Story update Feb. 6, 2023: The U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the U.S. coast on Feb. 4. This original story was published on Feb. 3.
The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted flying across the north and central U.S. It was seen on Feb. 2 over Montana, and was headed toward the central U.S. on Feb. 3.
A Feb. 2 tweet from an account that tweets news content said the balloon seen over Billings, Montana, was the size of three buses. A video of the balloon had more than 5 million views.
A Reddit post also showed the suspected trajectory of the Chinese “spy balloon.”
VERIFY viewers Angie and Barbara texted and asked us about the balloon. Here is what we know so far.
WHAT WE FOUND
1. The Pentagon says the balloon hasn’t been shot down because it’s not a threat
But during a Feb. 3 press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said if officials shot the balloon down, debris from the balloon could be harmful to people on the ground and could result in property damage. As of Feb. 3, the balloon was flying at 60,000 feet, which is above commercial airspace.
Ryder said the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. NORAD, which is tracking the balloon, agreed.
When asked if the balloon would be shot down once it’s over the ocean and out of U.S. airspace, Ryder said: “Right now, we assess that there is no threat — a physical threat or military threat — to people on the ground. So we're continuing to monitor, you know, and we'll just leave it at that.”
2. China confirmed it’s their balloon but denied it’s for spying
A senior defense official with the Pentagon told reporters on Feb. 2 that the balloon was flying over “sensitive” military sites to collect information. However, the People’s Republic of China denied those allegations.
In a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, the Chinese government confirmed ownership of the balloon, but said it is being used for “research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”
“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure [unforeseeable circumstances]. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” the statement said.
When asked about China’s claim that the balloon is a weather balloon, not a spy balloon, Ryder said the U.S. government is aware of the statement.
“The fact is we know that it's a surveillance balloon, and I'm not going to be able to be more specific than that. And we do know that the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable. And so we've conveyed this directly to the PRC at multiple levels,” Ryder said during the Feb. 3 press conference.
Weather experts told the Associated Press China's claim that the balloon had gone off course was feasible.
3. The Pentagon says this isn’t the first time a balloon like this has flown over the U.S.
A senior defense official with the Pentagon said “balloons of this nature” have flown over the U.S. “a handful of other times over the past few years,” including before the Biden administration.
What’s different about this balloon is how long it’s been over U.S. airspace.
“It is appearing to hang out for a long period of time this time around, more persistent than in previous instances. So that would be one distinguishing factor,” the defense official told reporters.
During the Feb. 3 news conference, Ryder told reporters the instances of those other balloons flying into U.S. airspace are classified.
“I'm not able to provide it other than I can confirm that there have been other incidents where balloons did come close to or cross over U.S. territory,” Ryder said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.