China’s military is likely behind a huge aerial spy program that has targeted more than 40 countries on five continents with high-altitude surveillance balloons similar to one the U.S. shot down over the Atlantic coast last weekend, the Biden administration said Thursday.
The fleet of balloons is used specifically for spying, outfitted with high-tech equipment and capable of collecting communications signals and other sensitive information from targets across the globe, the U.S. government said.
The statement from a senior State Department official offered the most detail to date linking China’s People’s Liberation Army to the balloon that traversed the United States. The public details are meant to refute China’s persistent denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim Thursday that U.S. accusations about the balloon amount to “information warfare” against Beijing.
In Beijing, before the U.S. offered new information, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning repeated his nation’s insistence that the large unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that had blown off course and that the U.S. had “overreacted” by shooting it down.
“It is irresponsible,” Mao said. The latest accusations, he said, “may be part of the U.S. side’s information warfare against China.”
China’s defense minister refused to take a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon issue on Saturday, the Pentagon said. China has not answered questions as to what government department or company the balloon belonged to, or how it planned to follow up on a pledge to take further action over the matter.
The U.S. official said imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes as it crossed the country showed that it was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection” with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.
The official said an analysis of the balloon debris was “inconsistent” with China’s explanation that it was a weather balloon that went off course. The U.S. is reaching out to countries that have also been targeted, the official said, to discuss the scope of the Chinese surveillance program.
The official provided details to reporters by email on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, which had already forced the cancellation of a planned visit to China earlier this week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The official said the U.S. has confidence that the manufacturer of the balloon shot down on Saturday has “a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the” army. The official cited information from an official PLA procurement portal as evidence for the connection between the company and the military.
This is not the first time the U.S. government has publicly called out alleged activities of the People’s Liberation Army. In a first-of-its-kind prosecution in 2014, the Obama administration Justice Department indicted five accused PLA hackers of breaking into the computer networks of major American corporations in an effort to steal trade secrets.
Alleged hackers with the PLA were also charged in 2020 with stealing the personal data of tens of millions of Americans in a breach of the credit-reporting agency Equifax.
—Matthew Lee And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press