WASHINGTON: The United States said on Friday it had successfully concluded 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 its “guts.”
But US and Canadian authorities also announced they had called off searches for three unidentified objects shot down over last weekend, without locating any debris.
President Joe Biden said this week the US intelligence community believed the other three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions - not China’s spy program.
The last of the debris from the Chinese balloon, which was downed by a Sidewinder missile, is heading to an FBI laboratory in Virginia for analysis, the US military’s Northern Command said.
Reuters was first to report the conclusion of the recovery efforts for the suspected Chinese spy balloon, which were halted on Thursday.
“It’s a significant amount (of recovered material), including the payload structure as well as some of the electronics and the optics, and all that’s now at the FBI laboratory in Quantico,” said National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
Kirby said the United States had already learned a lot about the balloon by observing it as it flew over the United States.
“We’re going to learn even more, we believe, by getting a look at the guts inside it and seeing how it worked and what it was capable of,” he told a White House news briefing.
The US military said Navy and Coast Guard vessels that had been scouring the sea for nearly two weeks have departed the area.
“Air and maritime safety perimeters have been lifted,” Northern Command said in a statement.
The US military has said it believes it has collected all of the Chinese balloon’s priority sensors and electronics as well as large sections of its structure, elements that could help counterintelligence officials determine how Beijing may have been collecting and transmitting surveillance information.
Uproar after the episode
The balloon, which Beijing denies was a government spy vessel, spent a week flying over the United States and Canada before being shot down off the Atlantic Coast on Biden’s orders.
The episode caused an uproar in Washington and led the US military to search the skies for other objects that were not being captured on radar. Northern Command carried out an unprecedented three shootdowns of unidentified “objects” between last Friday and Sunday.
Late on Friday, it said search operations for the two objects shot down in US airspace - one over Alaska and the other over Lake Huron - had concluded, having “discovered no debris.”
“The US military, federal agencies, and Canadian partners conducted systematic searches of each area using a variety of capabilities, including airborne imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and subsurface scans, and did not locate debris,” it said.
The third object was shot down over Canada’s Yukon. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement on Friday that it had also decided to end search efforts.
“Given the snowfall that has occurred, the decreasing probability the object will be found and the current belief the object is not tied to a scenario that justifies extraordinary search efforts, the RCMP is terminating the search,” it said in a statement.
The Chinese balloon incident prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit this month to Beijing and has further strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
That 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 fraught ties.
US officials have since been looking at 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.
Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is in Munich for the conference, defended the administration’s handling of the balloon incident and the shooting down of the three other objects.
The Chinese balloon “needed to be shot down because we were confident that it was used by China to spy on American people,” Harris told MSNBC.
“We will maintain the perspective that we have in terms of what should be the relationship between China and the United States,” she said. “That is not going to change, but surely and certainly that balloon was not helpful.”