The Chinese spy balloon that transited the United States earlier this year was able to capture images and collect some signals intelligence from American military sites, a source familiar with the matter tells CNN.
The balloon was able to transmit information to Beijing in real time, the source said, and the US government still does not know for sure whether the Chinese government could erase the data from the balloon when it received it. That raises questions about whether there is intelligence that the balloon was able to collect that the United States is still unaware of.
Still, the intelligence community hasn’t been too concerned about the information the balloon was able to gather, the person said, because it isn’t much more sophisticated than what Chinese satellites can gather when they orbit over similar locations.
A US intelligence official told CNN on Monday that “although analysis of the high-altitude balloon remains ongoing, its flight over the United States so far does not appear to have provided critical new insights to the People’s Republic of China.”
The United States also knew what the balloon’s path would be and was able to protect sensitive sites and censor some signals before the balloon could pick them up, officials said.
As CNN reported, last year the US intelligence community developed a method to track what it says is a fleet of these Chinese balloons operating around the world, controlled by the Chinese military.
The FBI is still examining the balloon, but so far officials have been able to obtain additional information about how the device worked, including the algorithms used for the balloon’s software and how it works and is designed.
CNN has reached out to the White House National Security Council and the Pentagon for comment. NBC was the first to report the new intelligence.
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The balloon first crossed US airspace over Alaska in late January before passing over Canada and descending into Montana, where it floated for a few days, leading the US to believe it was trying to surveil sensitive military sites, such as Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. . It was eventually shot down by the United States off the East Coast on February 4, and the incident further escalated tensions between Washington and Beijing, including the postponement of a diplomatic visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China.
A senior State Department official said in February that, as the balloon floated across the United States, “it was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.”
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, said at the time that the United States “did not assess” that the balloon “presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means.” of the Chinese.”
The surveillance program, which includes several similar balloons, is run in part from the small Chinese province of Hainan, officials told CNN. The United States does not know the exact size of the Chinese surveillance balloon fleet, but sources tell CNN that the program has flown at least two dozen missions to at least five continents in recent years.
About a half-dozen of those flights have been conducted within U.S. airspace, though not necessarily over U.S. territory, according to an official familiar with the intelligence.
China has maintained that the balloon was actually just a weather balloon blown off course, and the United States has been evaluating the possibility that the Chinese government did not deliberately maneuver it toward the continental United States, CNN reported.
Still, China maintained some ability to maneuver the balloon, officials believe. And once the balloon was over Montana, China appeared to take advantage of its position to lurk around sensitive sites and try to gather intelligence.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.