Pentagon officials told several news outlets that a Chinese spy balloon hovering over Montana this week had a flight path that took it over several sensitive U.S. military sites—but pushed back on the idea that the device was of much value to the country in terms of additional intelligence it could gather.
“We are taking all necessary steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information,” a defense official told NBC News.
“It does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low Earth orbit,” another senior official told CNN.
The balloon snuck into the U.S. through Canada and was spotted near Billings Thursday. It remains unclear what sensitive sites the balloon may have been targeting—though the state is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses at least 150 nuclear missile silos.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who was in the Philippines when news of the device broke, called a meeting Wednesday with senior military and defense leaders, who ultimately decided not to shoot down the balloon. Pentagon officials reportedly presented Biden with an option to destroy it, however, they advised against it over fears that civilians may be injured or even killed by falling debris.
News of the spy balloon also comes just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to become the Biden Administration’s first cabinet secretary to visit China, setting up a tense two-day visit that will test the two countries’ icy relationship.
Many lawmakers expressed outrage over the situation, calling for more action from the White House and more information to be shared with the public.
Newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said he would demand a so-called “Gang of Eight” meeting, which includes a national security briefing for congressional leaders and leading members of the intelligence committees in both chambers.
The angry response crossed partisan lines as well, with both parties’ leaders on the House Select Committee on China—Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL)—calling the act “a violation of American sovereignty” and demanding in a joint statement that the Biden Administration “must act to counter this threat.”
It was also revealed Thursday that China has flown balloons like this before over U.S. airspace. Officials confirmed to several news outlets that a number of similar incidents have happened in recent years, though this one has lasted longer than is typical.
In fact, at least two other surveillance balloons were spotted previously over Hawaii and Guam, according to an anonymous intelligence official who spoke with The Washington Post.