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White House says Chinese spy balloon was watching ‘sensitive US military sites’

The suspected Chinese espionage airship that was downed by an American F-22 fighter on Saturday was targeting “sensitive military sites” as part of a program that has been known to US officials for a number of years, the White House has said.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters during a briefing on Monday that China’s claim that the airship was a civilian craft sent aloft for climate study purposes “strains credulity”, and said US officials have known that the Chinese military had “a measure of control” over the speed and direction of the balloon, which was surveilling “sensitive military sites” in the US.

Mr Kirby said China’s use of balloons for espionage was “not a new programme” and instead is something “they’ve been working on for many years” that China has “tried to improve in terms of capability, range [and] communications”.

“It’s not something that we weren’t aware of and haven’t been trying to learn more about since we came into office,” he said.

Republicans have seized on the fact that Mr Biden failed to order the craft shot down when it was first detected in US airspace.

Mr Biden told reporters on Sunday that he’d actually given a shootdown order when he was first briefed on the balloon’s presence on Wednesday, but he also said he refrained from giving final authorisation for a shootdown mission on advice from Pentagon advisers who cautioned against doing so over land because of the potential for casualties from debris falling to the ground.

As of Monday, US navy and coast guard personnel were continuing to recover debris from the downed airship off the east coast of the US. Officials have said the debris is being taken to an FBI lab to be analysed for counterintelligence purposes.

Mr Kirby defended the president’s decision not to immediately order the balloon shot down, citing the opportunity it provided for gathering information on China’s “capabilities and intentions” regarding the airship programme.

“I would assert that by ... having the time we took last week to collect off of it ourselves, as well as the knowledge we’re gonna get from recovering, our understanding ... will only increase as to this military program of the PRC and what they’re capable of,” he said.

He later added that the intelligence value of what the US learned during the time it was transiting US airspace “should not be underestimated”.

“Because the president decided he wouldn't shoot it down until he could do so safely ... that afforded us a terrific opportunity to gain a better understanding, to study the capabilities of this balloon, what it can do and what it can’t do, and we’re going to learn from that as we recover pieces from the bottom of the Atlantic,” he said.

Mr Kirby also stressed that the US was able to “mitigate” the airship’s intelligence-gathering capabilities during its flight while at the same time “increasing and improving our ability to collect intelligence and information” from the craft.