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U.S. Counterintelligence Will Examine ‘Successfully’ Retrieved Chinese Spy Balloon

4 minute read

The U.S. military said Friday that recovery teams have concluded the search for debris of the suspected Chinese spy balloon that American fighter jets destroyed earlier this month as it flew off the South Carolina coast.

Recovery operations concluded Thursday after the U.S. Navy “successfully located and retrieved” the wreckage, according to a U.S. Northern Command statement.

The materials that have been collected since the Feb. 4 shoot down are now en route to FBI laboratories in Virginia, where they will be analyzed with the goal of extracting counterintelligence information about the Chinese espionage program, the statement said.

U.S. intelligence hopes the recovered materials from the 200-ft. balloon—and the jetliner-sized payload it carried—will provide new insights into the high-altitude aircraft’s capabilities. Since the balloon was shot down above the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. Navy teams have scoured the seafloor under 60-ft. of water for bits and pieces of the apparatus that was allegedly collecting sensitive American communications.

Days after the U.S. military took down the Chinese balloon, fighter jets fired on objects flying high over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron. A senior U.S. defense official said Friday the military has called off the hunt for debris in Lake Huron after it was determined to have fallen too deep to be recovered. Recovery missions for the two other objects, which fell in frozen, hard-to-reach areas, are ongoing.

President Joe Biden said Thursday at the White House that the U.S. doesn’t believe the three objects shot down in North American air space were tied to China’s high-altitude spy balloon program and are likely for research or some other benign purpose. “The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” he said.

The flurry of shoot downs was due, in part, to an increase in military vigilance in the wake of the balloon incident. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) widened the reach of its radar systems to account for smaller objects flying at lower speeds.

Now that it’s believed that most of the objects that the military took down posed no physical or surveillance threat to Americans, Biden announced a “government-wide effort” to address similar high-altitude objects in the future. The administration will establish an inventory of unmanned airborne objects above American airspace, implement measures for better detection, update rules and regulations, and establish global norms on how to deal with them.

The Chinese spy balloon matter remains unresolved. As the massive white balloon traversed the continental U.S. for several days it drifted over sensitive military sites along the way, carrying equipment that was designed to intercept sensitive communications. Beijing confirmed that the balloon was theirs but insisted it was merely a “civilian airship” used for weather research that accidentally entered U.S. airspace.

To recover the debris six miles off the Carolina coastline, U.S. sailors deployed underwater drones and the oceanographic survey ship USS Pathfinder to map out the sea-bottom topography with high-powered sonar equipment. Parts of the surveillance apparatus that hung under the balloon fell into the ocean in an area the size of 15 football fields by 15 football fields

Now that the debris has been collected, the administration wants to study it and potentially confront the Chinese with the findings. Biden said he expects to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the incident. “I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this,” he said. “But I make no apologies for taking down that balloon.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan/Aboard A U.S. Military Aircraft at william.hennigan@time.com