Chinese Spy Balloon Hysteria Was Baseless, Milley Says

It had no working spy gear, the JCS Chairman Mark Milley says

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Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks during a briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Chinese “spy balloon” hysteria that contributed greatly to driving U.S.-China relations to their lowest point over recent years was entirely baseless, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in remarks broadcast Sunday.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS national security correspondent David Martin that the balloon was merely blown far off course by upper atmospheric winds and carried no working spy gear.

“Those winds are very high,” Milley said on the CBS Sunday Morning News, saying the balloon was originally on a course toward Hawaii before it was blown northeast over Alaska then the continental U.S.  “The particular motor on that aircraft can’t go against those winds at that altitude,” he said.

And for whatever reason, it didn’t collect any intelligence, the general said. 

“I would say it was a spy balloon that we know with high degree of certainty got no intelligence and didn’t transmit any intelligence back to China,” Milley said.

Pentagon brifers said at the time that the Defense Department had plenty of weapons to “mitigate” such aerial espionage, but their assurances were generally drowned out by the clamor to “do something.”

The hysteria over the balloon caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a scheduled trip to China. Relations have not really recovered since then, a situation that was further damaged by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Driven by sensational news coverage and partisan demands that it be shot down, the weeks-long imbroglio featured repeated reports framing the overflight variously as an “outrage” and “unacceptable” Chinese violation of U.S. air space. CNN quoted an anonymous “senior State Department official” as saying that the balloon “was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations” and was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents.”

Cable news talking heads hotly debated whether Chinese President Xi Jin Ping had personally ordered the balloon mission across the U.S.  An unnamed source told CNN that  there was “an ongoing intelligence gap” on whether Xi was involved.

President Biden contributed to the frenzy, saying, “This silly balloon that was carrying two freight cars worth of the spying equipment was flying over the United States and it got shot down and everything changed in terms of talking to one another.”

As the crisis ballooned last February, former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden pooh-poohed the threat, telling SpyTalk that the balloon itself presented zero danger, weapons-wise, and if it were on a serious spying mission, it could be easily neutralized. 

“Really, it’s not a big deal,” the retired former Air Force general told us. “We can neutralize it so I don’t think it’s a danger either.”

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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