Chinese surveillance balloon was at least 5th spotted over the U.S. in past 6 years, U.S. officials say

The high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday wasn't the first such balloon to breach U.S. airspace in the past six years, U.S. officials said over the weekend. At least three of the earlier sightings over the U.S. happened during the Trump administration, including over Texas, Florida, and Guam, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said Sunday, citing a Saturday briefing by Pentagon officials. A similar airship traveled near Hawaii earlier in the Biden administration.

Chinese spy balloon
Chinese spy balloon

Elmurod Usubaliev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Chinese balloon flights during the Trump administration were not discovered until Biden was in office, a senior administration official said Sunday night, adding that U.S. intelligence officials are prepared to brief key Trump administration officials on China's surveillance balloon program and U.S. overflights. None of the previous incursions lasted as long as last week's balloon voyage.

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are searching for debris from the balloon's surveillance array in a seven-mile area of 47-foot-deep waters off Myrtle Beach.

The Chinese balloon was first detected approaching Alaska on Jan. 28, and President Biden ordered the Pentagon to shield sensitive sites from the balloon on Jan. 31. Biden says he ordered the balloon shot down on Wednesday, but agreed with the Pentagon assessment that it would be best to wait until it was over open water, given the risk to life and property from the falling three-bus-length surveillance apparatus.

Several Republican lawmakers criticized Biden on Sunday talk shows for waiting to shoot down the surveillance balloon until after it had already passed over several sensitive U.S. military installations. The Biden administration said it was able to learn a lot about the balloon during its flight and downplayed the significance of any intelligence it may have collected, especially compared with Chinese spy satellites. Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed, telling ABC News on Sunday that "it's very clear to me that the intelligence value of this from the standpoint of what it was getting, was not worth the risk of killing an American on the ground."

China criticized Biden for shooting down what it maintains was a civilian balloon that blew off course and was mainly gathering weather data. A U.S. officials told The Associated Press that after the Pentagon publicly revealed the balloon's existence on Thursday, the balloon changed course, undermining Beijing's assertion that it couldn't steer the airship.

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