Biden administration officials briefed lawmakers on the downed Chinese balloon
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
We have new information about the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this week.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
The U.S. Navy and FBI are working to recover what remains of the balloon. Meanwhile, members of Congress want to know what data it collected while hovering over the U.S.
FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now to discuss this. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: Good morning. So what's the latest that the Biden administration is saying about this balloon?
LUCAS: Well, the administration has been pushing out more and more information in the past several days on this. The U.S. said yesterday, for example, that these sorts of Chinese spy balloons have flown over 40 countries on five continents. An American U-2 spy plane did a flyby of the most recent balloon here, and images that it picked up showed that this balloon could collect signals intelligence. So in other words, it could spy on American communications. And the U.S. is saying quite plainly that the equipment on the balloon was not consistent with weather balloons. And that, of course, is pushing back on China's claim that this was just a weather balloon that had veered off course.
FADEL: So how are lawmakers responding to that?
LUCAS: Members of both parties want the administration to detail what kind of data the Chinese were able to collect. Lawmakers did receive a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday, and the House unanimously approved a resolution condemning China's use of the balloon over the U.S. Here's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike McCaul.
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MIKE MCCAUL: It is publicly challenging U.S. interest, threatening Taiwan, supporting Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine and now violating U.S. sovereignty.
LUCAS: So that gives you a good sense, a good taste of how members of Congress are viewing China's actions.
FADEL: Yeah. So the U.S. is also saying China has a fleet of these for surveillance purposes, right?
LUCAS: That's right. That's what the U.S. is saying, that China's developed a fleet of these for spying purposes and that it's often the Chinese military that's calling the shots on how they're used. State Department officials said that the U.S. has identified the company that makes these balloons. And the U.S. says it's a company that has ties to the Chinese military. And look, the U.S. has said at least four other such Chinese balloons have flown over parts of the U.S. in recent years. But the U.S. didn't detect those incursions in real time. They didn't detect them as they happened. They only did so later.
FADEL: What do we know about the - this effort off the coast of South Carolina to recover what's left of the balloon?
LUCAS: So bits and pieces of this balloon fell into the Atlantic Ocean about six miles off the South Carolina coast. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are obviously working to collect the fragments of this thing, but the FBI is playing a role as well. Two senior FBI officials familiar with the operation spoke to reporters yesterday. They said the U.S. has only collected materials that were on the ocean surface so far - so the balloon canopy, some wiring, what one official described as a very small amount of electronics. The first bits of evidence that were recovered were transported to FBI facilities at Quantico late Monday evening. And those are being cleaned and analyzed.
FADEL: OK. To be clear, the U.S. hasn't recovered most of the surveillance equipment that the balloon was carrying.
LUCAS: That's right. That's right. The FBI officials say that most of the debris is still underwater, still on the ocean floor. That includes the bulk of the electronic equipment, the high-tech surveillance devices and so on that are, of course, of so much interest to the U.S. here. One of the FBI officials said that this sort of recovery operation takes some time; as will the analysis of what they eventually find. And it takes time to get folks to the scene to identify debris that's underwater, to get that debris to the surface and back to land and to get it ultimately to Quantico for the FBI techs to take a look at.
FADEL: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.