balloon may trigger US 'action' against Beijing: Official

The House unanimously voted to condemn China for its use of the spy balloon.

February 9, 2023, 3:09 PM

A State Department official said Thursday that the Biden administration is looking into "taking action" against China for the surveillance balloons sent over U.S. territory.

After shooting down what the U.S said was a Chinese spy balloon that traversed the U.S., the official said the administration is weighing actions to reprimand Beijing for the incursion into American airspace as well as "broader efforts to expose and address" its surveillance activities that threaten national security.

The official added that the department was specifically considering measures against Chinese entities linked to its military that supported the balloon's operations.

Arguing that the U.S. had sent a "clear message" to Beijing by downing the aircraft, the official said China's attempts to excuse the balloon's flight path were extremely muddled, asserting that Beijing was caught red-handed.

"It's clear that they have been scrambling to explain why they violated U.S. sovereignty and still have no plausible explanation -- and have found themselves on their heels," the official said, adding that China's surveillance program "will only continue to be exposed," making it more difficult for Beijing to use it for intelligence gathering.

PHOTO: In this photo a large balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, Feb. 4, 2023, just off the coast of South Carolina.
In this photo a large balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, Feb. 4, 2023, just off the coast of South Carolina.
Chad Fish/AP

The comments come as all members of Congress were getting classified briefings on the balloon and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was testifying on U.S.-China relations before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The House also voted unanimously 419-0 Thursday to formally condemn China for its use of a surveillance balloon over the U.S.

"Let's stand together against this common enemy that we have," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said moments before the vote. "Our enemy is not each other. Our enemy are foreign enemy nations like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. China being the largest foreign state adversary, the biggest threat long-term to the national security interests of the United States."

Sherman testified the the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China is the only competitor with the "intent and means to reshape the international order."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday revealed that the U.S. assesses the alleged Chinese spy balloon shot down over the weekend was part of an expansive surveillance program aimed at gathering intelligence from targets around the globe.

According to the State Department official Thursday, U-2 flybys of the balloon conducted by high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft last week revealed that it was "clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons."

"It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications. It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors," the official said.

The official confirmed that the U.S. assesses that China has overflown surveillance balloons above 40 countries, which ABC News and other outlets have previously reported.

Administration officials also revealed more information on China's prior balloon operations targeting the U.S. on Thursday. In a television interview, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the aircraft had been detected over parts of Florida and Texas.

A senior U.S. official previously told ABC Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz that incursions into American airspace had also taken place over Hawaii and off the coast of the continental U.S. -- specifically near Coronado, California, and Norfolk, Virginia -- where two of the nation's largest naval bases are located.

On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder disclosed that China had conducted four balloon surveillance missions over "sensitive sites" within U.S. territory during recent years, but did not disclose exactly where or when the incidents occurred.

While administration officials have defended its decision to allow the balloon spotted last week to make its way across the country before shooting it down off the coast of South Carolina, Austin said on Thursday that steps were taken to shield information on U.S. nuclear capabilities.

"All of our strategic assets we made sure were buttoned down, and movement was limited, and communications were limited so that we didn't expose any capability unnecessarily," he said.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday has not spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping since the U.S. discovered and shot down the spy balloon – dismissing the notion the situation would make the relationship worse.

Asked in an interview with Judy Woodruff of the "PBS NewsHour" whether U.S.-China relations had "taken a big hit," Biden responded, "no."

"I haven't talked to him during this," he said.

"The idea shooting down a balloon that's gathering information over America, and that breaks -- makes relations worse? Look, I made it real clear to Xi Jinping that we're going to compete fully with China, but we're not - we're not looking for conflict. And that's been the case so far," Biden said.

But at a Senate hearing on Thursday, Sherman said the recent balloon incident highlighted Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance on the international stage, calling China “the only country that wants to change the rules-based order that can successfully do so.”

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner also testified that the department was concerned over the lack of communication between the superpower’s militaries in the days after the shootdown and in recent months, calling the lack of disconnect “really dangerous.”

During another Senate hearing, this one before the appropriations defense subcommittee, lawmakers from both parties expressed their dissatisfaction with what they called a lack of transparency from the administration and demanded a strategy for preventing future espionage.

"This administration owes Americans answers not only on what happened this past week, but on what steps are going to take to ensure that this never happens again," said Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana -- one of the states where the balloon was spotted floating high overhead.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowsi also expressed concern for her constituents, calling her state “the first line of defense for America.”

"As an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words, but I'm not going to,” she said. If you're going to have Russia coming at you, if you're going to have China coming at you, we know exactly how they come. They come up and they go over Alaska.”

Murkowski added that the American public deserves more information from the administration on why the purported spy balloon was allowed to linger over the state for so long, saying the failure to shoot it down earlier sent the wrong message to Beijing.

ABC News' Lauren Peller, Luis Martinez, Matt Seyler, Justin Gomez, Allison Pecorin, and Lalee Ibssa contributed to this report.

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