‘We’ll Learn a Lot' From Downed Chinese Spy Craft: Top Intelligence Democrat

‘We’ll Learn a Lot' From Downed Chinese Spy Craft: Top Intelligence Democrat
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) arrives for a closed door briefing with Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington on Oct. 4, 2019. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Joseph Lord
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The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee expects U.S. officials to “learn a lot” from the Chinese spy craft that was shot down over the continental United States.

On Feb. 4, a Chinese balloon for espionage was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles from the coast of the Carolinas, after it had traveled across the continent.

The Pentagon had announced the discovery of the aircraft a few days prior.

“The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” the Pentagon told the nation in a Feb. 2 statement.

“The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely,” the statement continued. “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. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder insisted during a Feb. 3 press conference that the balloon, which he said was at the time moving eastward across the central United States, “does not pose a physical or military risk to people on the ground.”
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder holds a press briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 18, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder holds a press briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 18, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
After bipartisan pushback against President Joe Biden’s response, the aircraft was finally shot down over the Atlantic, some 60,000 feet from the coasts of North and South Carolina.

Authorities hurried to collect the pieces of the wreckage, and have warned Carolina residents not to touch or interact with any pieces that wash ashore.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who leads Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, discussed the destruction of the aircraft in an appearance on CNN’s “This Morning,” optimistically predicting that the United States would glean substantial info from the wreckage.

“There’s a lot of value in observing an asset like this,” Himes said.

He expressed hope that the capture of the device would give America vital insight into the cutting edge of China’s espionage technology.

“What did we learn by watching this thing over a period of time? When were the decisions taken? And most interestingly, what are we going to learn about the equipment, right? Who made the semiconductors that are on this thing? What are its capabilities?” he said.

“That’s one of the elements that is being lost in this whole conversation, you know, being able to capture, hopefully undamaged … what should be their cutting-edge surveillance technology is just a huge intelligence win.”

Others in Biden’s party were more critical of the situation, which they said should not have been allowed to happen, nor go on as long as it did, in the first place.

“The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) delivers remarks in the House Chamber during the second day of elections for House Speaker at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington on Jan. 4, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) delivers remarks in the House Chamber during the second day of elections for House Speaker at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington on Jan. 4, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
“Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty, coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s trip to the PRC [People’s Republic of China], but it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy. Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores—it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat.”

Response

Following the identification of the espionage balloon, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he would postpone a scheduled diplomatic visit to China.

“After consultations with our interagency partners as well as with Congress, we have concluded that the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Feb. 3.

“We have noted the PRC statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred,” the official said.

In their own statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry (CFM) confirmed that the balloon “is from China.” However, the communist state denied charges of espionage, claiming the balloon is merely a civilian research vessel that drifted off-course.

“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” the CFM wrote. “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 [an unforeseen and unintended outcome]. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”

The so-called Gang of Eight, which includes the top Republicans and Democrats from both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as top congressional leaders, are expected to receive a briefing on the matter soon.

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