WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials have determined that a Chinese spy balloon that crossed the United States earlier this year used a U.S. internet service provider to communicate, according to two current and one former U.S. official familiar with the assessment. revealed.
According to the assessment, the balloon was connected to a U.S.-based company that sent and received communications to and from China, primarily related to the balloon’s flight. People familiar with the evaluation said the connection was found to allow the balloon to send burst transmissions, or high-bandwidth data collection over short periods of time.
The Biden administration has sought a secret court order from the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect intelligence while in U.S. airspace, according to multiple current and former U.S. officials. It has not been made clear what decision the court made.
Such a court order would allow U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance as the balloons fly over the United States and send and receive messages to and from China, officials said. Ta. This includes communications sent through Internet service providers in the United States.
The company denied that the Chinese balloons used its network, but said its decision was based on its own investigation and consultation with U.S. officials.
NBC News is not publishing the provider’s name at this time to protect the identity of the source.
A National Security Council spokesperson referred questions to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. DNI declined to comment.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said it was a weather balloon that happened to land in U.S. airspace.
“As we previously disclosed, the airship being used for weather research unintentionally drifted ashore in the United States due to westerly winds and limited autopilot capabilities,” Liu said in a statement to NBC News. . “The facts are clear.”
Chinese intelligence officials have secretly used commercial service providers in various countries as backup communications networks in the past, according to multiple former U.S. officials. Officials say they often look for networks that are encrypted or have strong security protocols so they can communicate securely.
The U.S. effort to monitor the balloon’s communications, which had not been previously reported, is part of the reason Biden administration officials have claimed the device provided more information than the balloon had as it flew over the United States. may be one
Officials said the United States closely tracked the balloon’s expected flight path and was able to protect sensitive areas on the ground. The U.S. military moved or hid sensitive equipment, preventing the balloon from collecting images and video while in the sky.
After the balloon was shot down on February 4, Gen. Glenn VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told reporters that the U.S. military and intelligence community had taken drastic measures to prevent the balloon’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. He said that he had taken the following steps. .
“We have taken the utmost precautions to prevent any intelligence gathering, so that we can take maximum protection while the balloon is transiting the United States,” VanHerck said at a news conference. .
In an exclusive interview with NBC News this month, Van Herk explained that he worked with U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees America’s nuclear arsenal, to reduce the release of emergency action messages so that Chinese balloons could not collect them. .
“We have taken steps to eliminate the capabilities that we have in our missile field, whether it’s aircraft or ballistic missiles. We’ve limited the transmission of urgent action messages that could be collected,” VanHerck said. .
Emergency Action Messages (EAMs) are a way for U.S. national leaders to communicate with strategic forces around the world. The messages are highly classified and may include instructing nuclear-capable forces on response options in the event of nuclear war.
“Protecting EAM and nuclear command and control communications is extremely important to the United States,” a senior defense official told NBC News.
After the balloon was shot down, a senior State Department official said it was being used by China for surveillance and was carrying equipment that could collect signals intelligence.
The balloon was equipped with multiple antennas, including an array that could collect communications and likely determine its geolocation, officials said. It was also powered by giant solar panels that generated enough electricity to power intelligence-gathering sensors, officials said.
Defense and intelligence officials said the U.S. assessment was that the balloons were unable to send information back to China over the United States.
The FBI forensics team that examined the balloon after it was shot down has completed a confidential report on the equipment it carried, U.S. officials said. Their findings remain secret and not widely reported.
Federal judges in surveillance courts, where cases are conducted in secret, must decide whether the target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent and whether there is probable cause that the surveillance is necessary to obtain foreign intelligence information. have to judge. The court’s decision is kept confidential.