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The U.S. has detected 4 other recent spy balloons. Why didn't we hear about them?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Given the commotion over the Chinese surveillance balloon, you'd think something like this has never happened before, but it has, at least four other times in recent years. So why didn't we hear about it? NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has been looking into that. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Greg, before we talk about these past episodes, bring us up to date on the recovery of the Chinese balloon that was shot down over the weekend. What's going on there?

MYRE: So several Navy and Coast Guard ships are still looking for the remnants of the balloon that was shot down with a missile on Saturday afternoon just off the coast of South Carolina. It's about 6 miles offshore, relatively shallow water, less than 50 feet deep. And the Navy is using unmanned subs in the cold Atlantic Ocean to look for this debris, particularly key equipment like sensors and other high-tech devices.

SUMMERS: And what does the U.S. national security community hope to learn here?

MYRE: Well, the U.S. says it's already learned quite a bit just by tracking the Chinese balloon for a week before it was shot down. Now, General Glen VanHerck - he's the NORAD commander, the guy in charge of air defenses for North America - he spoke about this this afternoon. And here's how he put it.

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GLEN VANHERCK: This gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed. And I think you'll see in the future that that time frame was well worth its value to collect.

SUMMERS: OK. So let's talk now about those previous incursions by Chinese balloons. What do we now know about that?

MYRE: It's happened four times in recent years, three times during the Trump administration, once during the Biden administration. General VanHerck acknowledged that the U.S. security community did not know about these incursions as they were taking place. It was only after the fact the U.S. intelligence community did some forensics and pieced together what had happened. Again, here's General VanHerck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VANHERCK: We did not detect those threats, and that's a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. The intel community after the fact made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.

MYRE: And, Juana, he didn't provide additional details on how the intelligence community pieced this together. But the incursions were believed to be brief, unlike this most recent one, which lasted for a week.

SUMMERS: OK. Lots of new information there. But, Greg, how likely is that to change or shape the political back and forth that we've been seeing and hearing?

MYRE: Well, I guess we can hope that it will inform the debate about how these episodes were handled in the past. These previous incursions, which happened during both of Trump and Biden administrations, were not known at the time. So just to state the obvious, this information did not make it up the military chain of command and let alone make it to the White House.

SUMMERS: Last question - does the U.S. now feel that it has a good understanding of the Chinese balloon program?

MYRE: Well, at the White House, John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the U.S. was aware in general terms of this Chinese balloon program when the Biden administration took office. But the one big unanswered question is, why did the Chinese do this in such an obvious way? Chinese espionage is very sophisticated, but this was very clumsy and clunky. The Chinese knew a large balloon would be detected. You know, perhaps one of the goals was to see how the U.S. would react to this kind of provocation. And I think we have an answer. It's created a partisan feud in this country, and it certainly increased friction between the U.S. and China.

SUMMERS: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.