US says it cannot confirm China collected real-time data from spy balloon

Pentagon says analysis of debris is ongoing

US Navy sailors recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on February 5. AP
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US President Joe Biden's administration said it could not confirm reports that China was able to collect real-time data from an alleged spy balloon as it flew over sensitive military sites earlier this year, saying analysis was ongoing.

NBC News reported that the Chinese balloon was able to transmit data back to Beijing in real time despite the US government's efforts to prevent it from doing so — a disclosure that could deepen Republican criticism of Mr Biden for waiting for the balloon to reach a safe location before shooting it down.

NBC cited two current senior US officials and one former senior administration official.

The White House and the Pentagon told reporters that they could not confirm that account. The Pentagon said experts were still analysing debris collected from the balloon after it was shot down on February 4.

“I could not confirm that there was real-time transmission from the balloon back to [China] at this time,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh. “That's something we're analysing right now.”

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that Beijing has made it clear that the unmanned civilian airship that flew over US territory was “an unexpected and isolated event”.

“China rejects distortion and hyping up of this incident,” ministry representative Mao Ning said at a regular briefing in response to a question about the US remarks.

The balloon, which Beijing denies was a government spy vessel, spent a week flying over the US and Canada before the US military shot it down off the Atlantic Coast on Mr Biden's orders.

Reuters has reported that the US officials believe the high-altitude balloon was controlled by Beijing and was able to manoeuvre as it flew over the US, at times steering left or right.

Still, at the time, US officials played down the balloon's impact on national security, saying it took measures to limit its ability to collect information on sensitive sites.

It also played down the idea that the balloon was much more capable of collecting information than Chinese spy satellites, while acknowledging the balloon's ability to loiter longer over US locations than a satellite.

The Chinese balloon incident prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to China and further strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

The episode caused an uproar in Washington and led the US military to search the skies for other objects that were not being captured on radar.

The FBI has taken the lead in the analysis since the US said on February 17 it had successfully concluded recovery efforts off South Carolina to collect sensors and other debris from the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon.

Updated: April 04, 2023, 5:30 PM