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China says suspected spy balloon seen over U.S. is "civilian airship" that was blown off course

Suspected spy balloon seen over Montana
chinese spy balloon.png
Posted at 7:59 AM, Feb 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-03 13:53:36-05

China acknowledged Friday that a high-altitude balloon spotted this week over Montana does in fact belong to Beijing, but it referred to the airship as a civilian device "used for scientific research such as meteorology." A senior defense official told CBS News on Thursday that the Defense Department was "confident" that it was, in fact, a Chinese surveillance balloon.

According to a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry, the airship was "affected by the westerly wind" and its ability to control its direction "is limited." The statement also says that the balloon "seriously deviated from the scheduled route" and expressed regret that "the airship strayed into the United States due to force majeure."

By Friday morning, the balloon was no longer over Montana but has moved over the Midwest, according to a U.S. official. It's not going to run out of fuel, since it has solar panels. The official also said that the balloon steers by rudder and is corkscrewing around to slow its progress over land, but the jet stream continues to move it on a trajectory across the U.S. The Pentagon is still considering ways to "dispose" of it but has "grave concerns" about the damage it would cause if it fell to earth.

The U.S. engaged with Chinese officials "urgently," and President Biden was briefed on the situation, the senior defense official said. On Friday morning, a senior U.S. official said that Washington had communicated directly with Beijing about the situation at multiple levels. A Chinese official was summoned to the State Department for a formal U.S. complaint.

Answering a question in Beijing on Friday during a regular briefing, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry said the country "regrets that the airship strayed into the United States," which they attributed to a "westerly wind" and the device's limited "control ability."

The spokesperson said China would "continue to maintain communication with the U.S. to properly handle the unexpected situation."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley recommended not taking "kinetic action" to bring down the balloon because of the danger of debris hitting the ground, the defense official told CBS News, adding that the U.S. government had determined the balloon does not pose a threat.

A source familiar with the situation told CBS News that, when briefed on Wednesday, Mr. Biden had initially wanted to shoot down the balloon. But as he sought military options from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Milley and others, they advised against such action because of the risk to people on the ground.

The administration was still deciding Friday what to do about the balloon when it reaches an area where it would be safe to shoot down, a U.S. official told CBS News.

Pentagon spokesman Brigadier Gen. Patrick Ryder said the balloon is "currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."

A U.S. official told CBS News on Friday that the balloon was "not moving very fast."

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mas Ning also said earlier Friday she didn't have any word on whether a trip to China by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken planned for this month would still take place.

Blinken would be the most senior member of the Biden administration to visit China amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, trade and other issues.

Canada's Department of National Defence (DND) said in a statement late Thursday that the balloon had been "detected" and that Canada was "taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident," but didn't elaborate on what that incident might be.

However, CBS News has learned the U.S. hasn't been able to confirm the possible second balloon mentioned in the Canadian release.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command was "actively" tracking the first balloon, the Canadian DND said.

A U.S. official told CBS News the balloon was flying at an altitude of about 66,000 feet. It can be maneuvered but it is also subject to the jet stream, which could eventually push it out of U.S. airspace, the official said.

Silos that can house intercontinental ballistic missiles are located in Montana — and jet fighters were scrambled to be in a position to shoot the balloon down.

While incidents like this have happened before, they've never lasted this long, according to a defense official. The U.S. has been tracking the balloon "for quite some time" as it entered U.S. continental airspace a couple of days ago, the official said.

The Pentagon's best assessment at the moment is that the balloon's surveillance capabilities are not a significant step up from what China is likely able to collect through other means like satellites in low Earth orbit, according to a senior defense official. Out of an abundance of caution, the Pentagon has taken additional mitigation steps to protect certain sites.

There are other ways to deal with it other than shooting it down, such as electronic jamming of the signals it is sending back, a U.S. official pointed out to CBS News..

Ryder said the U.S. government will continue to "track and monitor it closely."

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday tweeted that "China's brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent."

"I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing," he wrote, referring to the bipartisan group of eight congressional leaders who are tasked with reviewing national intelligence information.

A U.S. official told CBS News Thursday evening the administration briefed Gang of 8 staff members in the afternoon "to get this information to Congress expeditiously and offered additional briefings."

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said Thursday in a statement that he had "received an informational briefing" Wednesday "on the situation involving a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana," and added that he was "deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security."

- David Martin and Margaret Brennan contributed reporting.