The Pentagon on Thursday said that the Chinese surveillance balloon that floated across the U.S. earlier this year before being shot down did not collect intelligence information.
Steps taken by Washington to stop the high-altitude device from potentially gathering information while crossing the country in early February played a crucial role in the outcome, according to Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder.
“We believe that (the balloon) did not collect while it was transiting the United States or flying over the United States, and certainly the efforts that we made contributed,” said Ryder to reporters at the briefing.
The balloon was downed on February 4 by an American fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina after it was tracked crossing the continental U.S. on a course that took it over sensitive military sites.
The incident inflamed an already tense relationship between Beijing and Washington and significantly set back American efforts to restore hampered communications with China at that time.
The United States ultimately linked the balloon to an elaborate surveillance program the Chinese military ran. Since the incident, President Joe Biden has alleged the device was carrying “two boxcars full of spy equipment.”
China has claimed the device was a civilian research airship blown off course accidentally and quickly issued a rare statement of “regret” over the incident, which resulted in the postponement of a planned trip from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China. The trip took place last week, over four weeks later.
At the time, Washington had signaled the balloon didn’t present a significant intelligence-gathering risk.
Officials say steps are continuing to be taken to protect against intelligence collection
In early February, a senior defense official said the device was assessed to have “limited additive value” from an intelligence collection perspective but that steps were continuing to be taken to protect against such collection.
Pieces recovered from the downed balloon have since been the subject of an extensive investigation into their capabilities, including if they could transmit any information gathered back to Beijing in real-time.
On Thursday, Ryder did not go into specifics about recent reports that the Chinese high-altitude balloon was using U.S. surveillance technology but said such a situation wouldn’t be surprising.
“We are aware in previous cases, for example, things like drones and other capabilities…where off the shelf, commercial U.S. components have been used,” said Ryder.
The balloon continues to increase tension between Beijing and Washington, even as last month, the U.S. said “both sides” were seeking to move past the pause in communication that followed the “unfortunate incident.”
President Biden sparked China’s ire last week when he told guests at a political fundraiser that Chinese leader Xi Jinping “got very upset” after the U.S. shot down the balloon because “he didn’t know it was there” and then compared Xi to “dictators” who become embarrassed when they aren’t aware what is going on.
China slammed Biden’s remarks, which followed closely on the heels of Blinken’s visit as an “open political provocation” and repeated their denial that the balloon was meant to spy over the United States.