Spy balloon part of a broader Chinese military surveillance operation, US intel sources say

U.S. intelligence officials believe the recently recovered Chinese spy balloon is part of a broader surveillance program run by the Chinese military, according to multiple U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.

Officials say the surveillance program, which includes many similar balloons, has partially ended in the tiny Chinese province of Hainan. The U.S. does not know the exact size of the Chinese surveillance balloon fleet, but sources say the program has flown at least two dozen missions on at least five continents in recent years.

According to an official familiar with the intelligence, about half a dozen of those flights have been inside U.S. airspace — though not necessarily over U.S. soil.

And not all of the balloons seen around the world are the exact same model as the one that crashed off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, another source familiar with the intelligence said. Rather, they said there are a number of “variables.”

The link to the broader surveillance program, which was exposed last week before the latest balloon sighting, was first reported by The Washington Post.

has asked the Chinese embassy in Washington to comment on suggestions that the downed balloon was part of a broader surveillance program.

Meanwhile, at a government lab in Quantico, Virginia, an elite team of FBI engineers is poring over the recovered balloon debris, trying to figure out what intelligence it may have gathered. And how to track surveillance balloons in the future.

Sources familiar with the effort say officials want to understand more about the balloon’s technical capabilities, including what kind of data it can intercept and collect, which satellites it is linked to. And are there any weaknesses that the US might be able to overcome? exploitation

And perhaps critically, investigators will be looking at what digital signatures it emitted to see if they provide a better way for the U.S. to track this type of balloon in the future. The commander of the U.S. Northern Command, Gen. Glenn Van Hurk, admitted to reporters on Monday that the U.S. has a “domain awareness gap” that allowed past balloons to enter U.S. airspace.

An FBI source familiar with the operation said that analysis and reconstruction of the balloon’s payload would ideally determine whether the aircraft was equipped with the capability to transmit the data it collected in real time. Delivered to the Chinese military or the device contained a “stored collection”. China will later analyze the device once it is exported.

China maintains that the craft shot down by the US was a weather balloon, but expressed “regret” in a statement on Friday.

Beijing’s rhetoric hardened significantly after the US military shot down the balloon, with China’s foreign ministry accusing the US of “overreacting” and “serious violation of international exercises”. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense expressed “firm protest,” warning that China “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.”

Defense officials say the U.S. obtained important clues to answer some of these questions while the balloon was moving toward the United States.

According to a defense official, the U.S. — using some of the technical capabilities provided by the National Security Agency, among other agencies — has already gathered some real information about what kind of signals the balloon is emitting during its journey. were

“I think you’ll see in the future that that time frame was able to accumulate value,” VanHerck said.

But officials want to be able to test its hardware to learn more about its exact capabilities.

“When we have the balloon in our hands, we can look at the technology, we can reconstruct the supply chain, find out who helped make it, what components were important to it,” said Representative Jim Hames of Connecticut. House Intelligence Committee “Obviously you can tell its functions and features. It takes a lot of intelligence to have it.”

The US will also seek to learn more about China’s intelligence-gathering preferences in the US.

But how much the intelligence community will know about what information the balloon actually collected, or attempted to collect, is unclear at this point, several officials said, and will likely depend on How the structure of the balloon was damaged. Initial shootdown and 60,000 feet into the ocean.

Officials say the biggest unanswered question is China’s intentions. China continues to argue that the plane was a weather balloon that went off course and that its flight over the United States was an accident. Officials have acknowledged that this type of balloon has only limited steering capabilities and mostly rides on the jet stream.

But several defense officials and other intelligence sources said the Chinese explanation was not credible and that the balloon’s trajectory was deliberate.

A source familiar with the FBI operation also said the intelligence community would be interested in knowing whether the devices on the Chinese balloon had any technical similarities to technology developed by the US intelligence community and military, as the Chinese The government has long been aggressive in stealing from Americans. Defense Secrets

A special team from the FBI’s Operational Technology Division is analyzing the debris, the person said.

This elite team consists of agents, analysts, engineers and scientists, who are responsible for both developing technical surveillance measures and analyzing America’s adversaries.

OTD officials, for example, develop surveillance tools used by FBI and intelligence community officials to target national security threats—but they are not allowed to conduct court-authorized data collection and intrusion into the United States. They are also responsible for working to thwart the efforts of domestic intelligence agencies.

A full analysis of the wreckage will take an undetermined amount of time, sources said, as recovery efforts are still underway.

Meanwhile, defense officials insist the U.S. has learned more about the balloon’s capabilities by allowing it to fly over the U.S. than by shooting it down immediately.

But, according to a member of the House Intelligence Committee, “There are a lot of reasons why we wouldn’t do that. We want to put it together, you want to see where it’s going and what it’s doing.

“We are not without defense,” the person added. “After all, it’s a balloon. It’s not a stealth bomber.”

A defense official said the U.S. has procedures — akin to a kind of digital blackout — to protect sensitive locations from overhead surveillance, typically used for satellite overflights.

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