U.S. officials were able to prevent the compromise of sensitive data from military installations as a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew overhead, President Joe Biden said Thursday.
“Because we knew its path, we are able to protect sensitive sites against collection,” Biden said. “We waited until it was safely over water, which would not only protect civilians but enable us to recover substantial components for further analytics.”
Biden spoke from an auditorium across an alley from the West Wing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, in remarks there were announced only an hour earlier. He largely repeated information already put out by the Pentagon and by White House aide John Kirby.
Biden said the intelligence community is still assessing what the additional objects shot down last weekend actually were, but that “nothing suggests” they were related to the Chinese spy program or, for that matter, any other foreign government.
“I want to be clear, we don’t have any evidence that there has been a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky. We’re now just seeing more of them partially because the steps we’ve taken to … narrow our radars,” he said.
U.S. air defense radar has historically watched for fast-moving airplanes and even faster ballistic missiles ― not slow-moving balloons.
The suspected spy balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, after it crossed the country. The other three objects were taken down on Friday, Saturday and Sunday over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron.
The balloon was flying at 60,000 feet, well above the level of commercial air traffic, and was carrying a payload the size of three buses — making it dangerous to bring down over land. The three more recent objects were much smaller and flying from 20,000 feet to 40,000 feet, right in the altitudes used by airliners, leaning to the decision to shoot them down at the earliest opportunity.
China has not claimed ownership of any of the three recent objects. Nor has any other foreign government.
Still unclear is what information the People’s Republic of China, as the country is formally known, was able to gather from a balloon in the stratosphere that it has not been able to collect from its multiple camera-packed satellites that pass barely 100 miles over the United States each day or from satellites that sit over the equator, from where they can eavesdrop on electronic communications in North America.