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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3:37 a.m. ET, February 6, 2023

Balloon over Latin America belongs to China, Beijing says

From CNN’s Selina Wang in Beijing and Wayne Chang in Hong Kong

A balloon spotted over the skies of Latin America belongs to China and was used for flight tests, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a regular press briefing on Monday, in response to CNN's queries.  

This is the first time Beijing has admitted the balloon spotted over two Latin American countries belongs to China. 

The balloon “seriously deviated” from its planned course and entered the skies over Latin America and the Caribbean “by mistake” due to weather conditions and limited control ability over the craft, Mao said.

This is the second Chinese balloon Beijing claims has drifted off course due to the weather, after the US military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the continental US for days.

“China is a responsible country. We have always strictly abided by international law. We have informed all relevant parties and appropriately handled the situation, which did not pose any threats to any countries,” Mao said, adding that all parties “expressed their understanding.” 

The Colombian Air Force and Costa Rica's Civil Aviation Authority both confirmed that a white observation balloon similar to the one spotted over the US was tracked in their airspace last week, though they did not attribute the vessel to China.

12:59 a.m. ET, February 6, 2023

Analysis: Why the Chinese balloon crisis could be a defining moment in the new Cold War

Analysis from CNN's Stephen Collinson

The Chinese balloon saga threatens to be a watershed moment in the world’s dangerous new superpower rivalry: For the first time, Americans experienced a tangible symbol of the national security challenge from Beijing.

The craft, described by US intelligence as a surveillance balloon, presented a comparatively low-tech, modest security threat compared to the multilayered espionage, economic, cyber, military and geopolitical rivalry escalating every day.

But as it wafted through US skies before being shot down Saturday off of the Carolinas, the balloon created a sudden moment when the idea of a threat by China to the US homeland was neither distant, theoretical, unseen, or years in the future. And it underscored how in today’s polarized America, Washington’s first reaction in the face of a threat is to point fingers rather than unify.

It was not the first time that Chinese balloons have crossed into US airspace during this administration or the last one — and military officials told CNN this one was not seen as a particularly grave intelligence or national security threat. But its mocking days-long sashay from Montana to the eastern seaboard sparked a media frenzy and a Washington uproar.

In what was simultaneously a moment of geopolitical high stakes and high farce, the White House struggled to explain why it hadn’t immediately burst the balloon as officials in South Carolina warned people not to take pot shots at the high-flying Chinese intruder with their rifles.

This all left President Joe Biden in a deeply vulnerable position as his Republican critics pounced. The balloon could not simply be ignored — especially as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was about to head on a trip to Beijing that was quickly canceled as the political storm erupted.

“We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Sunday.

Read the full analysis here.

11:36 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

China lodges "solemn representation" to US Embassy over downed balloon

From CNN's Wayne Chang in Hong Kong

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged a “solemn representation” to the US Embassy in Beijing on Sunday over the downing of the Chinese balloon, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday.

“What the US has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing bilateral relations since the Bali meeting [between leaders of both countries in November],” the statement said.

According to the statement, the US “turned a deaf ear” against the fact the balloon had “strayed into the US” because of “force majeure,” and “insisted on indiscriminate use of force” against the aircraft “that was about to leave US airspace.” 

“China urges the US not to take further actions that harm China’s interests, and not to escalate or expand the tension… [China] will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies, resolutely defend the interests and dignity of China, and reserves the right to make further necessary reactions,” the statement said.

Some context: China earlier expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and protest” against the shooting down of the balloon, accusing the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice.” US officials say the balloon was being used for surveillance; China insists it was a civilian research vessel.

10:42 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Chinese spy balloons over US during Trump years not discovered until after Biden took office, official says

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

The transiting of three suspected Chinese spy balloons over the continental United States during the Trump administration was only discovered after President Joe Biden took office, a senior administration official told CNN on Sunday.

The official did not say how or when those incidents were discovered.

After the Biden administration disclosed last week that a suspected Chinese spy balloon was hovering over Montana, the Pentagon said similar balloon incidents had occurred during the Trump administration. In response, former Trump administration Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN on Friday that he was “surprised” by that statement. 

“I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” he said.

Former President Donald Trump also said on Truth Social that reports of Chinese balloons transiting the US during his administration were “fake disinformation.”  

CNN reported on Sunday that the Pentagon had briefed Congress of previous Chinese surveillance balloons during the Trump administration that flew near Texas and Florida. 

Rep. Michael Waltz confirmed in a statement to CNN that “currently, we understand there were incursions near Florida and Texas, but we don’t have clarity on what kind of systems were on these balloons or if these incursions occurred in territorial waters or overflew land.”

Another Chinese spy balloon also transited the continental US briefly at the beginning of the Biden administration, the senior administration official said. But the balloon that was shot down by the US military on Saturday was unique in both the path it took, down from Alaska and Canada into the US, and the length of time it spent loitering over sensitive missile sites in Montana, officials said. 

The senior administration official said analysis is ongoing into the capabilities of the balloon shot down on Saturday, adding “closely observing the balloon in flight has allowed us to better understand this Chinese program and further confirmed its mission was surveillance.”

The Biden administration believes the Chinese surveillance program has been deployed in countries across five continents over the past several years.

8:40 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Navy personnel working at North Myrtle Beach boat landing

From CNN’s Kim Berryman and Carlos Suarez in North Myrtle Beach and Keith Allen in Atlanta

US Navy personnel have been removing items from boats and loading material onto trucks at the Johnny Causey Boat Landing in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Sunday, according to a CNN team at the scene.

In cell phone video shot earlier in the day that was obtained by CNN, a pile of white material was visible on the deck of one of the boats and several people dressed in camouflage could be seen near the boat.

Another boat that appeared to hold similar material could also be seen at a nearby dock. The people could also be seen unloading several boxes off one of the boats.

CNN cannot confirm that the material is debris from the suspected Chinese spy balloon.

On Sunday night, the personnel would not say what they were doing or why they were working at the boat landing, which is situated along the Intercoastal Waterway in North Myrtle Beach.

They have been identified as Navy personnel according to their uniforms and vessel signage present at the location.

CNN has reached out the Navy Sunday afternoon.

8:32 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

US kept UK informed before and after shooting down of spy balloon

From CNN's Alex Marquardt in Washington D.C.

British officials were kept abreast before and after US military fighter jets shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean near the US coastline on Saturday, according to a UK official.

As the US tracked the balloon the UK was provided updates and the US assessment from the National Security Council and State Department, the UK official told CNN on Sunday. The official said they were "discussing closely" the situation with the United States.

Once the balloon was shot down on Saturday, the official said they got an update from the Pentagon.

"The US assessment points to a concerning and deliberate violation of their sovereign territory and airspace. We strongly support the decisive action taken by the US and will be following the investigation into this incident," the UK official said.  

Earlier on Sunday, UK business secretary Grant Shapps said Britain supported the US' actions.

"It cannot be right to send spy balloons over the American mainland. The UK would always take national security very seriously," Shapps said in a radio interview.

7:46 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Republican congressman: Chinese balloons flew near Texas, Florida during Trump administration

From CNN's Jeremy Herb and Zachary Cohen

GOP Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida says the Pentagon has briefed members of Congress about previous Chinese surveillance balloons that flew near Texas and Florida during the Trump administration. 

“Currently, we understand there were incursions near Florida and Texas, but we don’t have clarity on what kind of systems were on these balloons or if these incursions occurred in territorial waters or overflew land,” Waltz said said in a statement to CNN. 

The new details about previous surveillance balloons were confirmed by two additional sources familiar with the briefings. It comes amid Republican criticism of the Biden administration for not earlier shooting down the balloon that flew from Alaska to the Carolinas for several days before it was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.

A US official said Friday there had been similar incidents over Hawaii and Guam in recent years. A senior US defense official said Saturday there were three instances during the Trump administration where China briefly transited a surveillance balloon over the continental United States, and once previously during the Biden administration.

Former Trump administration Defense Secretary Mark Esper, however, said he was “surprised” by the Pentagon’s statement that similar incidents 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,” he told CNN Friday.

6:17 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Capitol Hill braces for briefings and potential vote on Chinese surveillance balloon saga

From CNN's Jack Forrest

 (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

With the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are gearing up for briefings on China and how the Biden administration handled the short-lived, but geopolitically tense, crisis.

The Gang of Eight will receive a briefing as early Tuesday, according to a congressional source. The group consists of top Democratic and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate, as well as key Intelligence Committee members from both chambers. It is generally privy to sensitive information that the rest of Congress is not always briefed on.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Sunday that the full Senate will receive a classified briefing on China from the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. That briefing is slated for February 15, according to a congressional source.

Schumer said the briefing will include information about China’s surveillance capabilities, research and development, advanced weapons systems, and other “critical platforms.”

“The full Senate -- all senators of both parties -- will have a larger and full China briefing next week. And that is something that I think will be very important, serious and hopefully nonpolitical,” the New York Democrat said at a news conference in Manhattan.

House Republicans are weighing a vote this week on a resolution condemning the Biden administration for its handling of the surveillance balloon, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN.

The resolution could be voted on also as early as Tuesday, the same day President Joe Biden will deliver the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol.

The source cautioned to CNN, however, that discussions were still ongoing, and no firm plans had been made as yet. 

Republicans have been increasingly critical of the administration in recent days, accusing it of being slow to take action against the spy balloon and making the US look weak.

5:01 p.m. ET, February 5, 2023

Obama-era CIA director critical of letting balloon fly across US: 'I don't see the logic of that'

From CNN's Jack Forrest

Leon Panetta, former U.S. Defense Secretary and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, speaks during a discussion on countering violent extremism in 2017 in Washington, DC.
Leon Panetta, former U.S. Defense Secretary and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, speaks during a discussion on countering violent extremism in 2017 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Leon Panetta, who served as Defense secretary and CIA director in the Obama administration, offered a rare Democratic critique Sunday of the Biden administration's handling of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon.

"If it was [a spy balloon], and if we were aware of the balloon, I think we should have taken steps to prevent it from entering our air space, and I'm not sure that we should have allowed it to simply cross over the country, cross over what were obviously sensitive military sites," Panetta told CNN's Jim Acosta. "I don't see the logic of that."

President Joe Biden told reporters Saturday that he gave the order Wednesday to take down the balloon “as soon as possible." That did not happen until Saturday after top military officials advised against shooting down the balloon while over the continental US because of the risk the debris could pose to civilians and property on the ground.

"The Pentagon said there were risks here. I understand that argument, there were debris risks. At the same time, I think we should have acted earlier if our suspicions were valid that this was, in fact, on an intelligence mission. I hope in the future we make clear to ... China that this kind of incident cannot happen again," Panetta said.

Panetta said Biden would have faced less criticism if he had been transparent with Americans when officials first considered the balloon was on an intelligence-gathering mission and when Biden made the decision to have it shot down.

"The American people, I think, are entitled to know just exactly what our adversaries are up to," Panetta said.