Chinese spy balloon seen above Hawaii and Florida in 2019, report says
A Chinese spy balloon “drifted past Hawaii and across Florida” as it “circumnavigated the globe” in 2019, four years before the American military shot down another one this past weekend, according to a US air force intelligence report reviewed by CNN.
China “launched and controlled” the high-altitude balloon, which was “capable of operating at “65,000ft to 328,000ft and for months at a time”, in 2019, according to the report seen by CNN. The report did not make clear when the US became aware of the 2019 balloon.
Related: Spy balloons: what are they and why are they still being used?
News of the intelligence report comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China and partisan squabbling among US politicians over a Chinese high-altitude balloon that traversed the US before being shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, postponed a planned trip to Beijing after the balloon was spotted. China – which claims the balloon was engaged in weather observation and had been blown off course – called the US’s response “unacceptable and irresponsible”.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Defense said that Beijing rejected a request for a secure call between the Pentagon chief, Lloyd Austin, and his Chinese counterpart on Saturday, when an American warplane shot down the balloon.
“On Saturday, 4 February, immediately after taking action to down the PRC balloon, the DoD submitted a request for a secure call between Secretary Austin and PRC Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe,” Brig Gen Pat Ryder said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue,” Ryder added.
Meanwhile a US domestic political row has heated up, focusing on when the US became aware of China’s use of high-altitude balloons.
After Republican politicians criticized the Biden White House for not immediately shooting the balloon down, Pentagon officials said that China had sent three balloons over US territory during Donald Trump’s time in the Oval Office. Trump and his former defense secretary Mark Esper denied knowledge of such cases, and a Biden administration official told CNN that the incidents were only discovered after Biden took office.
The US military had a “domain awareness gap” around high-altitude balloons that prevented it from detecting the incursions at the time, Gen Glen VanHerck, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), told reporters on Monday. VanHerck said that the intelligence community used “additional means of collection” to discover the flights “after the fact” but did not provide further detail.
The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Monday that improvements to the US’s surveillance capabilities made under Biden had “enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect”.
“We were able to go back and look at the historical patterns,” Sullivan said, which revealed “multiple instances” of Chinese balloons entering US airspace during the Trump administration.
The US navy is using unmanned underwater vehicles to locate sunken debris from the balloon, which VanHerck said was scattered in an area measuring about 1500m by 1500m, with water about 50ft deep. The FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are participating in the efforts to collect the debris.
The spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, Mao Ning, said on Tuesday that Beijing will “resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests” over the destruction of the balloon. Maro also said that the balloon “belongs to China”, the AP reported.
“The balloon does not belong to the US,” Mao said at a daily briefing.