February 5, 2023 Suspected China spy balloon news

By Heather Chen, Andrew Raine, Sophie Tanno, Paul LeBlanc and Rhea Mogul, CNN

Updated 3:37 a.m. ET, February 6, 2023
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10:45 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Rubio says Biden should've alerted public sooner

From CNN's Morgan Rimmer

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, said Sunday the Biden administration should have gone public about the Chinese balloon much earlier than it did.

“Presidents have the ability to go before a camera, go before the nation, and basically explain these things early on, and his failure to do so, I don't understand that, I don't understand why he wouldn't do that,” Rubio told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And that is the beginning of dereliction of duty.” 

The Florida Republican expanded on that message in an interview with ABC News Sunday.

“I recognize that you shoot something out of the sky that's the size of three buses and it lands in the wrong place it could hurt, harm, kill people or damage infrastructure,” he told ABC. “But by the same token, I think that if that was the case, then I think it really would have been helpful for the President of the United States to get on national television and explain to the American people ‘this is what we're dealing with. this is what I'm going to do about it, and this is why I haven't done it yet.’”

Rubio also expressed skepticism on Sunday that the recovery of the balloon would lead to the discovery of anything new about Chinese intelligence operations, or that the Chinese received information from the balloon that it couldn’t have gotten by other, less visible means.

“I think more than anything else, beyond just the ability to collect information, it is the ability to send a clear message,” Rubio told CNN, “and that is that ‘we have the ability to do this and America can't do anything about it. If they're not going to be able to stop a balloon from flying over U.S. airspace, how is America going to come to your aid if we invade Taiwan, or take land from India, or take islands from the Philippines and Japan?’”

Still, Rubio told CNN that he is “not sure there should be a direct individual consequence,” for the Chinese incursion into US airspace.

“I think the broader relationship between the US and China, to anyone who has any doubts about it, now the bottom line is here, and that is we are now a – China has been for some time and will be the primary strategic adversary of the United States and we should be focused on it.”

He also dismissed threats from the Chinese that the US had set a dangerous precedent by shooting down what they claim is a civilian balloon as “silly talk.”

“Listen, if we were to fly anything over China, they're gonna shoot it down. They're gonna shoot it down, and they're gonna hold it up and they're gonna take pictures of it and they're gonna go bonkers about it. So, I don't know what statement they're making – you can't fly anything over China now, anyway.”
10:32 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Republican senator calls spy balloon incident a 'humiliation' for Biden administration

From CNN's Aaron Pellish

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas on Sunday criticized the Biden administration’s response to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, saying the White House was “paralyzed for an entire week” and calling the incident an “embarrassment.” 

Cotton, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed the sentiments of other Republican lawmakers in accusing President Joe Biden of shying away from confrontation with China after the military waited three days to down the balloon.

“What began as a spy balloon has become a trial balloon testing President Biden’s strength and resolve, and unfortunately, the president failed that test,” Cotton said in an interview Sunday with Fox News. 

Biden, for his part, told reporters Saturday that he gave the order Wednesday to take down the balloon “as soon as possible” and that the military waited to act until it had passed over the Atlantic Ocean to avoid “doing damage to anyone on the ground.” 

A senior US defense official said Saturday that there were three instances during the Trump administration in which a Chinese balloon traveled over the continental United States. Cotton said Sunday he’s spoken to former Trump administration officials who told him they were “not aware of anything like this happening” while Donald Trump was in office. 

“Maybe what's even more worrisome is, one, that our senior military know about these balloons in the past and not inform their civilian superiors during the Trump administration. Or maybe worst of all, did we not know about these balloons in the past and we only learned about them in retrospect by studying historical data,” Cotton said.

12:17 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Buttigieg defends Biden's handling of suspected Chinese spy balloon

From CNN's Jasmine Wright

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a press conference in San Francisco, California on January 23.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a press conference in San Francisco, California on January 23. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Sunday defended President Joe Biden's decision to wait until the suspected Chinese spy balloon was over open water to have it shot down. 

“The president gave instructions to have it handled, to have it shot down in a way that was safe,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Jake Tapper on "State of the Union."

The secretary also confirmed reporting that the debris field created by the downed balloon was seven miles long.

“Any time the military's considering an operation like that, they have to consider the safety of the American people. The president called for this to be dealt with in a way that balanced all of the different risks. That's exactly what happened. The military did a terrific job,” he added.

Buttigieg said the Transportation Department's responsibility was the safety of national airspace, and the agency worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department to secure the operation ��without damage or injury.”

Asked to respond to criticism about the Biden administration's handling of the spy balloon, Buttigieg said, “It's not acceptable at all that China sent this object into our airspace. But in terms of how to handle it, that's something that was done based on assessment of the risks.”

Asked by Tapper if the balloon was able to gather sensitive information and transmit it back to Beijing, Buttigieg reiterated Pentagon and White House talking points that “steps were taken to prevent any problems in terms of intelligence collection.”

9:16 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Why Biden waited to shoot down the suspected spy balloon

From CNN's Kevin Liptak, Phil Mattingly, Natasha Bertrand, Pete Muntean and Oren Liebermann, 

It would take seven days from when the suspected Chinese spy balloon first entered US airspace before an F-22 fighter jet fired a heat-seeking missile into it on the opposite end of the country, sending its equipment and machinery tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean.

In his Tuesday briefing with the president, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed Joe Biden the balloon appeared to be on a clear path into the continental United States, differentiating it from previous Chinese surveillance craft.

The president appeared inclined at that point to take the balloon down and asked Milley and other military officials to draw up options and contingencies.

At the same time, Biden asked his national security team to take steps to prevent the balloon from being able to gather any intelligence -- essentially, by making sure no sensitive military activity or unencrypted communications would be conducted in its vicinity, officials said.

That evening, Pentagon officials met to review their military options. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, traveling abroad in Asia, participated virtually. NASA was also brought in to analyze and assess the potential debris field, based on the trajectory of the balloon, weather, and estimated payload.

When options were presented to Biden on Wednesday, he directed his military leadership to shoot down the balloon as soon as they viewed it as a viable option, given concerns about risks to people and property on the ground.

But Austin and Milley told Biden the risks of shooting the balloon down were too high while it was moving over the US, given the chance debris could endanger lives or property on the ground below.

“They said to me, ‘Let’s wait till the safest place to do it,’” Biden told reporters Saturday.

Biden had another key request, though: He wanted the military to shoot down the balloon in such a way that it would maximize their ability to recover its payload, allowing the US intelligence community to sift through its components and gain insights into its capabilities, officials said. Shooting it down over water also increased the chances of being able to recover the payload intact, the officials said.

Read more here.

8:21 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

China protests after US jets shoot down suspected spy balloon. Here's what you need to know.

From CNN staff

US military fighter jets shoot down the Chinese high-altitude balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.
US military fighter jets shoot down the Chinese high-altitude balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday. (Chad Fish/AP)

China has reacted to the United States’ decision to shoot down its high-altitude balloon, saying that it "reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations."

US military fighter jets on Saturday shot down the Chinese high-altitude balloon over the Atlantic Ocean.

These are the latest developments.

  • President Joe Biden on Saturday approved shooting down the balloon, telling CNN that his administration was “gonna take care” of it. On Friday, the Pentagon said the balloon did not pose a military or political threat.
  • The US military downed the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.
  • Navy and Coast Guard vessels are scouring the ocean area for debris.
  • The remains of the Chinese balloon will be taken to an FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis by FBI experts and intelligence agencies, officials said.
  • The Chinese government on Sunday issued a statement expressing its “strong dissatisfaction and protest” against Washington’s actions. “China clearly asked the US to handle it properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” read a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry. “China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of relevant companies, while reserving the right to make further necessary reaction.”
  • The head of China’s weather service has been relieved of his duty, Chinese state media announced on Saturday, in a move seen by some analysts as an attempt to shore up Beijing’s position that the high-altitude balloon flying over the continental US was of civilian nature mainly for meteorological purposes.   
  • Hours after the Chinese balloon was shot down, Colombian Air Force authorities detected an object with “characteristics similar to a balloon” in its airspace on February 3.
  • More balloon sightings were also reported, including three instances during the Trump administration when China briefly flew a surveillance balloon over the continental United States.
  • Taiwan voiced its opinion on the matter, saying that the incident "should not be tolerated by the international community.”

3:42 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Beijing says head of national weather service has been fired after revelation of Chinese balloon hovering over the US

From CNN’s Wayne Chang in Hong Kong

The head of China’s weather service has been relieved of his duty, Chinese state media announced on Saturday, in a move seen by some analysts as an attempt to shore up Beijing’s position that the high-altitude balloon flying over the continental US was of civilian nature mainly for meteorological purposes.   

The announcement carried by state-run Xinhua news agency came after a senior US defense official said on Thursday that they were tracking a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon flying over the continental US.  

Zhuang Guotai was the head of China Meteorological Administration until Friday, but his departure from that post was not unexpected. In late January, Zhuang was elected the head of the western Gansu province’s People’s Political Consultative Committee, the provincial political advisory body.

US military fighter jets shot down the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed Saturday.

The operation ended a remarkable public drama that prompted a diplomatic fallout between Washington and Beijing, as Americans tracked the balloon from Montana all the way to the Carolinas.

2:23 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

China says it “reserves the right” to deal with “similar situations” after US shoots down balloon

From CNN’s Wayne Chang in Hong Kong

China said Sunday it “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations,” following the United States' decision to shoot down a high-altitude balloon.

“The US used force to attack our civilian unmanned airship, which is an obvious overreaction. We express solemn protest against this move by the US side,” China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said in a statement on Sunday afternoon local time.

12:03 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

US administration "confident" Chinese balloon was "seeking to monitor sensitive military sites," official says

From CNN's Arlette Saenz 

A senior US administration official has pushed back on China’s repeated claims that the downed balloon was simply for “civilian use” and had made its way into American airspace by “accident.”

“This was a PRC (People's Republic of China) surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” the official said.

“Its route over the United States near many potentially sensitive sites contradicts the PRC government explanation that it is a weather balloon.” 

The official said a second balloon, spotted over Central and South America, was “another PRC surveillance balloon” and bore similar technical characteristics to the one that flew over the US.

“Both balloons also carry surveillance equipment not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research,” the official said. “Collection pod equipment and solar panels located on the metal truss suspended below the balloon are a prominent feature of both balloons.” 

The official said China is able to “actively maneuver the balloons to overfly specific locations,” pointing to the balloons’ flight patterns and the small motors and propellers seen in videos as evidence.

The official said China had used these types of surveillance balloons for years and the devices had been spotted over five continents.

The pushback comes after China’s Foreign Ministry expressed “dissatisfaction and protest” with the US decision to shoot down the balloon as it reached the Atlantic Ocean today. China once again claimed the balloon was “for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident."

12:02 a.m. ET, February 5, 2023

3 Chinese spy balloons flew over United States during Trump administration, defense official says

From CNN's Michael Callahan

A senior US defense official said Saturday there were three instances during the Trump administration when China briefly flew a surveillance balloon over the continental United States.

The “PRC (People's Republic of China) government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time,” the defense official said.

Mark Esper, the former Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump, told 'CNN This Morning’ on Friday that he was “surprised” by the Pentagon’s statement that similar incidents had happened during the Trump administration.

“I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” Esper said, adding that “I would remember that for sure."

Esper served as Secretary of Defense under Trump from July 23, 2019, through November 9, 2020. He served as Acting Secretary of Defense from June 24, 2019, to July 15, 2019.