Update(1317ET): The US is looking very determined to seek retribution against China for the 'spy balloon' saga, with the FBI now talking criminal charges in an early afternoon announcement.
The FBI confirmed it is now in the process of "decontaminating some balloon remains" by removing sea water and salt. Further, the FBI backed an earlier State Dept statement in describing the evidence from the balloon's components "could be used for intelligence" and "possible criminal charges" could result.
At the same time, the House has unanimously approved a resolution that formally condemns China's use of a spy balloon over US soil, calling it "a brazen violation of United States sovereignty." The Hill details of the resolution:
The resolution — which cleared the chamber in a bipartisan 419-0 vote — came to the House floor five days after the U.S. shot down the Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast, intensifying tensions between Washington and Beijing.
“An event like this, Mr. Speaker, must not happen again. And it cannot go unanswered,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and sponsor of the measure, said on the House floor during debate Thursday.
“They only understand one thing and that is force, and that’s projecting power, and we need to project power and force and strength against the Chinese Communist Party,” he added. “They must understand that we do desire peace, but infringing upon our sovereignty leads us down a dangerous path. Our adversaries must believe that any future incursion into American airspace by a spy balloon or any other vehicle will be met with decisive force. And that is why the House should pass this resolution.”
Meanwhile, as NYT wrote yesterday, this has plunged US-China relations to a new low in terms of open communications. A mere days ago Secretary Blinken was supposed to meet with President Xi, which the balloon saga disrupted, given the US side called off the important meeting.
Chinese officials rejected a request from the U.S. defense secretary to speak with his counterpart after an American fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon. https://t.co/DYjh01pM5z
— New York Times World (@nytimesworld) February 8, 2023
Meanwhile, more from unnamed US officials:
“High-resolution imagery from U-2 flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations,” an official with the State Department, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Epoch Times.
“The high altitude balloon’s equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons. It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications. It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the required power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” the official added.
* * *
As debris from the shot-down Chinese balloon recovered from the Atlantic Ocean presumably continues to be analyzed, US officials have been cited in Reuters and The Wall Street Journal to describe that the alleged spy balloon was part of a much bigger than previously believed "balloon surveillance program" by China which has targeted over 40 countries.
"The United States will also explore taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon's incursion into U.S. airspace," a senior State Department official said in a statement released Thursday.
"We are confident that the balloon manufacturer has a direct relationship with China's military and is an approved vendor of the PLA, according to information published in an official procurement portal for the PLA," the official said.
But notably, the State Department did not reveal whether ongoing examination of the actual wreckage from the balloon that passed over the United States late last week before it was shot down Saturday off the South Carolina coast is primarily informing the current assessment.
However, The Wall Street Journal does hint that the recovered debris points in the direction of it being a spy balloon:
The Chinese balloon that crossed the U.S. was outfitted with antennas likely capable of collecting communications, a senior State Department official said Thursday, adding that the Biden administration is preparing to take action against China’s surveillance program.
Providing details the U.S. has gathered since tracking and shooting down the balloon, the official said the balloon was also equipped with large solar panels capable of powering an array of intelligence-collection sensors. The manufacturer of the balloon has a direct relationship with the Chinese military, the official added.
The statements provide less than certainty, given the official used qualifiers such as it being "likely capable" of collecting communications, and further that its solar panels are "capable" of powering intelligence-collection sensors. At this point, it seems a smoking gun has yet to be presented for public view based on the actual balloon shot down.
According to more via Reuters, describing the Chinese balloon manufacturer, "The company also advertises balloon products on its website and hosts videos from past flights, which appear to have overflown at least U.S. airspace and the airspace of other countries, the official said, without naming the business."
"The official said the United States has collected high-resolution imagery of the balloon from U-2 aircraft flybys that revealed it was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations, the report continues. The official then said, "China had conducted similar surveillance flights over more than 40 countries on five continents."
China has sarcastically quipped that the US has launched a "war on weather balloons" - continuing to reject that it was for spying...
That's actually a pretty good one by the Chinese embassy in France :
"America declares war on weather balloons... as a way to fight climate change!" https://t.co/W2JzdIlnUz
— Arnaud Bertrand (@RnaudBertrand) February 6, 2023
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also weighed in, telling CBS news that the Pentagon's driving concern was protecting US nuclear capabilities. Confirming that Chinese balloons have flown over places like Texas and Florida in prior years, he said, "Certainly all of our strategic assets, we made sure were buttoned down and movement was limited and communications were limited so that we didn’t expose any capability unnecessarily."
China has meanwhile blistered at President Joe Biden's words related to the balloon incident, per Bloomberg:
Beijing lashed out at President Joe Biden for saying Chinese leader Xi Jinping faces "enormous problems," underscoring the renewed tensions between the two nations since the US downing of a balloon in its airspace.
China's Foreign Minister hasn't wavered from its initial position and expressed last week that it was nothing but a sophisticated weather "research" balloon which traversed errantly over North America. Beijing has claimed it simply blew off course, and that Washington exploited the incident for political purposes.