It’s been over two weeks since the U.S. military shot down a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina. Since then, we’ve learned a little more about what might have led to the balloon entering U.S. airspace; for example, it looks like the balloon is part of a broader surveillance program run by China’s military, which has a fleet of balloons it has flown over 40 countries across five continents in the last several years, including four that have previously entered the U.S. It also appears that the balloon may have entered the U.S. accidentally, after veering off course – although China did not offer the U.S. an apology when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese officials at the Munich Security Conference last weekend.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions. But what may be more interesting than the spy balloon itself is how the U.S. will go about investigating it. The aftermath of the spy balloon incident is an instructive case study in the coordination among the intelligence community in response to foreign operations that touch on the interests of a number of agencies in the intelligence community.
Let’s start with the assessed purpose of the balloon. It’s clear that the spy balloon did not pose an offensive military threat, and U.S. officials have determined its purpose to be intelligence collection. That places the initial and primary jurisdiction for the balloon’s analysis under the FBI’s counterintelligence mandate, which monitors foreign intelligence activity in the United States. The FBI was the agency called on to the scene when the balloon was shot down, and the Bureau’s evidence response teams are working with the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Divers to recover the debris from the ocean. (The FBI also has its own divers as well.)