Tester: Spy balloon part of a larger Chinese intelligence operation

Balloon recovery mission nearly complete while crews search for the other three balloons

By: - February 16, 2023 1:24 pm

A balloon from China flies above Billings, Montana. U.S. officials said they suspected it was spying; China said it was a research balloon blown off course. (Photo by Chase Doak, used with permission.)

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is leading the United State Senate’s investigation into the Chinese spy balloon that flew over Montana and was recently shot down over the coast of South Carolina, said the U.S. doesn’t know exactly what its capabilities were yet – but it was from China and it wants intelligence not just on America, but the world.

In a briefing with Montana reporters, Tester said that it was no coincidence the balloon flew over states with intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a weather balloon does not fly that far off course, and is not coincidental.

Tester, a Democrat from Big Sandy, said he also understood the frustration with the federal government for not disclosing more information, sooner. However, he said that just within the past day does it look like the recovery operation for the balloon has been completed, which has hampered how quickly information can be analyzed and relayed. Moreover, he said the other three balloons that have been shot down have not been recovered, so it’s impossible to know their origins.

“Nothing the Chinese Communist Party does happens by accident,” he said. “Maybe these other three balloons are nothing. We don’t know if they came from China or someone’s backyard.”

Tester also told reporters that China appears to be spying on other nations using the same technology, and confirmed that reports of other spy balloons – as many as 20 – are part of a network. He said China is even more interested in watching events in Asia from spying equipment.

He said that means the international community needs to take a stance.

“The message is: This is not how the world works,” Tester said. “They’re focused on more than just us. They’re focused mainly on Asia.”

Beyond issues of national security, Tester said the low-flying objects pose a risk to commercial and civilian aviation.

Tester also said the U.S. must work to develop a policy for dealing with objects that could be commercial or research in nature, and find a better solution rather than firing missiles at a cost $400,000 each.

He said he receives intelligence briefings daily about a legion of ways China continues to try to disrupt or undermine America. Tester told reporters that spying is just an aspect of it, but also campaigns of disinformation are part of an attempt to topple America as the top economic and world superpower and replace it with China.

“China presses the envelope every single day,” Tester said.

Montana’s senior Senator also talked about trying to stop hostile countries – China, Russia, North Korea and Iran – from buying farm land in the United States, a topic of concern that has captured the attention of the Montana Legislature, too.

“If you control the food, you control the people,” Tester said.

He said that foreign farming operations in America may go beyond making sure China has enough food to feed itself. It also involves the ability to spy on the country from those farms.

Tester said he understands Montanans’ and Americans’ frustration because President Joe Biden has not directly addressed the nation or the issue. Biden announced a speech for Thursday, but Tester also defended the White House’s response.

“I think they want to guard against giving out any bad information,” Tester said. “I get those briefings every day, and I’m here to tell you, those briefings produce very little that is valuable that you’d want to write about in the paper.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.