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The U.S. has downed a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina

The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, S.C., on Saturday.
Randall Hill
/
Reuters
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, S.C., on Saturday.

Updated February 4, 2023 at 9:13 PM ET

The U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, the Pentagon said, while China called the downing an overreaction.

"On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon's path," U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

Austin said military commanders "had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload."

Speaking on Saturday, President Biden told reporters he gave the order on Wednesday. U.S. officials "said to me, 'Let's wait 'til the safest place to do it,' " he said. "They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," Biden added.

The downing came shortly after the Federal Aviation Administration said it had "paused departures from and arrivals to" three East Coast airports — in Wilmington, N.C., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Charleston, S.C. — "to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort." Flights through these airports resumed shortly after 3 p.m.

China responds with "dissatisfaction and protest"

U.S. and Chinese officials have given conflicting information on the balloon's purpose.

The Chinese government said the balloon is strictly used for meteorological research and accidentally went adrift into U.S. airspace. China's foreign ministry on Saturday expressed "strong dissatisfaction and protest" over what it called the U.S.'s "use of force to attack a civilian unmanned airship." It called the shooting down an "obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."

The Pentagon has said the balloon was being used for surveillance. Its presence already led Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to postpone a historic trip to Beijing, as tensions continue to rise between the two countries over national security.

U.S. officials earlier this week decided against shooting down the balloon after the Biden administration said it did not pose a national security threat. The Pentagon shared reports on Friday of a second balloon, belonging to China, that could be seen floating over Latin America. Colombia's Air Force said on Saturday that an object with characteristics of a balloon had traveled through its airspace on Friday.

The balloon traveling through the U.S. quickly became an internet celebrity as meteorologists, storm chasers and others shared sightings on social media as it continued on its path across the U.S.

Others criticized the Biden administration for not taking quicker actions to stop it.

"The China balloon flying over the U.S. is a direct assault on our national sovereignty," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted on Friday. "Biden's refusal to stop it is a dereliction of duty. From flying balloons to open borders, Biden has no regard for our national security and sovereignty."

After its downing on Saturday, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said it "should have been shot down before it crossed the continental United States, not after. We still don't know what information was collected and where it was sent," he said. "This was a dereliction of Biden's duty, and let's hope the American people don't pay a price."

Austin praised Biden's decision to shoot down the balloon. The Canadian government assisted in the "tracking and analysis of the balloon," according to Austin.

"Today's deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC's unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," he said in the statement.

On Saturday, people shared sightings of the balloon on social media.

Earlier, in South Carolina, the York County Sheriff's Office tweeted that the balloon was more than 60,000 feet in the air and urged people not to take matters into their own hands.

"Don't try to shoot it!!" the office tweeted. "Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it. Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Giulia Heyward
Giulia Heyward is a weekend reporter for Digital News, based out of New York. She previously covered education and other national news as a reporting fellow at The New York Times and as the national education reporter at Capital B News. She interned for POLITICO, where she covered criminal justice reform in Florida, and CNN, as a writer for the trends & culture team. Her work has also been published in The Atlantic, HuffPost and The New Republic.
Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.