As the FBI is analysing recovered parts of the suspected Chinese spy balloon which was shot down on February 4, it was revealed that the device “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations” and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents”, a US State Department official said.
“We know the PRC (People’s Republic of China) used these balloons for surveillance. High-resolution imagery from U-2 flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations,” CNN quoted the official as saying on Thursday
Signals intelligence refers to information that is gathered by electronic means — things like communications and radars.
Senior FBI officials confirmed on Thursday that they have started initial stages of evaluating the pieces of the balloon that were recovered and brought to the Bureau’s lab in Quantico, Virginia, on Sunday.
The investigation into recovered balloon is the first of its kind in the FBI’s history.
Only evidence that was on the surface of the ocean has been delivered to FBI analysts so far, one official said, which includes the “canopy itself, the wiring, and then a very small amount of electronics”, one of the officials was quoted by CNN as saying.
He added that the analysts have not yet seen the “payload,” which is where you would expect to see the “lion’s share” of electronics.
The officials also said that understanding the components of the balloon is vital intelligence and could be “important pieces of evidence for future criminal charges that could be brought”.
Administration officials from the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday on the balloon.
The House of Representatives lawmakers called the balloon a “brazen violation of US sovereignty” as the body voted 419 to 0 on Thursday morning to condemn its use, the BBC reported.
The suspected spy balloon, which US defence officials first announced of tracking the on February 2, was shot down two days later by an American F-22 fighter jet.
The officials waited until the “strange object” was safely over water before shooting it down.
The balloon was retrieved off the coast of Myrtle Beach in South Carolina on February 5
Earlier this week, The Washington Post had reported that the US believes the suspected surveillance balloon project was being operated from China’s coastal Hainan province and targeted countries including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
In a briefing on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington “was not the only target of this broader program which violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents”.
“Last week, Beijing violated international law and US sovereignty with the presence of a Chinese surveillance balloon in US airspace. This was an irresponsible act, in response to which we acted responsibly and prudently to protect our interests,” he had said.
The discovery of the balloon has set off a diplomatic crisis, with Blinken immediately calling off a scheduled trip to China — which would have been the first such high level US-China meeting there in years.
China has admitted ownership of the balloon, saying it was used for flight tests and had “seriously deviated” from its flight course “by mistake”.