February 3, 2023 Suspected Chinese spy balloon flies over the US

By Aditi Sangal, Leinz Vales, Adrienne Vogt, Matt Meyer, Elise Hammond and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 0532 GMT (1332 HKT) February 4, 2023
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12:44 p.m. ET, February 3, 2023

Montana residents film suspected spy balloon

From CNN’s Henry Klapper and Caroll Alvarado

Montana resident Ashley McGowan told CNN she received a call from her neighbor wondering if she had heard jets flying about their neighborhood in the town of Reed Point on Wednesday. 

McGowan said she went outside to let her dogs out and saw a bright white dot in the sky. 

At first, she said she and her husband asked themselves, “What's happening? Is this a UFO or is it like trash or is it the star? I had somebody try to tell me it was the green comet; I'm like, that's way too close to be the comet,” McGowan said. “This isn't normal. There's jets flying everywhere.”

McGowan said her husband, Dylan Nobles, brought out a spotting scope and tried to judge how far it was. The closest estimate he could get was about 27,000 feet in the sky. 

McGowan said she witnessed an airliner divert away from it and that jets were flying overhead for at least 45 minutes while they were watching the sky.

Reed Point is about 60 miles west of Billings.

On Wednesday, Michael Alverson was working at the mines in Billings, Montana, when he looked up and noticed a glowing orb in the sky.

Alverson told CNN he quickly realized it couldn’t be the moon, so he brought out his binoculars to take a closer look at it.

“Me and my coworkers were shocked, so we tried to get binoculars and get a closer look,” Alverson said. “It appeared to be a weather balloon or so we thought.”

9:30 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

Former defense secretary explains why he recommends against shooting down the Chinese balloon

From CNN's Andrew Millman


Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he wouldn't recommend shooting down the suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon.

“My interest would be not necessarily shooting it down, but bringing it down so that we can capture the equipment and understand exactly what they’re doing, are they taking pictures? Are they intercepting signals? What are they doing and what is the level of technical capability?” Esper, who served under former President Donald Trump said, “Now, failing that, I would definitely shoot it down, provided that there’s no risk to people on the ground.” 

Esper also suggested that there may be “a counterintelligence value" in letting the balloon pass. "There’s always more to this than meets the eye. I wouldn’t be privy to that now, so I give the Pentagon some room here.”

Esper called this suspected surveillance attempt a "brazen act by the Chinese."

“Curiously, the Chinese are not outright denying it as they typically do,” Esper stated, “so the way they’re playing this is quite curious to me as well.”

Meanwhile, this development has made top US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's upcoming trip to Beijing uncertain. Esper said canceling the trip could be one option to consider, among others.

"I think we need to know more, and we need to assess what’s happening in the broader context," he said. “Sometimes you call off trips like this, or sometimes you prepared to give a very, very strong statement of China violating our sovereignty."

9:16 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

China says balloon is for research and entered US after deviating from planned course

From CNN’s Beijing Bureau and Martin Goillandeau

The suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon flying over the continental US entered the US airspace “due to force majeure,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Friday, confirming the airship was from China.

“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” the statement added.

What is a Force Majeure? "Force Majeure" — which means "greater force" — excuses a party from liability if an unforeseen event, such as a natural catastrophe, prevents it from performing its obligations under the contract.

9:17 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

US believes China doesn't have control over movements of suspected spy balloon and it relies on jet stream

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand and Oren Liebermann

Sources familiar with the matter tell CNN that it appears that the suspected Chinese spy balloon movements appear to rely primarily on the jet stream, allowing Beijing to predict its likely path.

China can control the surveillance balloon to an extent, for example by turning on and off the surveillance gear inside of it, the sources said. The fact that China does have some control over the balloon's capabilities is why the US government has raised their concerns with Beijing about it, the sources said.

What US officials are saying: The balloon’s surveillance equipment appears to be powered by a solar array, one US official said, which would provide the system with a reliable source of power at high altitude. But the solar array does not appear to be connected to any type of motor that would allow China to steer the balloon, the official added.

Pentagon officials said they did not believe the balloon had surveillance or intelligence-gathering capabilities above and beyond Chinese spy satellites in low earth orbit, but unlike satellites that pass rapidly over a location every 90 minutes, a spy balloon can loiter over a spot and gather more of a “pattern of life” of a particular site, the official said.

In the past, the US has simply allowed balloons like this to waft away, without taking any action or publicizing their presence over the US, the sources said. It is also not the first time a surveillance balloon has appeared over the United States.  

The US official said there were similar incidents with suspected Chinese surveillance balloons over Hawaii and Guam in recent years. On Thursday, a senior defense official said, “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”

The US government now believes that it has gotten China's attention about the balloon, and that the matter could be resolved soon, the sources said. 

9:00 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

Analysis: Spy balloon drama is the worst possible lead up to expected Blinken visit to China 

From CNN's Stephen Collinson

It's hard to imagine a worse warm up for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's critical talks in Beijing, which are expected in the next few days, than news that a suspected Chinese spy balloon is floating merrily across the US.

The Pentagon says it's been tracking the balloon — the size of three buses, according to a defense official — for several days but made the decision not to shoot it down. It reasoned that the balloon was wafting well above commercial and military air lanes — and that it was not a huge intelligence threat.

This seems a reasonable position since Chinese surveillance satellites with a far greater capacity for espionage are known to hover in space over the US. And officials said it's not the first time the US has tracked one of Beijing's balloons during this and previous administrations.

This is hardly a DEFCON-1 situation. But the balloon offers a perfect glimpse into one of the most destructive factors driving the US and China toward confrontation. The politics of the world's most critical geopolitical relationship are so torqued in both countries that any incident can set off a new round of recriminations. That's what Blinken is traveling to Beijing to address. 

Washington is already in an uproar.

Republicans — always keen to portray President Joe Biden as soft on China, even though he's actually been at least as tough as ex-President Donald Trump — are up in arms over what they are portraying as a violation of US sovereignty.

"Information strongly suggests the (Defense) Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon. No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately," said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy — who has already warned China this week it can't stop him visiting Taiwan if he wants — demanded a briefing about the balloon for the Gang of Eight congressional leaders.

Read the full analysis here.

9:00 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

China says it's working to understand circumstances and verify details of the balloon

From CNN’s Steven Jiang in Beijing and Wayne Chang in Hong Kong

China is “aware of reports” of the alleged Chinese balloon hovering over the US and is working to “understand the circumstances and verify the details” of the situation, said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning in a press briefing on Friday.

“I'd like to stress that before it becomes clear what happened, any deliberate speculation or hyping up would not help handling of the matter,” Mao said. 
“China is a responsible country. We act in accordance with international law. We have no intention in violating other countries’ air space," she added. "We hope relevant parties would handle the matter in a cool-handed way.”

Mao added that she has no further information to share about US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming visit to China. 

What the US has said: The US government has engaged with the Chinese government both through the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the US diplomatic mission in China, according to a senior defense official.

The official said Thursday that though the US has decided not to shoot the balloon down, it “will have options to deal with this balloon" if the risk level changes.

"We have communicated to [Chinese officials] the seriousness with which we take this issue," said the official. "But we have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.”
9:00 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

Canada is working with the US to track suspected spy balloon

From CNN's Rebekah Riess

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Canadian Armed Forces, Canada's Department of National Defence are all tracking the movements of the suspected spy balloon, said a statement from the defense department.

NORAD spokesperson Col. Elizabeth Mathias said they are only tracking one balloon at this time, and that NORAD is unaware of any second phenomena. 

NORAD is a combined organization of the United States and Canada that provides aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and protection for Canada and the continental United States. 

“Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident,” said the Canadian Department of National Defense.

It added that Canada’s intelligence agencies are working with American partners and “continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats.”

8:57 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

State-run Chinese nationalist news site accuses US of "hyping up China threat"

From CNN's Martin Goillandeau in London, Larry Register in Atlanta and the Beijing bureau

A state-run nationalist website has accused the US of “hyping up China threat” on Friday, a day after reports in Western media of a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the continental US.

The most prominent state media outlets, such as news agency Xinhua and state broadcaster CCTV have not reported on the incident. Only state-run nationalist tabloid the Global Times, which cited Western media reporting of the incident — including from CNN — to accuse the US of increasing tensions.

“For a period of time, the United States has frequently used the claims of ‘China threat’ and ‘Chinese espionage theory’ to create a Cold War atmosphere and aggravate the tension in China-US relations,” it said on its website.

“Cooperation between the US government and the media can incite public panic and suspicion about specific targets to achieve the government’s goals. Despite the pretense of the US and its Allies as “free-thinking” and enlightened democracies, their people are more susceptible to manipulation than any other in the world.”

8:49 a.m. ET, February 3, 2023

The Pentagon is tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the US. Here's what you need to know

From CNN's Oren Liebermann, Haley Britzky and Michael Conte

The surveillance balloon has traveled over the northern United States for several days, according to Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.

“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Ryder said.

A senior defense official said they were "confident" the balloon belongs to China, adding: “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”

US national security officials have constantly warned about Chinese espionage efforts.

  • Limited effectiveness: The US believes Chinese spy satellites in low Earth orbit are capable of offering similar or better intelligence, limiting the value of whatever Beijing can glean from the high-altitude balloon, which is the size of three buses, according to another defense official.
  • Sensitive timing: The balloon’s presence in the US comes at a sensitive moment with Secretary of State Antony Blinken expected to travel to Beijing in the coming days, a significant trip meant to follow up on President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last year.

Biden has declared China “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge” and competition between the two major global military powers is intense.

Read the full story here.