Fishermen delivering possible spy balloon to FBI in Alaska

Commercial fishermen off the coast of Alaska have found what officials are concerned could be another spy balloon and are bringing it to shore with them, three sources familiar with the matter told CNN.

FBI agents will meet the fishing vessel when it comes into port, which is expected to be sometime over the weekend. The bureau will then transport the unknown object to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, to be analyzed, as has been done with previous surveillance balloons.

The fishmen shared photographs of the object with law enforcement upon encountering it, the sources said. All three sources emphasized that it wasn’t clear exactly what the object was and that it may not be a balloon at all — but that the FBI determined that it was similar enough in appearance to a foreign-government owned surveillance balloon that it warranted further investigation.

The FBI said in a statement Friday night it is “aware of debris found off the coast of Alaska by a commercial fishing vessel. We will work with our partners to assist with the logistics of the debris recovery.”

CNN was unable to identify the fishing vessel.

The existence of high-altitude surveillance balloons burst into US consciousness last year, when a Chinese spy balloon appeared to blow off course and transited across the continental US. That balloon entered US territory through Alaskan airspace.

The US assessed that the spy balloon was part of an extensive surveillance program run by the Chinese military, as CNN reported at the time. The balloon fleet, according to US officials, had conducted at least two dozen missions over at least five continents in recent years.

China appeared to suspend the program following the episode, and it’s not clear whether it has been restarted. Taiwan in January accused Beijing of flying multiple balloons through its airspace.

The Biden administration ultimately shot down the balloon that flew over the US last February. Following the incident, the US widened the aperture of its radar systems so that it could better detect objects traveling above a certain altitude and at certain speeds. The aim was to fix a “domain awareness gap” that had allowed three other suspected Chinese spy balloons to transit the continental United States undetected under the Trump administration, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said at the time.

The more sensitive radar systems have allowed the US military to spot more unidentified objects in US airspace. There were three additional shootdowns of unidentified high-altitude objects in the weeks following the Chinese balloon incident. Just last week, the North American Aerospace Defense Command sent fighter jets to intercept and examine a small balloon over the southwest, drifting east. NORAD later said in a statement that the balloon was “likely a hobby balloon” that posed no threat.

The Pentagon had said that the Chinese surveillance balloon did not collect intelligence while flying over the country, but US intelligence agencies did find that it used an American internet service provider to send short, periodic transmissions of data related to navigation and location back to China, according to a US official.

The network connection was not used to transmit intelligence back to China, according to the official. The balloon stored that information for later, including imagery and other data, which the US has since been able to study.

This story has bene updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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