On January 28, China sent over a surprise: a spy balloon nearly the size of the Statue of Liberty. It hovered over the United States for a couple of days before being shot down off the Carolina coast on February 4. How this massive surveillance device escaped detection from NORAD made for an embarrassing episode for US security officials.
The balloon hovered over sensitive military sites. Biden wanted to shoot down the balloon, though he was persuaded not to do so by the brass due to falling debris. Yet, we know that wasn’t the first option. The Biden administration wanted to hide its existence and subsequent penetration of US airspace (via NBC News):
Administration officials at first hoped to conceal the balloon’s existence from the public, and from Congress, according to multiple former and current administration and congressional officials.
“Before it was spotted publicly, there was the intention to study it and let it pass over and not ever tell anyone about it,” said a former senior U.S. official briefed on the balloon incident.
A senior Biden administration denied that there was an effort to keep the balloon secret. “To the extent any of this was kept quiet at all, that was in large part to protect intel equities related to finding and tracking them,” the official said, referring to intelligence gathering. “There was no intention to keep this from Congress at any point.”
The balloon’s ability to fly and gather intelligence was mostly powered by 16 solar panels, and it was remotely steered for a time from inside of China, while also using the wind and the jet stream to push it across the U.S.
Early photos from the U.S. military of the balloon’s payload showed antennas that were likely used to listen to cellphones and other signals. The payload weighed about 2,000 pounds and was about 200 feet tall.
Biden’s military advisers warned him that it could not be safely shot down because of a massive potential debris field that would endanger people and structures below. NASA initially assessed that field to be 70 miles wide and 70 miles long, with thousands of pounds of debris falling 65,000 feet.
The president asked basic questions about the balloon and its capabilities. At times, he grew frustrated with how little U.S. intelligence officials knew about China’s balloon program.
Passengers on civilian aircraft spotted the massive surveillance balloon. Video and social media postings were next. The media would pick this up regardless, though that wasn’t the most pressing issue at the time.
H/T John Hasson