The Chinese balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast was part of a large surveillance program that China has been conducting for “several years,” the Pentagon said Wednesday. When similar balloons passed over US territory on four occasions during the Trump and Biden administrations, the US did not immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance balloons, said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary. But he said “subsequent intelligence analysis” allowed the US to confirm they were part of a Chinese spying effort and learn “a lot more” about the program.
He refused to provide any new details about those previous balloons. When pressed, Ryder would only say that the balloons flew over “sites that would be of interest to the Chinese.”
One of the possible incidents was last February. Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the adjutant general in Hawaii, tweeted about a balloon over Kauai a year ago.
He said US Indo-Pacific Command “detected a high-altitude object floating in air in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands” and sent up aircraft to intercept it.
He said they visually confirmed it was an unmanned balloon with no identification markings.
Ryder declined to say whether this was one of the four previous incidents that the US had discussed. Pacific Air Forces, the Air Force command in the Indo-Pacific, said that balloon was not shot down.
The recent balloon was shot down by a US military fighter jet on Saturday. The Navy and Coast Guard are still working to recover pieces of the downed balloon so they can be analyzed.
China claims it was a civilian balloon used for meteorological research and sharply criticized the US for shooting it down.
In response to questions about China’s explanation, Ryder said Wednesday that, “I can assure you this was not for civilian purposes we are 100 percent clear about that.”
Ryder said North American Aerospace Defense Command began tracking the balloon as it approached US airspace.
It passed north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace before crossing back into the US over northern Idaho on January 31, US officials have said.
Top administration officials were briefing members of Congress on the Chinese balloon surveillance program in classified sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.
Avril Haines, director of national intelligence; Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman; Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of US Northern Command; and Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, were among those expected to brief lawmakers.
Donald Trump ‘not pulling punches’ after Joe Biden’s State of Union [EXCLUSIVE]
Half of Americans say they are worse off than last year [ANALYSIS]
2 children dead and 6 injured after bus crashes into daycare centre [INSIGHT]
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US has briefed dozens of countries on the program, which officials said has been active over five continents.
“The United States was not the only target,” he said at a news conference with visiting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. Blinken said he and Stoltenberg had spoken about the “systemic and tactical challenges” that China poses to the alliance and the importance of combatting them.
The foreign countries would include nations the US believes have been surveilled in the past as well as NATO allies.
Stoltenberg agreed on the nature of the Chinese threat, saying the balloon incident “confirms a pattern of Chinese behavior” and noting that Beijing had “invested heavily in new military capabilities, including different types of surveillance and intelligence platforms.”
“We have also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe,” he said. “We just have to be vigilant. We need to be aware of the constant risk of Chinese intelligence and step up what we do to protect ourselves.”
*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.