09 February 2023

State Department Press Briefing—Substantial Content on PRC Spy Balloon


Press Briefings

Department Press Briefing – February 9, 2023



FEBRUARY 9, 2023

1:49 p.m. EST

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QUESTION: Can I ask about the balloon?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: The – the spy balloon?

… …

MR PRICE: Let me – let me move around. I need to move to others. Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible), Epoch Times. You shared some information about the balloon, the Chinese balloon. Now that we know the balloon carried surveillance equipment and China wasn’t truthful about it, is the State Department considering countermeasures like sanctions against the Chinese Government?

MR PRICE: So let me say a couple things about this. You heard from the Secretary yesterday, you’ve heard from the President and others our deeply held view on this, and a view that the rest of the world has been in a position to see. China acted irresponsibly by violating our sovereignty. This was a profoundly irresponsible act in response to which we acted responsibly and prudently to protect our interests. This is not something that only the American people have been able to see in recent days. China’s irresponsible actions were visible to us but also to the world, and China as a result has a lot to answer for. They are presumably getting questions from countries all over the world about the nature of this program, about previous violations of sovereignty of some 40 countries across five continents, as we said earlier today.

Now, we are always going to protect our interests. We did so in the tactical case of this balloon. We also said today in the release that you mentioned that we’re exploring taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace. We’ll look at continuing these broader efforts to expose and to address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security and that to our allies and partners as well.

You’ve heard us speak in recent days of our efforts to engage allies and partners. We have engaged them via the State Department here in Washington, D.C. We’ve engaged them via our embassies around the world. This is a program that not only threatened and violated our sovereignty but the sovereignty of dozens of countries, so we think it’s important to share what it is that we know, to hear questions and to answer questions from allies and partners around the world, and to approach this challenge as we have many other challenges we face from the PRC with allies and partners by our side.


QUESTION: Thank you – yeah.

QUESTION: No, can we stay on the balloon?


QUESTION: So since you just said it, 40 countries, 5 continents. What other countries?

MR PRICE: Matt, we released a number today, but we did not release the countries.

QUESTION: I know. Why I’m asking you – that’s why I’m asking.

MR PRICE: Oh. Got it.

QUESTION: Which other countries —

MR PRICE: I am not in a position to release the countries. Of course, these countries are free to speak to what has happened to them should they choose to do so.

QUESTION: Do they know?

MR PRICE: We are having conversations with countries that we are not having with you, sorry to say, and it’s up to these countries to —

QUESTION: That’s fine. How do you know these other – I mean, obviously, the U.S. airspace was breached. We all saw it. We saw it come down. But how do you know that 39 other countries were affected by similar incursions?

MR PRICE: So we have a variety of means at our disposal, Matt. Some of them are available to you. You presumably have seen videos, pictures of these types of systems overflying other countries as well. There has been public reporting on countries that have said —

QUESTION: Not on the 40.

MR PRICE: There has been public reporting of other countries that have said that they —

QUESTION: How do you know, and were these incursions over these other 39 countries also violations of sovereignty?

MR PRICE: Matt, when a surveillance balloon goes into your airspace with the express point of collecting intelligence on countries around the world, that would strike us to be a violation of sovereignty. We will let other countries speak to what has happened to them. We – what we think is important is for the American public and people around the world to at least have a broad sense of what this was.

This to us was very clearly a violation of our sovereignty, but this program did not only target the United States. And so just as we have confronted virtually every other challenge we face from the PRC with allies and partners by our side, part of what we are doing in the engagement with our allies and partners, both here in D.C. and embassies around the world, is to make sure that a broad array of countries understand this threat and are in a position to protect against it.

QUESTION: Okay. But did these other – did any of these other 39 countries come to you and say, “Hey, oh, the same thing has happened to us”?

MR PRICE: I’m just not going to go into our private diplomatic —

QUESTION: Okay. Then that suggests that, in fact, you guys are conducting exactly the same kind of surveillance over these countries that you’re accusing the Chinese of doing over yours.

MR PRICE: Matt, that is —

QUESTION: How do you know?

MR PRICE: Matt, that is a —

QUESTION: How do you know that a balloon was flying over Botswana, to give an example?

MR PRICE: We did not name any countries, Matt, and —

QUESTION: I know you didn’t. I’m just using that as an – fine, I’ll use a fictional example. The one I was going to use was Atlantis, but it’s under water, so that’s a bad one. But how do you know?

MR PRICE: How do we know – we have had conversations with countries —

QUESTION: Because those countries have come to you and said, “Hey, look, we had the same thing happen to us”?

MR PRICE: We have – we – I will state broadly that we have a range of means at our disposal. What we released today was based on information available to us via a range of means. Some of that is going to be diplomatic correspondence. Some of that is going to be open-source reporting, the likes of which you’ve seen that you may be playing ignorant to now.

QUESTION: No, no, I – Ned, I don’t —

MR PRICE: Some of it will be means that I just can’t get into from here, and I hope you understand that.

QUESTION: But I haven’t seen any open-source reporting on anything other than, like, Colombia and possibly in the Caribbean and Japan.

MR PRICE: Well, you’re —

QUESTION: And that’s it. And that’s not 40. That’s like four. And if you guys are so sure that 40 other – or 39 other countries were breached, I just – how? How do you know for sure?

MR PRICE: Matt, this goes back to a conversation you and I have had many times. We are attempting to be as transparent as we can possibly be to do everything we can to sensitize the rest of the world to this challenge, a challenge that countries in private – some countries in private – have recognized for some time, because they’ve been subjected to it.

Now, what it is also true that I just can’t go into the full set of details. We aren’t going to be in a position to reveal sources and methods. We aren’t going to be in a position that would weaken our defenses against a program like this or any other type of surveillance program that the PRC or any other competitor might have aimed at us or our partners and allies around the world.

QUESTION: Can you say, in the spirit of transparency, this five continents and 40 countries – how long has this been going on?

MR PRICE: Over the course of several years.

QUESTION: Several.

QUESTION: Are they —

QUESTION: And – just one second, Alex. And if it wasn’t for this incident, were you guys going to let those countries know?

MR PRICE: Humeyra, we have conversation with our partners and allies in private about a range of challenges, threats, and opportunities that we face. I can tell you, without going into detail, that we have pretty in-depth conversations – we have had pretty in-depth conversations with our allies and partners around the world about the challenges that China presents. There are a number of challenges. One of those challenges is espionage, surveillance, the type of activity that we’ve been talking for the past few days. Those are the types of conversations that we’ve long had with allies and partners.

QUESTION: So you have let them know for a while – a while ago about the program of Chinese surveillance balloons?

MR PRICE: I’m not going to go into discussions that often do take place in intelligence channels. I will just make the broad point that we think it is important to share as much as we can with our partners and allies around the world about these types of activities, because, again, we are not the only country that’s been subjected to them.

QUESTION: You have to stay on —

MR PRICE: I need to —

QUESTION: One more.

MR PRICE: On the balloon? Go ahead, Janne.

QUESTION: Can you —

MR PRICE: Alex, I need to move on.

QUESTION: State Department has said that there were ongoing talks with South Korea regarding balloon.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Thank you.

QUESTION: I talked balloon already. (Laughter.) And what is the result? Is South Korea is included in this incident?

MR PRICE: Just as we haven’t publicized the list of countries that have been subjected to this by this particular program, we’re also not detailing which countries we’ve engaged with. But I’ll tell you it’s been dozens of countries around the world, across multiple continents.

QUESTION: And the balloon, Latin America.

QUESTION: And one more.

MR PRICE: Go ahead.

QUESTION: You mentioned Colombia and Costa Rica was spotted. Is any concerns, beyond the fact that you are communicated – is any concerns that the region is being targeted? We know that China has a lot of influence within Nicaragua, within Venezuela, as well as some other countries. Have you had that conversation with those countries? We know the president of Colombia said that it wasn’t against their sovereign space. He was not concerned, publicly at least. Is any concerns by the State Department? Is any possibility of engaging with them in terms of like trying to figure that out?

MR PRICE: We have broad concerns about this program. We know this is a program that has spanned, again, five continents. We’re not going to detail those countries that we’ve engaged, but we have issued broad invitations to have discussions with us. We have had a number of large group discussions with other representatives of other countries, and our embassies are engaging allies and partners around the world with information.


QUESTION: I’m sure you’re aware of the —

QUESTION: In the initial phase as you told us that these balloons, surveillance balloons, are not of much interest, value because the information they can get other satellites as well. That was initial assessment. Now, it looks like you – these balloons have much more intelligence value. They collect much more than what you initially felt was. Is that correct?

MR PRICE: So I’ll make a couple points. One, we were able to minimize the intelligence collection value of this particular system because we identified it early on, and we took prudent steps, including steps on the ground, that would minimize its ability provide valuable intelligence back to the PRC.

Not every country is going to be in a position to do that, so we want to provide countries with information that they may need to help defend themselves against this type of program, similar types of programs going forward.

QUESTION: The conversation that you are having with other 39 countries, are – were they having the same kind of balloons or they were different kind of intelligence gathering?

MR PRICE: This – we – you saw the information that we released today. This is a program that has spanned five continents, 40 countries, and this is a program that has deployed these types of assets around the globe in that regard.

QUESTION: Two quick questions: one, are you trying to create a coalition of these 39, 40 countries on balloon itself; and secondly, Chinese are denying it, right? They’re saying they don’t have any such program, right?

MR PRICE: Well, I think the fact is that they have a lot of explaining to do. They have a lot of questions from countries around the world. It’s not surprising to hear them issue these types of denials. They’re in a very difficult spot, but they’re in a difficult spot because they placed themselves there. They decided to take this action against the United States. They’ve decided to leverage this program against dozens of countries around the world.

I wouldn’t say that we are seeking to organize a formal coalition of countries that have been subjected to this specific program. What I would say is we have, as part of our diplomatic blocking and tackling since really day one of this administration, sought to have a convergence of views regarding the challenges presented by the PRC. There are a number of countries with whom we consult very closely about these challenges. We work very closely, coordinate our approach so that it’s most effective. We do that with Europe; we do that with countries in the Indo-Pacific; we do that with countries in the Western Hemisphere; and we do that with countries in Africa, among other places.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Have you been made aware —

QUESTION: Can I just —

MR PRICE: Let me –

QUESTION: Can we change topics?

MR PRICE: Well, I’ll take one more on this.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) How do you define those 40 countries? What brings them together, in your opinion? I mean, are they politically different —

MR PRICE: Alex, I’m just – I’m not going to further characterize these countries.


QUESTION: I have just one question about the balloon. Are you guys off that?


QUESTION: Okay. Sorry. So one of the primary questions on the Hill today has been why the administration didn’t shoot it down either while it was over the Alaskan islands, which are not very populated densely, or why it wasn’t shot down before it came into Alaskan airspace. Do you have an answer for that right now for us?

MR PRICE: You heard that from briefers who were on the Hill today. What you heard from our briefers is that when it entered North American airspace we were tracking it very closely. NORAD had custody of it. It was scrutinizing it and watching it very closely. NORAD, our military officials did not assess it to be a military threat. At the same time, just as it wasn’t deemed to be a military threat, there was value to us in tracking and assessing the activities of the balloon so that we could, in a sense, flip the script, so that we could learn more about this capability, even as the PRC has deployed it in our airspace in an effort to learn more about us.

As I said to one of your colleague’s questions a moment ago, just as we took these steps to train our own assets on this system, we also took steps on the ground and otherwise to minimize any intelligence collection value that the PRC would be in a position to collect from this system.

Finally, you know and you heard from DOD that there was a concern, of course, even if the possibility would have remote, of damage, destruction to property on the ground or, worse, injury or potential fatalities on the ground as a result of a military operation over the United States. The President, when he was briefed on this, immediately instructed his teams to develop options and to bring it down when it was safe and responsible to do so. And that’s what happened last weekend.

QUESTION: So you – so just to be clear – so it was the Biden administration’s assessment that it was of a higher U.S. intelligence value to allow it to go over the U.S. and then take it down versus the capabilities you would have been able to collect if you took it down before?

MR PRICE: With all of our actions, Kylie, we look at it through a cost-benefit lens. There would have been costs, potentially very high costs, to taking this system down over the United States. The U.S. military has spoken to the possibility of destruction, injuries, potentially even deaths. Of course, that is not something that we would seek to invite.

There was also a benefit, yes, in terms of watching this system, as we minimized its ability to collect against the United States. The military devised a plan at the direction of the President to bring it down at the first moment where it was safe to do so, and that’s precisely what happened.

Said, sure.

… … …

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. A quick follow-up on the Chinese entities that are linked to PLA, which were involved in this balloon program. You said you’re considering taking action against these entities. When should we expect to receive some information about that? And a broader sanction against the regime is off the table – my understanding – is that correct?

MR PRICE: I’m just not going to go further into that than the information we released earlier this morning. We’re always going to take action to protect our people, to protect our interests, to guard against what is a challenge to those. And if it’s appropriate for us to respond, whether it’s against PLA related entities, or to continue the type of declassifications and public releases that we’ve been doing, that’s something we won’t hesitate to do.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. So on the balloon, can you at least say if any EU country was concerned? And more broadly, do you know what the general or specific purpose of this global campaign of balloons is? And I mean, is there, like, a specific goal? Do you know that?

And separately, on different topic, the Belarussian regime has sentenced Polish journalist and community activist Andrzej Poczobut for eight years in prison two days ago after another sham trial. Do you have a reaction to that, and any action that you might consider taking?

MR PRICE: On your last question, I’m not immediately familiar with it but we’ll get back to you if we have any reaction to that. On your first question, these are really questions for the PRC. This was a PRC program. What they intended to garner from it, beyond the obvious, is better directed towards them. And again, to reiterate, I’m just not going to specify countries.


QUESTION: Thank you. So quick follow-up on the balloon issue. When do you think China started surveillance activities on more than 40 countries? And also, when did the U.S. find these activities across five continents? Was it just after U.S. detected the recent balloon?

MR PRICE: So as we said this morning, these were – this activity was undertaken in recent years, across five continents, 40 countries who had their sovereignty violated. We have spoken in some detail to previous instances of balloons in our airspace. I’ll let other countries speak to balloons that may have traversed their airspace. But what I can say broadly is President Biden ordered the – his team to do all we can to step up our capabilities to be sensitive to threats like Chinese espionage, Chinese surveillance, Chinese spying.

As a result of that, in the aftermath of that, we’ve been able to piece together elements that we, in some cases, didn’t previously know. We are going to continue to do everything we can to protect our interests, to protect our people against a challenge like this, but any other challenge we could face from the PRC or any other competitor.


QUESTION: Yeah, President Biden said in an interview yesterday – he was asked if the balloon incident represented a big hit to relations with China, and he said no. Do you share that assessment? Is the postponement of the Secretary’s trip and the verbal back and forth that’s happened since between the two sides, is that not a big hit to relations?

MR PRICE: I do share that assessment, unsurprisingly, because, Dylan, we’ve been under no illusions about the challenges that the PRC presents. We’ve always known this is a relationship that is competitive at its core, that has conflictual areas that – potentially conflictual areas that we’re determined to see don’t veer into actual conflict, but also areas in which we need to – we must in some ways – work together if we’re going to address challenges, threats to the American people and to people around the world. So of course we didn’t wake up recognizing anything about the PRC or the challenges we face from the PRC that we didn’t know prior to last week.

Now, this has crystallized that in the minds of many Americans. It may be the first time that many Americans have seen such a vivid demonstration. But we’ve always been attuned to these challenges and, more than that, attuned to the need to manage this relationship responsibly.

Go ahead, in the back.

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QUESTION: Thank you. So I have a question for the Chinese balloon. So you said the Chinese balloon was flying, like, all over the world, and then you said they got 40 countries and four continents. So what’s the ratio? Is it the 40 country is mostly, like, Asian country, or do you have, like, any, like, sense for this one?

MR PRICE: I’m – again, I’m just not going to go into the countries specifically. What we made public this morning is that this is a program that has violated the sovereignty of 40 countries across five continents, and I’ll leave it there.

Thank you all very much. Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:04 p.m.)