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Chinese spy balloon that was over U.S., Canada part of ‘broader’ operation: U.S. official

Click to play video: 'China threatens repercussions after U.S. shoots down spy balloon'
China threatens repercussions after U.S. shoots down spy balloon
WATCH: China threatens repercussions after U.S. shoots down spy balloon – Feb 5, 2023

A Chinese spy balloon that passed over Canada and the United States last week was part of a “broader suite of operations” that are underway by Beijing, a U.S. official says.

At the same time, a Canadian House of Commons committee grappling with questions about allegations of foreign interference has voted Thursday to expand a probe and call two significant new witnesses.

Jedidiah Royal, the U.S. assistant defence secretary for the Indo-Pacific, told a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee Thursday the military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligence China was seeking.

When pressed on what information the balloon was specifically trying to gather, Royal said U.S. officials “are learning more as we exploit the contents of the balloon and the payload itself.”

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More information was expected to be provided in a classified setting.

“We understand that this is part of a broader suite of operations that China is undertaking to try to get a better understanding of the U.S.,” Royal said.

His public comments came just hours after The Associated Press (AP) reported that China’s balloon was equipped to collect intelligence signals and was part of a huge, military-linked aerial spy program that targeted more than 40 countries.

Click to play video: 'Mendicino defends timing of when Canadians learned of Chinese spy balloon'
Mendicino defends timing of when Canadians learned of Chinese spy balloon

Citing a State Department official who provided details to reporters by email on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, AP said a fleet of balloons operates under the direction of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLC) and is used specifically for spying, outfitted with high-tech equipment designed to collect sensitive information from targets across the globe.

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Similar balloons have floated over five continents, according to the administration. China admitted on Monday that a balloon travelling over Latin America was also theirs.

The details from the official were billed as an attempt to refute China’s denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim Thursday that U.S. accusations about the balloon amount to “information warfare” against Beijing.

In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it on Feb. 4. China said Feb. 7 it will “resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests” over the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon by the United States, as relations between the two countries deteriorate further. Chad Fish via AP, File

The recent balloon was shot down by a U.S. military fighter jet on Saturday over the sea near South Carolina. The navy and coast guard are working to recover pieces of the downed balloon so they can be analyzed.

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North American Aerospace Defense Command began tracking the balloon as it approached U.S. airspace, the Pentagon said Wednesday. It passed north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace before crossing back into the U.S. over northern Idaho on Jan. 31.

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The public announcement of its discovery late last week sparked outrage in both countries, and prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to China that weekend.

Canadian pilots flying over the Prairie provinces, Ontario and Quebec were warned to be on the lookout for an “untethered balloon” on Feb. 2. Sources had told Global News the surveillance balloon spent time in Canadian airspace, but the details of when and for how long have not been made clear by Canadian authorities.

The incident, as well as the American reports, prompted Ottawa to summon China’s ambassador to Canada.

The balloon was spotted over Montana on Feb. 2, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information at the time. It was eventually shot down over the U.S. east coast last weekend.

MPs will expand probe into foreign interference

Meanwhile, on Thursday, members of Parliament sitting on a committee studying foreign election interference heard from Canadian officials regarding the risks of meddling in Canadian elections.

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During that meeting, members of the committee voted unanimously to invite former Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick and former national security adviser Daniel Jean to testify as part the study and agreed to hold additional meetings as required.

The decision followed reporting by Global News on Wednesday that national security officials drafted a warning for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his office more than a year before the 2019 federal election, alleging that Chinese agents were “assisting Canadian candidates running for political offices,” according to a Privy Council Office document reviewed by Global News.

Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, had told that same committee on Tuesday that China is the “primary threat” of foreign interference in Canada, and the government must take several steps to address it.

The officials were only able to discuss unclassified information during the committee hearing. Adam Fisher, director general of intelligence assessments with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, did say Canada’s adversaries are “very sophisticated.”

“They’re using the full state apparatus in terms of their targeting against Canada. It’s not a static threat — it evolves,” he said.

“They watch very closely how we react and how we adapt, and they look for ways to work around that, so my point in saying that is there’s no one silver bullet to deal with this and it needs to be a continuous process, a continuous conversation and engagement to address it.”

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Canadian relations with China have been uneasy for several years, intensifying in recent months over allegations of attempts to influence and interfere in Canadian affairs.

Global News reported on Nov. 7, 2022 that Canadian intelligence officials have warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that China has allegedly been targeting Canada with a vast campaign of foreign interference, according to Global News sources.

Furthermore, the RCMP has asked anyone with experience of Chinese influence through so-called “police stations” believed to be operating in Canada to come forward.

After Global News’ report broke, Trudeau said the government has “taken significant measures to strengthen the integrity of our elections processes and our systems,” adding that Ottawa will “continue to invest in the fight against election interference, against foreign interference of our democracy and institutions.”

Trudeau also brought up alleged interference in interactions with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 in Bali, Indonesia, late last year. Xi later confronted Trudeau about how it was “not appropriate” that details of those conversations had been shared with news organizations.

Doing so is the norm in Canadian politics.

Late last year, Ottawa released its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, with Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly calling China an “increasingly disruptive global power” in a region where multiple countries are showing major economic growth.

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— with files from Global’s Marc-Andre Cossette and The Associated Press

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