US military completes recovery of Chinese balloon and is now analyzing its ‘guts’
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Friday it had successfully completed recovery efforts off South Carolina to collect sensors and other debris from a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down by a US fighter jet on February 4, and investigators are now analyzing him “innards.”
The search for two of three other objects shot down in the aftermath has also ended, the US military’s Northern Command said in a statement late Friday.
The final debris from the Chinese balloon, launched by a Sidewinder missile, will be taken to an FBI lab in Virginia for analysis, it said.
Reuters was the first to report the completion of the recovery effort for the suspected Chinese spy balloon, which was halted on Thursday.
“It’s a significant amount (of recovered material), including the payload structure and some electronics and optics, and everything that’s now in the FBI lab at Quantico,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Kirby said the United States had already learned a lot about the balloon by watching it fly over the United States.
“We’ll learn even more, we think, by taking a look inside and seeing how it works and what it’s capable of,” he said in a White House news briefing. The US military said Navy and Coast Guard vessels that have been combing the sea for nearly two weeks have evacuated the area.
“Air and sea security perimeters have been lifted,” the Northern Command said in a statement.
The US military said it believes it has collected all of the Chinese balloon’s priority sensors and electronics, as well as much of its structure, items that could help counterintelligence officials determine how Beijing may have collected and transmitted surveillance information.
The Chinese balloon, which Beijing denies being a government spy ship, flew over the United States and Canada for a week before being shot down off the Atlantic coast on orders from President Joe Biden.
The episode caused an uproar in Washington and prompted the US military to scan the sky for other objects not picked up by radar. The military’s Northern Command carried out three unprecedented firings at unidentified “objects” between last Friday and Sunday.
Late Friday, it said search operations for two of those objects were complete, “no debris found.”
“The U.S. military, federal agencies and Canadian partners conducted systematic searches of each area using a variety of avenues, including aerial imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and underground scans, and found no debris,” it said.
The Chinese balloon incident prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to Beijing earlier this month and has further strained already strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
The Blinken trip would have been the first by a US Secretary of State to China in five years and was seen by both sides as an opportunity to stabilize increasingly strained relations.
Since then, US officials have been examining the possibility of a meeting between Blinken and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that began on Friday.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also in Munich for the conference, defended the government’s handling of the balloon accident and the shooting down of the other three objects.
The Chinese balloon “had to be shot down because we were confident that it was being used by China to spy on American people,” Harris told MSNBC.
“We will maintain the perspective that we have on China-US relations,” she said. “That’s not going to change, but that balloon certainly wasn’t helpful.”
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Steve Holland, David Brunnstrom, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Trevor Hunnicutt in Munich and Costas Pitas in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Deepa Babington, Jonathan Oatis and Michael Perry )