A Chinese spy balloon that was allowed to fly across the entire continental United States before it was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean was able to gather intelligence from multiple sensitive U.S. military sites despite the Biden administration’s efforts to stop it.
The new revelations were disclosed by multiple government officials who spoke with NBC News.
According to federal sources, China was able to control the balloon so it could make multiple passes over the military sites — occasionally flying figure-eight formations — and transmit information it collected back to China in real time.
Officials also stated that China was mostly collecting signals intelligence, which can be siphoned from weapons systems and include communications from base personnel.
This new report contradicts a public statement made by President Joe Biden who told Americans that military officials were able to protect sensitive sites against intelligence collection efforts.
The balloon was also outfitted with a self-destruct mechanism that was able to be remotely detonated by China, though the officials didn’t state if that did not occur because of a malfunction or because Chinese authorities opted not to engage it.
Previously, Chinese officials said the balloon was an unmanned weather surveillance aircraft that had veered off course, and that U.S. officials were overreacting to its presence as it loitered over the country.
The balloon first entered U.S. airspace over Alaska in late January and was eventually shot down off the East Coast on Feb. 4. Military officials said at the time they wanted to wait to shoot down the balloon until it was over the ocean to avoid damage or casualties for anyone who was on the ground.
U.S. investigators recovered the balloon, obtaining a “significant amount” of material, including the payload structure, electronics, and optics, National Security spokesperson John Kirby said in mid-February.
A military official confirmed to CNN the balloon transmitted information in real time, but added that U.S. officials don’t know whether the Chinese government could erase the balloon’s data as it was sent, which raises questions as to whether there was data gathered that the U.S. does not know about.