Suspected spy balloon could ‘cause civilian injury or death’

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The Pentagon said Friday that it does not plan to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon floating 60,000 feet above the US because «any potential debris field would be significant» and could cause «civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage.» , but did not provide a plan for responding to the slow violation of «US airspace and international law.»

He enormous The balloon has ignited domestic curiosities, political finger-pointing, and an international diplomatic crisis, leaving Americans in the middle tier of the country looking to the skies for the white hovercraft.

It is unknown where it will go, and whether the US military will ultimately choose to shoot it out of the sky, but authorities have confirmed that it continues to move eastward and dismiss Beijing’s insistence that it is a weather balloon that went astray.

«We will continue to monitor and review options,» Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder told reporters on Friday afternoon.

«The balloon continues to move eastward and is currently over the center of the continental United States,» Ryder said, adding that «we currently assess that the balloon does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time.» .

Asked if he was concerned that some Americans might try to «interfere» with the balloon, presumably by intercepting or trying to shoot it down, Ryder noted that the balloon is flying at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, which is about 11 miles above the ground. . It is “well above the range of civilian air traffic,” Ryder said.

The Chinese government acknowledged that the ship «is from China.»

“It is a civil airship that is used for research purposes, mainly meteorological,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website. He said the balloon «deviated greatly from its planned course» due to high winds and a lack of steering ability.

Ryder replied, «The fact is, we know it’s a surveillance balloon.» «She has the ability to maneuver,» he said, declining to go into detail.

A balloon in the sky over Billings, Mont., in images taken on February 1. The Pentagon said Thursday that a suspected Chinese spy balloon was flying over the area.Chase Doak / AFP – Getty Images

The US military had been monitoring the balloon for days, US officials and a senior defense official told NBC News on Thursday,

It was seen over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, and had flown over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and across Canada to get there, authorities said. The destination is notable because Montana is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields.

Ryder declined to give the exact location of the balloon on Friday.

Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, said the balloon was over his state. «I can confirm that the Chinese spy balloon is over NE KS. My staff are in contact with law enforcement officials,» he said. tweeted on Friday afternoon, adding: «I condemn any attempt by the Chinese to spy on the Americans.»

The discovery has heightened tensions between the US and China, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned trip to Beijing next week, two US officials told NBC News.

“We have concluded that conditions are not right at this time for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” a senior State Department official said.

Blinken confirmed the postponement during a press conference on Friday, but said that «we will remain committed to the PRC as this ongoing issue is resolved. The first step is to get the surveillance asset out of our space. And that’s where we’re focused.» .»

Ryder told reporters that the balloon’s presence «violated US airspace and international law, which is unacceptable. We have relayed this directly to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on multiple levels.»

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders Wednesday, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander General Glen VanHerck to discuss military options. to shoot down the balloon earlier this month. week.

Pentagon leaders presented those options to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, and he was given a «strong recommendation» that the balloon not be shot down, a senior administration official told NBC on Thursday.

The official said the administration «acted immediately to guard against the collection of sensitive information» sought by the balloon, noting that this was not the first time this had happened.

“Instances of this activity have been observed in recent years, even before this administration,” the official said.

When asked about those earlier cases Friday, Ryder declined to comment on details because those incidents are classified, but acknowledged that «there have been incidents in the past.»

Several Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration’s response, with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, saying Biden “should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. He takes the balloon down now and exploits his tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza.”

Staff members of the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of leaders in Congress, received a classified briefing Thursday afternoon on the globe, three sources familiar with NBC told Friday.

One of the eight, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted: «China’s blatant disregard for American sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot remain silent.» .

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