HONG KONG — The suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States earlier this year used off-the-shelf technology made in the United States, according to three US officials familiar with the FBI’s preliminary findings.
News of the findings came as the Pentagon said on Thursday that the balloon did not collect intelligence before it was shot down.
The officials said the Biden administration first suspected the balloon might be carrying US-made equipment or parts in the first hours after it was detected and had sent planes to check it out and take pictures. They said those suspicions had been confirmed by analysis of debris recovered after the US military shot down the balloon on February 4.
The Biden administration tracked the balloon for eight days as it traveled across Alaska, Canada and the continental US, including over sensitive military sites, before it was shot down by a fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina. The results of the analysis by the FBI and other defense and intelligence agencies have not yet been made public.
The balloon incident further destabilized relations between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, and prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned trip to Beijing until this month.
China maintains that the balloon was a civilian aircraft that veered off course while conducting weather research and that the United States overreacted by shooting it down.
«The unmanned civil aircraft flying over the United States was an accidental incident caused by force majeure, and the claim that the balloon was a spy balloon in addition to collecting intelligence information is a complete slander against China,» the ministry spokesperson said. Chinese Foreign Minister Mao Ning at a regular briefing in Beijing on Friday.
The presence of American technology on the globe, which President Joe Biden described as carrying «two truckloads of spy equipment,» was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder would not confirm the report or say what specific equipment might have been on the balloon. But he said it was «not surprising» given that China has been known to use «off-the-shelf commercial US components» in the past.
He said that while the Biden administration was aware that the balloon was capable of intelligence gathering, it does not appear to have collected any sensitive information as it flew over the US, thanks in part to steps Washington took to «mitigate» such collection.
“We believe that it was not collected while it was transiting through the United States or flying over the United States, and certainly the efforts that we made contributed, I am sure,” he told reporters on Thursday.
In an interview with NBC News after his visit to Beijing this month, during which he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Blinken said the United States and China should put the balloon incident behind them.
“We said what we needed to say and we made clear what we needed to make clear in terms of this not happening again, and as long as it doesn’t happen again, that chapter needs to be closed,” said Blinken, the first secretary of state for USA to visit China since 2018.
A day later, Biden sparked an angry reaction in Beijing when he described Xi as a dictator who was caught off guard by the balloon’s appearance over the US.
«It’s a great shame for dictators,» he said, «when they didn’t know what happened.»
Although China criticized the comments as «grossly absurd and irresponsible,» Biden said he did not believe they undermined recent diplomatic progress.
“I don’t think it had any real consequences,” he said.
Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong and Courtney Kube from Washington.