The Chinese balloon shot down by the U.S. was equipped to collect intelligence signals as part of a huge, military-linked aerial spy program that targeted more than 40 countries, the Biden administration said Thursday, citing imagery from American U-2 spy planes.

A fleet of balloons operates under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and is used specifically for spying, outfitted with high-tech equipment designed to collect sensitive information from targets across the globe, the U.S. said. Similar balloons have floated over five continents, according to the administration.

The statement from a senior State Department official offered the most detail to date linking China’s People’s Liberation Army to the balloon that traversed the United States. The public details are meant to refute China’s persistent denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim Thursday that U.S. accusations about the balloon amount to “information warfare” against Beijing.

On Capitol Hill, the House voted unanimously to condemn the balloon program as a “brazen violation” of U.S. sovereignty. Republicans have criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for not acting sooner to down the balloon, but both parties’ lawmakers came together on the vote, 419-0.

In Beijing, before the U.S. offered new information, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning repeated his nation’s insistence that the large unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that had blown off course and that the U.S. had “overreacted” by shooting it down.

“It is irresponsible,” Mao said. The latest accusations, he said, “may be part of the U.S. side’s information warfare against China.”

Not a weather balloon, U.S. says

China’s defence minister refused to take a phone call from U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon issue on Saturday, the Pentagon said. China has not answered questions as to what government department or company the balloon belonged to, or how it planned to follow up on a pledge to take further action over the matter.

The U.S. official said imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes as it crossed the country showed that it was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection” with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.

A map of North America is shown, charting the balloon's trajectory.
A map shows the trajectory of the balloon over North America. The specific duration it was over Canadian airspace is not yet clear. (The Associated Press)

The State Department official said an analysis of the balloon debris was “inconsistent” with China’s explanation that it was a weather balloon that went off course. The U.S. is reaching out to countries that have also been targeted, the official said, to discuss the scope of the Chinese surveillance program.

The official provided details to reporters by email on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, which had already forced the cancellation of a planned visit to China earlier this week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The official said the U.S. has confidence that the manufacturer of the balloon shot down on Saturday has “a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the” army. The official cited information from an official People’s Liberation Army procurement portal as evidence for the connection between the company and the military.

Jedidiah Royal, the U.S. assistant defence secretary for the Indo-Pacific, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee on Thursday that the military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligence China was seeking, but could not publicly reveal the information. Select members of Congress were expected to learn more in a classified setting.

‘We thought before we shot’

The balloon’s dayslong trajectory has spurred debate on Capitol Hill as to whether the U.S. should have forcibly removed it from American airspace sooner.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, at the appropriations subcommittee hearing, said she believed it could have been shot down in a remote area of Alaska before the public learned of its existence over Montana.

Biden previously said he wanted to shoot it down on Feb. 1, but that the Pentagon recommended otherwise, waiting until it was over water.

A woman and man are shown behind microphones at a long table in a wood-paneled room.
Melissa Dalton, Biden administration official, left, and Lt.-Gen. Douglas Sims, from the Pentagon, were among those testifying on the Chinese spy balloon Thursday at a Senate subcommittee hearing. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

At the same hearing, a U.S. official said it was discovered over Alaska on Jan. 28, reaching Montana on Jan. 31. In between, it travelled over Canada, said Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defence for homeland defence.

North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) had custody of tracking it until it entered American airspace, Dalton said, and U.S. and Canadian officials were in regular contact.

Both Dalton and Lt.-Gen. Douglas Sims said that given the balloon was 60 metres tall, with a jetliner-sized payload and large metal components, it was safer to shoot down over water, which they also believed made recovery of debris more manageable.

Dalton said that shooting it down over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, as suggested by Collins, would have likely meant more prohibitive recovery efforts in terms of water depths and temperatures at this time of year.

Sims, the director of operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, also said that shooting it down over land could have set a bad precedent for any future incidents around the globe.

“We thought before we shot,” he said.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, testifying at the Senate foreign relations committee on Thursday, said the development reflects “Beijing’s growing coercion,” while also citing recent allegations China has set up unauthorized police stations in North America.

“We don’t seek another Cold War, but we do ask everyone to play by the same set of rules,” said Sherman.

This is not the first time the U.S. government has publicly called out alleged activities of the People’s Liberation Army. In a first-of-its-kind prosecution in 2014, the Obama administration Justice Department indicted five accused PLA hackers of breaking into the computer networks of major American corporations in an effort to steal trade secrets.

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