(CNN) — US intelligence officials believe the recently recovered spy balloon is part of an extensive surveillance program run by the Chinese military, according to several US officials familiar with the intelligence.
The surveillance program, which includes several similar balloons, runs in part in the small Chinese province of Hainan, officials told CNN. The United States does not know the exact size of the Chinese surveillance balloon fleet, but sources tell CNN that the program has carried out at least two dozen missions on five continents in recent years.
About half a dozen of those flights were within US airspace, though not necessarily over US soil, according to an official familiar with the intelligence.
And not all of the balloons sighted around the world have been the exact same model as the one shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, that official and another source familiar with the intelligence said. Rather, there are multiple “variations,” these people said.
The link to the broader surveillance program, which was discovered before the last balloon was detected last week, was first reported by The Washington Post.
CNN has asked the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment on the suggestion that the balloon being shot down is part of a larger surveillance program.
Meanwhile, at a government laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, an elite team of FBI engineers is poring over the recovered balloon remains, trying to learn as much as they can about the intelligence it may have gathered and the best way to track balloons. surveillance in the future.
Sources familiar with the matter say officials want to understand as much as possible about the balloon’s technical capabilities, including what kind of data it could intercept and collect, which satellites it was linked to and whether it has any vulnerabilities the US could exploit.
And perhaps critically, the researchers will look at what digital signatures it emitted to see if they provide a better way for the US to track this type of balloon in the future. US Northern Command commander Gen. Glen VanHerck acknowledged to reporters Monday that the US had a “domain knowledge gap” that had allowed previous balloons to cross US airspace undetected.
A source familiar with the FBI operation said analysis and reconstruction of the balloon’s payload will ideally determine whether the aircraft was equipped with the ability to transmit the collected data in real time to the Chinese military or whether the device contained “stored collection ” which China would later analyze after the device was finally recovered.
China maintains that the device shot down by the US was a weather balloon that had drifted off course, but offered a rare expression of “regret” for it in a statement on Friday.
Beijing’s rhetoric hardened significantly after the US military shot down the balloon, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry accusing Washington of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice.” Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry expressed a “solemn protest” and warned that China “reserves the right to use the necessary means to deal with similar situations.”
Defense officials say the US got important clues to answer some of these questions as the balloon flew over the country.
The United States, using some technical capabilities provided by the National Security Agency, among other agencies, has already collected real-time information about what kinds of signals the balloon was emitting as it flew, according to a defense official.
“I think they will see in the future that that period of time was well worth it,” VanHerck said.
But officials want to be able to examine the balloon’s hardware to learn more about its specific capabilities.
“When the balloon is in our hands, we’ll be able to look at the technology, we’ll be able to rebuild the supply chain, find out who helped build it, what components were important to it,” said Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee. “Obviously you can notice its functions and specifications. There is a very high intelligence value in having it.”
The United States will also try to find out more about China’s intelligence-gathering priorities in the United States.
But how much the intelligence community will be able to learn about the information the balloon actually collected, or was trying to collect, is unclear at this point, several officials said, and will likely depend on how damaged the balloon’s substructure is from the shootdown and the fall into the ocean
The biggest unanswered question, officials say, remains China’s intent. Beijing goes on to argue that the vessel was a weather balloon that went off course and that its trajectory over the United States was an accident. Officials have acknowledged that this type of balloon has only limited steering capabilities and largely moved in the jet stream.
But several defense officials and other intelligence sources say the Chinese explanation is not credible and have described the balloon’s trajectory as intentional.
The source familiar with the FBI operation also noted that the intelligence community will be interested in whether the Chinese balloon equipment bears any technical resemblance to technology built by the intelligence community and the US military, as the The Chinese government has long been aggressive in stealing American defense secrets.
Elite team analyzes the remains
A specialized team from the FBI’s Operational Technology Division is analyzing the remains, this person told CNN.
This elite team is made up of agents, analysts, engineers and scientists, who are responsible for both creating technical surveillance measures and analyzing those of the United States’ adversaries.
Technology development staff, for example, build surveillance devices used by FBI and intelligence community personnel that target national security threats, but are also responsible for managing authorized data collection by courts and work to defeat the efforts of foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate the United States.
Full analysis of the remains will take an undetermined amount of time, the source said, as recovery efforts are still underway.
Meanwhile, defense officials insist the US learned more about the balloon’s capabilities by allowing it to pass over their territory than if they had shot it down immediately, a move some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized as threatening to counterintelligence.
But, according to a member of the House Intelligence Committee, “There are a number of reasons why we wouldn’t do that. We want to have it, you want to see where it’s going and what it’s doing.
“We are not defenseless,” this person added. “After all, this is a balloon. It’s not a stealth bomber.”
A defense official said the US has procedures, similar to a kind of digital blackout, to protect sensitive locations from aerial surveillance, which is typically used for satellite flyovers.
CNN’s Nectar Gan and Simone McCarthy contributed to this report.