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It’s not every day that a Chinese spy balloon is spotted flying across the United States.
But when the Pentagon announced Feb. 2 that a Chinese surveillance balloon had been seen hovering over the Northwest, the news unleashed a torrent of questions and political rhetoric.
But how much of this chatter is just hot air?
U.S. fighter jets used an air-to-air Sidewinder missile to shoot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. But claims about the balloon, its capabilities and other spy balloon incidents provoked political finger-pointing and misleading claims.
PolitiFact looked into some of them. Although details about the spy balloon are still developing or unclear, here’s a fact-checker's look at some of what we know.
This is False and stems from a longtime internet hoax. Video footage shows a U.S. Air Force F-22 firing the missile and hitting the balloon before it fell into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.
The claim itself is largely accurate, but it overlooks some key details and is being used in a manner that distorts the program’s purview.
Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., told PolitiFact that detection, tracking and operations against the Chinese spy balloon are handled primarily by the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S Northern Command, not by the Justice Department.
"The Trump administration’s task force most likely would not have covered the surveillance balloon, but if it did, then only in the context of China’s broader espionage efforts after being briefed by NORAD/NORTHCOM," Grossman said.
But this claim appears to refer to the China Initiative, a Justice Department effort that was launched in 2018 under the Trump administration. In February 2022, the Justice Department announced it was ending the program.
As described by the Justice Department, the China Initiative aimed to identify and prosecute "those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking and economic espionage," to protect critical infrastructure "against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises," and to combat "covert efforts to influence the American public and policymakers."
The effort included prosecutions against researchers and academics, companies and businessmen who stole trade secrets, hackers and others.
But it quickly came under criticism from folks in academic communities and elsewhere for drifting from its original mission. Some people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities said the initiative contributed to bias as prosecutions included cases against researchers and academics — many of Chinese ancestry — accused of failing to disclose ties with China when applying for grants.
An MIT Technology Review investigation found that defendants were often charged with lesser infractions such as grant fraud, visa fraud or lying to investigators, and that even when they were not being accused of espionage, federal prosecutors still painted them as national security threats.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, who is in charge of the national security division, said Feb. 23, 2022, that he concluded after a review of the initiative that it "is not the right approach."
This claim is Pants on Fire!
Thousands of satellites have been launched into space by rockets since the late 1950s. Satellites can remain in orbit in space when the momentum from the rocket launch and the pull of Earth’s gravity are balanced.
High-altitude surveillance balloons, such as the one recently discovered from China, are different from satellites. These balloon-powered devices typically hover around 80,000 to 120,000 feet above ground. By comparison, the majority of satellites orbiting Earth do so at altitudes between 100 and 1,243 miles, although some satellites are as far as 22,370 miles away.
This claim surfaced during a Feb. 4 Defense Department press briefing and has been repeated by White House officials.
Here’s what we know.
A transcript from an off-camera, on-background Feb. 4 press briefing shows that a senior Defense Department official said, "PRC (People’s Republic of China) government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time."
The U.S. was not aware of the balloon events when they occurred, U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck said during a Feb. 6 Defense Department press conference. VanHerck leads the North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command.
"I will tell you that we did not detect those threats," VanHerck said. "And that's a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out."
Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., told Fox Business Feb. 6 that his office had been briefed by the Defense Department and Pentagon about the matter. He said officials told him these balloons floated near Florida and Texas. CNN and The Washington Post reported that intelligence officials said some prior instances were detected near Hawaii and Guam.
Former defense secretary Mark Esper told CNN that he didn’t "ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States."
Biden was briefed and he asked for military options, a senior defense official said Feb. 2. The "strong recommendation" of his military commanders was to not shoot the balloon down while it was over land due to the safety risks for people on the ground.
A transcript from a Feb. 2 on-background press briefing shows that an unnamed senior defense official said the balloon offered China "limited additive value" for collecting intelligence beyond what it already seeks by other means such as satellites.
The official also said additional precautions were taken to minimize any additional intelligence the balloon could get, given that it crossed over sensitive sites.
This is unconfirmed.
We saw this claim in a misleading post on Facebook that read, "Top Air Force General Claims that Chinese Surveillance Balloon Carried Deadly Explosives" and showed a picture of VanHerck.
That’s not what happened.
In an update during a Feb. 6 press briefing, VanHerck said recovery efforts include additional identification of potential threats, such as explosives, that may be on the balloon. He said there was also the potential of the balloon containing explosives to detonate and destroy it.
He added, "I can’t confirm whether it had explosives or not. Anytime you down something like this, we make an assumption that that potential exists."
CORRECTION, Feb. 9, 2023: A U.S. Air Force F-22 fired the missile that shot down the balloon. An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the aircraft.
Department of Defense, Press Briefing, Feb. 2, 2023
Department of Defense, Press Briefing, Feb. 4, 2023
Department of Defense, Press Briefing, Feb. 6, 2023
Department of Justice, Information about the Department of Justice's China Initiative and a Compilation Of China-Related Prosecutions since 2018, last updated Nov. 19, 2021
Email interview with Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, Feb. 7, 2023
NBC News, "DOJ abandons Trump-era program aimed at Chinese spying," Feb. 23, 2022
MIT Technology Review, "The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it." Dec. 2, 2021
MIT Technology Review, "The US government is ending the China Initiative. Now what?," Feb. 23, 2022
CNN, "Chinese spy balloons under Trump not discovered until after Biden took office," Feb. 6, 2023
Washington Post, "Pentagon reports past Chinese surveillance balloons near Florida, Texas," Feb. 5, 2023
Washington Post, "Chinese spy balloon flying over U.S. ‘right now,’ Pentagon says," Feb. 3, 2023
Fox Business interview with Rep. Mike Waltz, Feb. 6, 2023
PolitiFact, "The US government, not a vigilante, shot down a Chinese balloon," Feb. 6, 2023
PolitiFact, "Balloon-powered satellites? Space conspiracies flourish after Chinese spy balloon discovery," Feb. 7, 2023