‘Unacceptable’: Biden under fire over reports Chinese balloon sent information to Beijing

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China’s suspected spy balloon gathered intelligence from sensitive American military sites as it flew across the U.S. in late January and early February, according to new reports Monday, fueling questions about why President Biden allowed the craft to travel across the country before it was shot down by U.S. military fighter jets off the South Carolina coast.

Citing senior U.S. officials, NBC News reported that the balloon was able to pick up signals intelligence such as communications from several military installations. The sophisticated surveillance balloon traveled over some of the locations multiple times while transmitting data back to Beijing in real time, NBC reported.

While the balloon was flying over the American homeland, Pentagon officials downplayed its ability to gather new information for the Chinese Communist government. They say that the balloon offered little in the way of new capabilities beyond what China already has in its arsenal in the form of satellites in low Earth orbit.

“We assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” a senior Defense Department official said on Feb. 2. “It does not create significant value added over what the [People’s Republic of China] might be able to collect through things like satellites in low Earth orbit.”

When asked for comment on the balloon’s capabilities, administration officials referred back to those February assessments, NBC said. President Biden previously said that the U.S. was able to predict the balloon’s path and took steps to shield sensitive information as its floated across the center of the country after entering U.S. airspace from Canada.

The U.S. “tracked it closely, we analyzed its capabilities, and we learned more about how it operates,” the president said on Feb. 16. “And because we knew its path, we were able to protect sensitive sites against collection.”

China maintains the balloon was on a civilian mission to collect weather data, and blew off course accidentally. But the Biden administration contended its trip across sensitive sites in the American heartland was a spy mission. The U.S. military recovered pieces of the balloon off the South Carolina coast after it was shot down Feb. 4.

The clash over the balloon led Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to abruptly cancel a planned fence-mending trip to Beijing to try to address rising tensions in the bilateral relationship. The trip to date has not been rescheduled.

China angrily protested the shootdown as an unjustified overreaction, but congressional Republicans Monday seized on the most recent reports to criticize Mr. Biden’s handling of the entire incident.

The new report “makes Biden’s failure to act — especially after high-ranking administration officials were told about the balloon when it entered U.S. territory — all the more concerning,” Tommy Pigott, rapid response director with the Republican National Committee, said in a statement Monday. “Was Biden lying? Or did he just claim the balloon didn’t gather any intelligence before knowing the facts?”

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