Chinese balloon that US shot down was 'crammed' with American hardware
Blasted from the sky in February, device never transmitted photos, videos, or radar data it collected, officials say
It's been months since "spy balloon" fever gripped the United States, but the headline-grabbing flying object – alleged to have been deployed by China – is back in the news. Preliminary findings from the US inspection of its wreckage show a whole bunch of commercially available hardware made in the States.
That in and of itself isn't new info – US officials were briefed in February, shortly after the balloon, shot down off the eastern coast of the US, was recovered, and were told it contained western-made parts with English writing on them.
What is new is the extent to which the balloon was driven by US hardware, which unnamed sources told the Wall Street Journal was "crammed" with off-the-shelf components that could have easily been purchased online.
In addition to US-made hardware, the balloon's gondola was also reportedly equipped with specialized Chinese-made sensors as well as equipment capable of collecting photos, videos, radar data and other info for transmission to China. If true, that means China's claims the balloon was an off-course weather monitoring device are, as many assumed, a fabrication.
In February, US officials added six Chinese companies to its trade-restricting Entity List over their work with the Chinese government to develop high-altitude balloons like the one in question. It's not clear if those companies had supplied components for this particular balloon.
But while the balloon now appears to have been a spy device, officials said it doesn't seem to have transmitted any data back to China, so whatever US secrets it managed to scrape are likely still secret.
Of course, this is all based on what unnamed US officials told the WSJ: the supposed preliminary report hasn't been released publicly and may never be. We reached out to several sources, including the White House, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), but none of them responded to our questions.
The balloonatic fringe wants answers
The US went a bit balloon crazy in February after destroying the Chinese balloon. Shortly afterward, the US spent a weekend shooting down three additional objects which may or may not have simply been flying garbage left over from previous projects or high-altitude/low-orbit science experiments.
If you think we've calmed down since then – well, most of us have, but not Republicans. The conservative wing of American politics has railed against President Biden's handling of the balloon affair since it first began. Initial criticisms centered on the administration's decision not to shoot the balloon down while it was over land for fear of the harm it could cause. Subsequent criticisms have shifted toward not appropriately handling the aftermath.
Most recently, 19 Republican senators sent a letter to Biden, the FBI, and ODNI, urging them to publicly release the report on the balloon, which they said would show that the US is serious about holding China to account.
"It's time that your administration fully exposes Beijing's efforts to collect intelligence against the United States and the threats posed by such activities," the senators wrote. "Beijing continues to test US resolve and tarnish US credibility – we must respond with strength, or risk further aggression from America's adversaries."
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Whether the report will ever be made public is unanswered at this point. In April, China refused to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken over fears the FBI would make its findings public, further delaying a long-planned trip that was first postponed over the initial balloon incident.
Blinken finally went on his trip to China earlier this month, and after spending two days speaking to Chinese officials, including president Xi Jinping, he said in an interview that the balloon chapter in Sino-American relations is over.
"We said what we needed to say and made clear what we needed to make clear in terms of this not happening again, and so long as it doesn't, that chapter should be closed," Blinken told CBS. What that means for publication of the report is uncertain – we asked those questions of US officials as well, and will update this story if we hear back. ®