The Chinese spy balloon that transited through the United States earlier this year was able to capture images and collect signals intelligence from U.S. military sites, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
The balloon was able to transmit information to Beijing in real time, the source said, and the U.S. government still does not know for sure whether the Chinese government will be able to erase data from the balloon as it received it. This raises the question of whether there is intelligence that the balloon may have gathered that the United States is still unaware of.
Still, the intelligence community hasn’t been too concerned with the information the balloon may have gathered, the source said, because it isn’t much more sophisticated than what Chinese satellites are able to glean while orbiting at above similar places.
A US intelligence official told CNN on Monday that “although analysis of the high-altitude balloon wreckage remains ongoing, so far its flight over the United States does not appear to have yielded any crucial new information.” to the People’s Republic of China.
The United States also knew what the balloon’s trajectory would be and was able to protect sensitive sites and censor some signals before the balloon could pick them up, officials said.
As CNN reported, the US intelligence community last year developed a method to track what it says is a fleet of these Chinese balloons operating around the world, controlled by the Chinese military.
The FBI is still examining the balloon, but so far officials have been able to glean additional information about how the device works, including the algorithms used for the balloon’s software and how it is powered and designed.
CNN has contacted the National Security Council at the White House and the Pentagon for comment. NBC was the first to report this new information.
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The balloon first crossed US airspace over Alaska in late January before crossing Canada and descending into Montana, where it hovered for a few days, leading the United States to believe that he was trying to monitor sensitive military sites, like Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. . It was ultimately shot down by the United States off the East Coast on February 4, and the incident further inflamed tensions between Washington and Beijing, including the postponement of a diplomatic visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in China.
A senior State Department official said in February that while the balloon hovered over the United States, it “was capable of conducting signals intelligence gathering operations.”
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, said at the time that the United States “did not assess” that the balloon “presented a significant collection risk beyond this which already exists in terms of technical means that can be exploited by the Chinese.”
The monitoring program, which includes a number of similar balloons, is partly managed from the small Chinese province of Hainan, officials told CNN. The United States does not know the precise size of China’s surveillance balloon fleet, but sources tell CNN the program has conducted at least two dozen missions on at least five continents in recent years.
About half a dozen of those flights took place in U.S. airspace, but not necessarily over U.S. territory, according to an official close to the intelligence services.
China has argued that the balloon was actually just a weather balloon blown off course, and the United States has weighed the possibility that it was not deliberately maneuvered toward the continental United States by the Chinese government, CNN reported.
China nevertheless retained some ability to maneuver the ball, officials believe. And once the balloon flew over Montana, China appeared to take advantage of its position to loiter at sensitive sites and attempt to gather intelligence.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.