Chinese spy balloon flew over other US missile and nuclear weapons sites, lawmaker says

China’s high-altitude surveillance balloon maneuvered over sensitive U.S. missile and nuclear weapons sites in addition to ones in Montana passed over before being shot down off the South Carolina coast Saturday, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Turner said.

“If you take the path that this balloon did, and you put up an X every place where you have a missile defense site, actual nuclear weapons infrastructure, you're going to follow this path,” Turner, R-Ohio, said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday. “So I think the natural conclusion is, it is intelligence-gathering with respect to try to affect in some way the command and control of our missile defense and nuclear weapons.”

Turner did not elaborate or share other details about the investigation into China’s balloon, in some cases citing classified information. But he said the U.S. intelligence community is scheduled to brief him and other members of congressional leadership who comprise the Gang of Eight later this week on the balloon and efforts to gain any intelligence from the recovery of it.

In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. The downing of the suspected Chinese spy balloon by a missile from an F-22 fighter jet created a spectacle over one of the state’s tourism hubs and drew crowds reacting with a mixture of bewildered gazing, distress and cheering.

The Gang of Eight refers to a group of congressional lawmakers who are responsible for reviewing and receiving highly sensitive intelligence information given to them by the executive branch. It includes top-ranking Republicans and Democrats and top Intelligence Committee lawmakers in the House and Senate.

Shooting down the balloon: US downs suspected Chinese spy balloon off Carolina coast

Blinken puts off trip to China over spy balloon

Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to China because the Chinese surveillance balloon drifting over the U.S. was a "clear violation" of sovereignty and international law, Biden administration officials said Friday. 

That, and the takedown of the balloon, have heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing and sparked criticism from Republicans that the Biden administration should have done more. Beijing has also criticized Biden, saying he overreacted by ordering an F-22 fighter jet to take out the puffy white dirigible.

Meanwhile, China won’t take Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s calls, according to Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary.

On Saturday, “immediately after taking action to down the PRC (People's Republic of China) balloon, the DOD submitted a request for a secure call between Secretary Austin and PRC Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe,” Ryder said in a statement. “We believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and the PRC in order to responsibly manage the relationship. Lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this. Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue.”

The Pentagon maintains open lines with adversaries, including Russia, to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to confrontation.

GOP Intelligence Committee chair worried balloon mission exposed U.S. security gaps

Turner said Tuesday that the balloon’s journey across the U.S. – including past Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana – highlights not only the fear of intelligence gaps on what the U.S. knows about China’s intentions and capabilities but also “actually what those gaps can mean in real security threats."

"And that doesn't just mean spy balloons or even surveillance," he said, "it can also mean an actual threat to our country that these gaps could penetrate.”

The Pentagon referred to a background briefing Thursday by a senior defense official when asked about Turner’s remarks.

In that briefing, the defense official was asked whether the balloon was trying to collect intelligence on siloed nuclear weapons in Montana. “Yes, so clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” the official said. “And so the current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites.”

U.S. response: State Department calls out China for knowingly sending spy balloon over the United States

"But we know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over. And we are taking steps to be extra-vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk, the official said.

A Turner spokesperson said Tuesday that the congressman could not comment further on the specifics of where the balloon traveled and what it surveilled but referred to remarks Turner made on NBC’s “Meet the Press With Chuck Todd” on Sunday.

On that show, Turner criticized the Biden administration for waiting too long to shoot down the balloon, describing it as “sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over.”

“The satellite had completed its mission. This should never have been allowed to enter the United States, and it never should have been allowed to complete its mission,” Turner said.

The White House has said Biden waited until the balloon – described as the size of three buses – was over water before shooting it down to prevent anyone from being injured or killed by the debris.

And Biden directed the military to "ensure we protected all sensitive sites from collection, which was straightforward because we could track the path of the balloon and ensure no activities or sensitive unencrypted (communications) would be conducted in its vicinity," White House spokesman John Kirby said. "At the same time, we turned the tables on China and collected against the balloon so that we would learn more about China’s capabilities and tradecraft."

U.S. Northern Command commander Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck said Monday that the balloon itself was 200 feet tall and that its surveillance payload was about the size of a regional commercial aircraft and weighed about 2,000 pounds. Its size and weight fed into the decision to wait until the balloon was over water to shoot it down, VanHerck said.

But Turner said that decision jeopardized national security, despite the Biden administration's assurances that it was taking steps to cover up sensitive facilities as the balloon made its way west to east.

The balloon, with its high-tech payload of surveillance devices, “didn`t go and look at the Grand Canyon. They went and looked at our nuclear weapons sites and the missile defense sites throughout the country," Turner said.

Also Tuesday, the Navy released its first photos of its balloon recovery effort and said it was being led by its Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Military officials described the mission as an extensive operation that included the use of underwater drones, warships and inflatable vessels, according to a release from the Navy.

Some of the photos, taken Sunday, show naval operators from the Navy explosive team pulling debris from the balloon onto a boat, including huge swaths of white fabric. The Navy said the debris is being taken to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chinese spy balloon went over key military sites sites, lawmaker says