The FBI has recovered just a small portion of the surveillance equipment a Chinese spy balloon operated as it flew across the U.S. before American fighter jets took it down off the coast of South Carolina, according to media reports.
Recovery efforts began hours after the balloon’s debris, including the aerodynamic portion as well as surveillance and transmission equipment, splashed into roughly 47-foot deep waters. While the U.S. hopes to analyze the surveillance apparatus to learn more about China’s spying operations, FBI officials said the “extremely limited” amount of equipment that has undergone analysis so far does little to shed light on China’s intent to deploy the balloon in the first place, ABC News reported.
“Much of the evidence remains underwater,” a senior FBI official speaking on condition of anonymity told ABC News. Since beginning operations on Feb. 6, the FBI has retrieved only the evidence “present at the surface” and brought it to the lab at Quantico for further analysis.
“It’s very early for us in this process, and the evidence that has been recovered and brought to the FBI is extremely limited,” an official said, according to Reuters. (RELATED: ‘Clear Message To China’: GOP Senator Hammers Pentagon For Letting Spy Balloon Fly Over Alaska)
In addition, the balloon’s “payload,” or the actual surveillance portion carrying possible photography and sensing equipment, broke apart at some point, the official said. Much of the most important electronic equipment sank to the ocean floor, and authorities have yet to locate all of it.
“We have literally not seen the payload which is where we would expect to see the lion’s share of the electronics,” the official told ABC News.
The small portion of equipment recovered from the water’s surface does not include solar panels, according to the official.
The balloon likely operated antennae and solar panels enabling it to collect intelligence on electronic signatures, State Department officials revealed earlier on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.
FBI agents processing recovered pieces of the Chinese spy balloon shot down off of South Carolina over the weekend.
Photo per @FBI. (H/t @LukeLBarr) pic.twitter.com/Xeu3XI9zjB
— Jay O’Brien (@jayobtv) February 9, 2023
The Department of Defense said it had gleaned information while observing the balloon cross the U.S. and assessed that a deeper look at the equipment itself would be of significant intelligence value.
“We have some very good guesses” about what information China intended to collect, Jedidiah Royal, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told a Congressional committee hearing earlier Thursday ahead of a classified briefing with Congress. “We are learning more as we exploit the contents of the balloon,” he added.
The FBI has jurisdiction over counterintelligence in the U.S., giving the agency a key role in recovering and analyzing the balloon.
Authorities have not detected any “energetic” materials that would indicate explosive capabilities, the official said, NBC News reported.
Video footage of a U.S. F-22 Raptor firing a Sidewinder missile into the balloon show an explosion, and the balloon appears to deflate, the AP reported.
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