A new report published by NBC News shows the Biden administration’s public-facing stance on the Chinese spy balloon that crossed over the entirety of the continental U.S. in early 2023 was strikingly different from the true scope of the intelligence available at the time. The administration reportedly sought a court order from the secret federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to monitor the balloon in real-time as it traversed American airspace.
It now appears the Chinese balloon surreptitiously used U.S. internet service providers to navigate its way over sensitive American locations. The spying capabilities of the balloon could have easily been much more sophisticated than the White House had previously let on to the public.
— Dennis Hendrickson (@DenHendrickson) December 29, 2023
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant obtained by the Department of Justice (DOJ) reportedly enabled U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance on the balloon, intercepting messages between the craft and its base in China. Intelligence officials speaking to reporters anonymously noted the balloon’s use of “burst transmissions” — high-bandwidth data exchanges designed to be elusive to monitoring.
While the administration was obtaining a secret FISA warrant to observe the balloon, the White House took a different approach in briefing the public on the situation unfolding. It now appears that intelligence officers originally intended to observe the balloon secretly as it crossed the nation without disclosing its existence to the public. Officers have since said that the level of secrecy was intended to avoid escalating tensions with the Chinese military and government.
Ultimately, the Biden administration’s hand was forced when the balloon was spotted by members of the public high above Montana on February 2, 2023. By that time, Joe Biden had been briefed on the presence of the balloon for several days. The delay in alerting the American public has since fueled criticism from some security experts who question the White House’s commitment to transparency and keeping the public appraised of security concerns.
For its part, China has consistently maintained that the balloon was merely a “weather research vessel,” innocently blown off course into U.S. airspace. However, that explanation is directly at odds with the representations made to the FISC by the DOJ in obtaining the secret warrant used to observe the high-altitude aircraft.
Reportedly, the U.S. intelligence community has consistently concluded after careful examination that the balloon was much more than an off-course weather balloon. U.S. Gen. Glen VanHerck of NORAD indicated that exhaustive measures were taken to prevent the balloon from collecting sensitive intelligence until it could be safely shot down.
The contrasting narratives — a cautious and secretive approach by the Biden administration and China’s attempt at an innocuous explanation — paint a complex and opaque picture. The situation also raises serious questions about the Biden administration’s response to actual national security threats and the balance between public perception and operational secrecy.