A US military intelligence report from last year that focused on China’s use of high-altitude balloons mentioned sightings in Hawaii and Florida during the Trump presidency, according to an excerpt of the report reviewed by CNN.
The April 2022 report, titled “People’s Republic of China High-Altitude Balloon,” found a Chinese spy balloon “circumnavigated the globe” in 2019 – while Donald Trump was president – at an altitude of roughly 65,000 feet, and “drifted past Hawaii and across Florida before continuing its journey,” the US Air Force document states.
The Air Force intelligence report is the first indication that the US military was aware of Chinese spy balloons well before the latest incident.
However, it is not clear from the documents when US officials first became aware of the Chinese flights or what they assessed regarding their purpose.
The Air Force assessment obtained by CNN states that a spy balloon was “launched and controlled” by China in 2019, showing the country was capable of navigating a high-altitude balloon across the globe as far back as the Trump administration.
China has “deployed multiple HABs [high altitude balloons] that can operate at 65,000ft – 328,000 ft and for months at a time,” the assessment adds.
The news comes as Trump administration officials have in recent days questioned how Chinese spy balloons could have similarly traversed the US on their watch without them knowing, as the Biden administration and senior defense officials have said is the case.
In the early days of the Biden administration, a Chinese spy balloon briefly transited the continental United States, as US officials have acknowledged.
CNN earlier reported that three suspected Chinese surveillance balloons drifted over the continental US during Trump’s time in office.
The American military had a “domain awareness gap” that allowed the three other balloons to transit undetected, the Pentagon general responsible for providing air and missile defense over North America said on Monday.
“Every day as a NORAD commander, it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,” Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command said when asked about the three other balloons.
“And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out, but I don’t want to go into further detail.”
VanHerck added that the intelligence community after the fact was able to gather intelligence “from additional means that made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also said on Monday that past surveillance balloons were discovered at the beginning of the Biden administration because Biden directed the intelligence community “to increase both our vigilance and the assets that we were deploying to be able to detect Chinese efforts to spy against the United States.”
“Because the intelligence community made this a priority at the direction of President Biden, we enhanced our surveillance of our territorial airspace, we enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect,” Sullivan said.
“And were also able to go back and look at the historical patterns. And that led us to come to understand that during the Trump administration, as you said, there were multiple instances where the surveillance balloons traversed American airspace and American territory,” he added.
CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Haley Britzky contributed to this report.