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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3:42 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.

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

Inside Biden’s decision to ‘take care of’ the Chinese balloon 

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

When US President Joe Biden learned a suspected Chinese spy balloon was drifting through the stratosphere 60,000 feet above Montana, his first inclination was to take it down.

By then, however, it was both too early and too late. After flying over swaths of sparsely populated land, it was now projected to keep drifting over American cities and towns. The debris from the balloon could endanger lives on the ground, his top military brass told him.

The massive white orb, carrying aloft a payload the size of three coach buses, had already been floating in and out of American airspace for three days by the time Biden was briefed by his top general, according to two US officials.

Its arrival had gone unnoticed by the public as it floated eastward over Alaska – where it was first detected by North American Aerospace Defense Command on January 28 – toward Canada. NORAD continued to track and assess the balloon’s path and activities, but military officials assigned little importance to the intrusion into American airspace, having often witnessed Chinese spy balloons slip into the skies above the United States. At the time, the balloon was not assessed to be an intelligence risk or physical threat, officials say.

This time, however, the balloon kept going: high over Alaska, into Canada and back toward the US, attracting little attention from anyone looking up from the ground.

“We’ve seen them and monitored them, briefed Congress on the capabilities they can bring to the table,” another US official told CNN. “But we’ve never seen something as brazen as this.”

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

The balloon’s week-long American journey, from the remote Aleutian Islands to the Carolina coast, left a wake of shattered diplomacy, furious reprisals from Biden’s political rivals and a preview of a new era of escalating military strain between the world’s two largest economies.

It’s also raised questions about why it wasn’t shot down sooner and what information, if any, it scooped up along its path.

Read More:

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

Chinese balloon incident "should not be tolerated by the international community," Taiwan says

From CNN’s Philip Wang

Taiwan said Sunday that the Chinese balloon incident "should not be tolerated by the civilized international community."

"Such actions by the Chinese Communist Party government contravene international law, breach the airspace of other countries, and violate their sovereignty," Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

It called on China's government to "immediately cease conduct of this kind that encroaches on other countries and causes regional instability."

China – which insists the balloon was a civilian research vessel – has expressed its "strong dissatisfaction and protest" against Washington's decision to shoot down the balloon, saying it was "overreacting" and "seriously violating international practice."

Taiwan has experience of balloons from China overflying its territory. In September 2021 and in February 2022, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said balloons that were believed to be used for “meteorological observations” flew over the self-ruled island. It is unclear if those balloons were the same type as the one shot down by US fighter jets on Saturday.

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

Colombian Air Force investigating the origin of balloon sighted in airspace

From CNN's Ana Cucalon in Atlanta

The Colombian Air Force has confirmed that an object with "characteristics similar to a balloon" was detected in its airspace on February 3.

The air force said in a statement Friday it is coordinating with other "countries and institutions" to establish the origin of the balloon, which has already left Colombia's airspace after being tracked by its National Defense System.

The object "did not represent a threat to national security and defense, (or) to air safety," it said.

The object was detected in the early hours of February 3 at above 55,000 feet, "in the northern sector of the country, moving at an average speed of 25 knots," the statement said.

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

China expresses “strong dissatisfaction and protest” against downing of balloon

From CNN’s Wayne Chang in Hong Kong

China has expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and protest” against the US’ shooting down of its balloon, saying Washington was “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice,” in a statement from its foreign ministry.

“China expresses its strong dissatisfaction and protest against the US's use of force to attack civilian unmanned aircraft. The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident,” reads the statement, which was published Sunday morning local time (Saturday evening in the US).

“China clearly asked the US to handle it properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner. A spokesman for the US Department of Defense also stated that the balloon will not pose a military or personal threat to ground personnel,” the statement continued. 

“China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of relevant companies, while reserving the right to make further necessary reaction,” the ministry said.

What the US is saying: While Pentagon officials did say this week that the airship posed no "military or physical" threat to the US, they also flatly denied China's claim that the balloon served a civilian research purpose.

Military leaders said they were confident the aircraft was used for espionage.

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

Government agencies coordinated to determine the right time and place to intercept balloon

From CNN's Pete Muntean

Contrails from jets circle the suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Saturday, February 4. 
Contrails from jets circle the suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, on Saturday, February 4.  (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Government agencies worked throughout the week to find the right place and time to intercept the suspected Chinese spy balloon, according to a government source familiar with Saturday's shoot-down. 

Earlier in the week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was told by the Pentagon to prepare options for shutting down airspace. 

Government officials were told last night that "decisions would be made this morning" on when to close down airspace. FAA officials were told to "be by the phone" early this morning and to be "ready to roll."