US tracked Chinese balloon from launch, may have accidentally drifted: Official

The U.S. watched as it may have been blown off course, the official confirmed.

February 15, 2023, 3:38 PM

U.S. intelligence agencies tracked the Chinese spy balloon from its launch in China and watched as it may have been inadvertently blown into U.S. airspace, a U.S. official has confirmed to ABC News.

This latest revelation differs significantly from the previous narrative related by the White House and U.S. military officials over recent days, which has changed repeatedly since the balloon's existence became public when it was spotted over Montana on Feb. 1.

On Wednesday, the State Department referred questions on the balloon's intended path and when it was first tracked to the Pentagon, which referred questions to the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House.

But State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that whether the aircraft was blown off course had no impact on the U.S. assessment that the incursion was a violation of U.S. sovereignty.

"In some ways it doesn't matter, and I'm not going to opine on what the PRC (People's Republic of China) may or may not have intended, but in key ways it doesn't matter. It's completely immaterial. It's immaterial because this was a high-altitude surveillance balloon that did violate our airspace. It did violate international law," he said.

The NSC declined to comment on whether the U.S. was tracking the Chinese balloon since it was launched.

But a U.S. official said that just because the U.S. may have been able to detect when the balloon left a certain point did not mean that the U.S. knew that it would ultimately end up over the United States.

"A range of factors determine the balloon's trajectory, and it was not clear where it would be going," the official said.

The Washington Post was the first to report that the balloon may have been diverted from its original route and that the resulting incident and tensions with China might have been due, in part, to a mistake. It was said the balloon was on course to fly toward the U.S. territory of Guam when it took an unexpected turn north due to strong winds.

U.S. officials have said the intent of the balloon was for surveillance -- not meteorological research as Beijing claimed. A State Department official said last week that the balloon had equipment "clearly for intelligence surveillance," including antennas "likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications."

Over its weeklong journey over the U.S., the balloon first entered airspace over Alaska's Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 then traversed into Canada's airspace before reentering U.S. airspace heading east. It was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.

President Joe Biden said he ordered the balloon be shot down when he was informed of its presence over Montana, but that his military advisers said it was too dangerous to conduct over land.

Chinese spy balloon sightings
ABC News Illustration / Google Earth

Senators who were briefed on the Chinese spy balloon said they don't buy claims from U.S. officials that the balloon may have inadvertently drifted over the United States.

"I do not believe that it veered," said Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican. "I've heard that. That's surely a Chinese talking point and maybe some people are saying that now in the administration because they don't want to heightened tensions further."

The path the balloon took, Rubio argued, was too strategic to be accidental.

"You don't inadvertently veer coincidentally over some of the most sensitive U.S. facilities right in the middle of the country, that's just not a coincidental path," Rubio told ABC News' Allison Pecorin.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, who has been tasked by Democratic leadership to lead an investigation into why U.S. officials didn't know more sooner, similarly scoffed at claims that the balloon may have inadvertently drifted over the U.S. mainland.

"I never believe anything is inadvertent when it comes to the communist party of China," Tester said.

The incident added tension to the fraught U.S.-China relationship, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling a planned trip to Beijing. Blinken and other U.S. officials called the balloon a "clear violation" of international law.

China has now accused the U.S. of flying several balloons into its airspace since the spring of last year, which White House spokesperson John Kirby flatly denied during an appearance Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"We do not deploy surveillance balloons over China," Kirby said, though he declined to answer a follow-up question on whether the U.S. spies on China.

The Pentagon said earlier this month the balloon didn't pose a physical threat, and that once it was detected the U.S. took steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection.

Crews have been working since the Feb. 4 take down to collect debris. A significant portion of the balloon's reconnaissance section was recovered on Monday, a U.S. official confirmed to ABC News. One official said the payload is 30-feet long.

"Crews have been able to recover significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure," Northcom said in a statement.

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, S.C., Feb. 4, 2023.
Randall Hill/Reuters

All senators received a classified briefing on Tuesday about the spy balloon and three other unidentified objects shot down over the weekend over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron. The intelligence community is considering as a "leading explanation" that those objects were for commercial or benign use, Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

ABC News' Ben Gittleson, Shannon Crawford, Luis Martinez and Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.

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