US intelligence agencies now believe that the mysterious craft really was blown off course, Mark Milley told ABC News
a US Air Force U-2 pilot looks down at a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovers over the United States, February 3, 2023 © AP / US Department of Defense
A so-called Chinese “spy balloon” shot down off the east coast of the US in February did not actually collect any intelligence, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told CBS News on Sunday. Beijing insisted from the outset that the balloon was not a surveillance craft.
«The intelligence community, their assessment – and it’s a high-confidence assessment – [is] that there was no intelligence collection by that balloon,» Milley told the American broadcaster.
The balloon in question appeared in the sky over Alaska in January, before drifting south and crossing the US. Its high-altitude flight ultimately ended when it was shot down off the coast of South Carolina in early February. Throughout its journey and for months afterwards, US officials claimed that the balloon was sent across the US to gather intelligence for Beijing.
In April, anonymous officials told NBC News that the balloon made “multiple passes” over US military sites to intercept electronic communications, before it “increased its speed” in an attempt “to get it out of US airspace as quickly as possible.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Chinese government «both unacceptable and irresponsible” for flying the balloon over US territory, and called off a planned visit to Beijing in response. China maintained that the balloon was a civilian craft that had been blown off course, an explanation that Milley now admits was possible.
“Those winds are very high,” Milley said, referring to the currents above Hawaii that steered the balloon east across the US. “The particular motor on that aircraft can’t go against those winds at that altitude.”
Despite revealing that the balloon did not collect intelligence, Milley told ABC News that it was equipped with the necessary sensors and transmitters to do so. «I would say it was a spy balloon that we know with high degree of certainty got no intelligence, and didn’t transmit any intelligence back to China,” he said.