A lot of scandals, especially those accompanied by denials and contradictory stories begin with, “when did he know and when did he know it?” The Chinese spy balloon situation is no different. There are still mixed messages and contradictions as to who in the government knew about the Chinese surveillance program.
After initially insisting that NORAD couldn’t spot the balloons and the administration had no idea, we’re getting extensive information about the program’s operations.
The surveillance balloon effort, which has operated for several years partly out of Hainan province off China’s south coast, has collected information on military assets in countries and areas of emerging strategic interest to China including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, according to several U.S. officials, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
Officials have said these surveillance airships, operated in part by the PLA air force, have been spotted over five continents.
“What the Chinese have done is taken an unbelievably old technology, and basically married it with modern communications and observation capabilities” to try to glean intelligence on other nations’ militaries, said one official. “It’s a massive effort.”
Did the Biden administration warn allies about it? Apparently not because they’re just now getting briefed.
On Monday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led a briefing on China’s balloon espionage for some 150 people from about 40 embassies, said a senior administration official familiar with the matter. The department has also sent to every U.S. Embassy a “detailed information” on the espionage that can be shared with allies and partners.
Separately, U.S. officials have begun to share specifics with officials in countries such as Japan whose military facilities were targeted by Beijing.
“There has been great interest in this on the part of our allies and partners,” said a senior administration official.
I’m sure they are since they were also targeted and we appeared to have told them nothing. This is not how you hold an anti-China alliance together. We’ve done little enough to convince countries in Asia that we’re serious about North Korea, never mind China, and this isn’t likely to instill confidence in anyone.
In Japan in 2020, an aerial orb drew speculation. “Some people thought this was a UFO,” said a Japanese official. “In hindsight people are realizing that was a Chinese espionage balloon. But at that time it was purely novel — nobody had seen this. … So there’s a lot of heightened attention at this time.”
And only now we’re briefing the Japanese, arguably our closest allies in the region, that they were being spied on.
Analysts still don’t know the size of the balloon fleet, but there have been “dozens” of missions since 2018, said one U.S. official.
For an administration that claimed to know nothing, it suddenly seems to know a lot.