U.S. denies operating surveillance balloons over China

Last updated on February 13, 2023

The U.S. government does not operate surveillance balloons over China, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson wrote on Twitter Monday morning, denying a claim made by Beijing earlier in the day.

“It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the US and over 40 countries across 5 continents,” Watson said in a tweet on Monday.

Watson’s rebuttal came in response to a Chinese claim from earlier Monday that the U.S. flew more than 10 high altitude balloons in its airspace without permission over the last year. The back-and-forth came after the U.S. on Sunday downed another unidentified object over its own airspace — the fourth airborne object the military has shot down in just over a week.

Though U.S. defense officials have confirmed the first object shot down off the coast of South Carolina was a Chinese surveillance balloon, they’ve yet to confirm what the other three objects might be. Officials have claimed, though, that China operates a “fleet” of surveillance balloons across the world.

“This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control,” Watson said in a tweet, “It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the US was a weather balloon and has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace, airspace of others.”

NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby on Monday also emphatically denied that the U.S. is flying balloons over China’s airspace, saying Beijing’s claim is “absolutely not true.” The Chinese spy balloon program, however, is something the Biden administration has “been studying since we came into office” and “communicated to dozens of other countries about,” Kirby said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“We know that those balloons have traversed across many different countries, across many different continents, and we have been reaching out to our allies and partners, to many of those countries, to let them know what we have learned about that,” he said.

Kirby also said the U.S. has not been able to gain access to the three objects that were most recently shot down “in large part because of the weather conditions.” He emphasized “there could be completely benign and totally explainable reasons for why these objects are flying around up there,” such as for research purposes from corporate entities or academic institutions.

“We just don’t know,” Kirby said. “But as soon as we can find out, we can get the debris and we can find out, we’ll absolutely share what we can.”