The Chinese 'spy balloon' narrative continues to unravel - or is at least full of holes and contradictions - and all the Biden administration has to show for it is continually spiraling US-China relations, despite recent attempts to rescue diplomacy. After the high altitude balloon was first spotted January 28 flying over North American airspace, it was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet on February 4, with the debris subsequently recovered off the North Carolina coast.
The Pentagon has now asserted that the Chinese balloon likely did not collect data while it traversed US airspace. "We believe that it did not collect while it was transiting the United States or flying over the United States, and certainly the efforts that we made contributed, I’m sure," said Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on Thursday.
Gen. Ryder said this after being asked by journalists about a fresh Wall Street Journal report which alleged US-manufactured equipment was found in the data collection undercarriage of the balloon, which Beijing has insisted all along was just a 'weather balloon'.
US officials cited preliminary findings from the debris examination to say the US equipment was used to collect photos, videos and other data. They described that what's essentially American-made eavesdropping equipment has been identified.
The WSJ report described:
Several defense and intelligence agencies, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have analyzed the debris retrieved after the U.S. military detected and shot down the balloon nearly five months ago in an event that added fresh, unexpected volatility to the already fraught U.S.-China relationship.
That analysis found the balloon was crammed with commercially available U.S. gear, some of it for sale online, and interspersed with more specialized Chinese sensors and other equipment to collect photos, video and other information to transmit to China, the officials said. Those findings, they said, support a conclusion that the craft was intended for spying, not weather monitoring as Beijing has said.
This may have included easily available off-the-shelf US-made components, which even hobbyists and researchers make common use of.
According to more from the exchange at the Pentagon press briefing:
Question: General Ryder, can you respond to reports that suggest that, onboard the Chinese spy balloon, were found off the shelf American equipment? Were there -- was there any sensitive American equipment onboard? How do you think that American equipment was obtained? Did -- were there any laws broken? And what was it capable of doing? What can you tell us?
GEN. RYDER: Sure. Thanks, Jennifer. So -- so look, I don't have any specifics to provide as it pertains to the PRC high altitude balloon and any potential U.S. components. That said, I will say that, you know, we are aware, in previous cases, for example, things like drones and -- and other capabilities, what have you, where off-the-shelf, commercial U.S. components have been used in capabilities. So that, in and of itself, is not surprising.
Following the balloon shootdown incident the Pentagon had tracked multiple other small balloons, with US jets having downed no less than three unidentified objects in the days that followed, some over far northern Canada.
But the White House in follow-up had admitted the three objects could have been "totally benign." President Biden in mid-February acknowledged that they were likely "balloons tied to private companies, recreational or research institutions, studying weather or conducting other scientific research."