What to know about the suspected Chinese spy balloon
By Sonnet Swire, CNN
A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon in the skies over the continental United States has sparked national security and diplomatic concerns, adding to already tense Washington-Beijing relations.
The incident prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his highly anticipated trip to China, saying Friday that the high-altitude Chinese balloon entering US airspace “created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip.”
Blinken dubbed it an “irresponsible act,” while China has said it “regrets” the “unintended entry” into US airspace.
The balloon could exit the East Coast of the United States as early as Saturday morning, based off of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather model.
Two US defense officials also told CNN that the balloon is expected to reach the East Coast and then pass out to sea in the southeast, near the Carolinas. One of the officials said it could exit the East Coast on Saturday.
Here’s the latest on the suspected Chinese spy balloon over the US:
Pentagon tracking the balloon
US officials have said the flight path of the balloon, first known to the public while over Montana on Thursday, could potentially take it over a “number of sensitive sites” and that they are taking steps to “protect against foreign intelligence collection.”
Using balloons as spy platforms goes back to the early days of the Cold War.
Peter Layton, a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia and former Royal Australian Air Force officer, told CNN the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon is likely collecting information on US communication systems and radars.
Retired US Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst, added that intelligence data collected by the balloon could be relayed in real time via a satellite link back to China.
Analysts have noted that Montana, over which the balloon has been spotted, and nearby states are home to US intercontinental ballistic missile silos and strategic bomber bases.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder has flatly denied the Chinese government’s claim that the balloon serves a civilian research purpose, saying that the US knows it is a “surveillance balloon.”
The Pentagon says it doesn’t present a current threat
The Pentagon said Friday that the balloon currently does not pose a “military or political” threat.
“Again, we currently assess that balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time, and we’ll continue to monitor and review options,” Ryder said Friday.
The US has not ruled out shooting it down
Officials have so far determined that the potential damage of falling debris from the balloon — its substructure is roughly 90 feet while the balloon itself is significantly larger and taller, according to a defense official — outweighs the risk of the balloon itself. But that’s not to say that it couldn’t be shot down eventually; a senior defense official said Thursday that the US has “options to deal with this balloon” if the risk assessment changes.
US Northern Command is coordinating with NASA to determine the debris field if the balloon were to be shot down, a defense official told CNN on Friday.
President Joe Biden was first briefed on the balloon Tuesday and has been receiving updates from his national security team, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. A senior US defense official previously told CNN that military officials had advised Biden not to shoot the balloon down due to fear over the debris posing a safety threat.
China’s foreign ministry has responded
On Friday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the balloon entered US airspace accidentally.
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” the statement added.
A senior State Department official said that the US has acknowledged China’s “statement of regret” but that the presence of the balloon in US airspace was “a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred.”
Asked later Friday to respond to the postponement of Blinken’s trip, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that “this was completely an accident caused by force majeure, and the facts are very clear.”
What US lawmakers are saying
The Gang of Eight — which includes the top leaders of the House and Senate and on the intelligence committees — will be briefed next week, according to a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Montana Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that controls the Pentagon budget, said he plans to hold a hearing on the balloon and how it was able to violate US airspace.
Tester told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “AC360” Friday night that the panel will hold the hearing to “find out what went into the thought process” in handling the situation.
“I think any time you have China, a country that wants to replace us as the economic leader and military leader in the world, doing this kind of garbage, it requires some explanations, and to make sure if this happens again, we are very confident that there will be no good things to come out of it for China,” he said.
Meanwhile, prominent Republican leaders, including former President Donald Trump, have criticized Biden’s administration for not knocking the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon out of the sky.
A second suspected spy balloon
The Pentagon said Friday evening that there is another Chinese spy balloon transiting Latin America.
“We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America,” Ryder said in a statement to CNN. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon.”
It is unclear exactly where over Latin America the balloon is, but a US official told CNN it does not appear that balloon is currently heading to the United States.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Beijing Bureau and Natasha Bertrand, Jennifer Hansler, Kevin Liptak, Jeremy Herb, Kylie Atwood, Jim Sciutto, Oren Liebermann, Haley Britzky, Michael Conte, Nectar Gan and Brand Lendon contributed to this report.