The Chinese spy balloon that transited the US earlier this year was able to capture imagery and collect some signals intelligence from US military sites, a source familiar with the matter tells CNN.
The balloon was able to transmit information back to Beijing in real time, the source said, and the US government still does not know for sure whether the Chinese government could wipe the balloon’s data as it received it. That raises questions about whether there is intelligence the balloon was able to gather that the US still doesn’t know about.
Still, the intelligence community has not been overly concerned about the information the balloon was able to gather, the person said, because it is not much more sophisticated than what Chinese satellites are able to glean as they orbit over similar locations.
The US also knew what the balloon’s path would be and was able to protect sensitive sites and censor some signals before the balloon was able to pick them up, officials have said.
As CNN has reported, the US intelligence community last year developed a method of tracking what it says is a fleet of these Chinese balloons operating across the globe, controlled by the Chinese military.
The FBI is still examining the balloon, but so far officials have been able to glean additional information about how the device worked, including the algorithms used for the balloon’s software and how it is powered and designed.
CNN has reached out to the National Security Council at the White House and the Pentagon for comment. NBC was first to report on the new intelligence.
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The balloon first crossed into US airspace over Alaska in late January before passing through Canada and down into Montana, where it hovered for a few days, leading the US to believe it was trying to surveil sensitive military sites, like Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. It was eventually shot down by the US off the East Coast on February 4, and the incident further escalated tensions between Washington and Beijing, including the postponement of a diplomatic visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China.
A senior State Department official said in February that, as the balloon floated across the US, it “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.”
Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of US Northern Command and NORAD, said at the time that the US “did not assess” that the balloon “presented a significant collection hazard beyond what already exists in actionable technical means from the Chinese.”
The surveillance program, which includes a number of similar balloons, is in part run out of the small Chinese province of Hainan, officials told CNN. The US does not know the precise size of the fleet of Chinese surveillance balloons, but sources tell CNN that the program has conducted at least two dozen missions over at least five continents in recent years.
Roughly half a dozen of those flights have been within US airspace, although not necessarily over US territory, according to one official familiar with the intelligence.
China has maintained that the balloon was actually just a weather balloon thrown off course, and the US has been assessing the possibility that it was not deliberately maneuvered into the continental US by the Chinese government, CNN has reported.
Still, China did maintain some ability to maneuver the balloon, officials believe. And once the balloon was over Montana, China appeared to take advantage of its position to loiter over sensitive sites and try to collect intelligence.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.