Defence Minister Anita Anand says it is still unclear what intelligence a Chinese spy balloon that sailed over North America was able to gather from Canada, but that the Canadian air force did not shoot it down because it didn’t appear to pose a threat.
These revelations came Friday as the United States downed a second flying object, near the Canadian border.
Ms. Anand, in Washington for meetings at the Pentagon, told reporters that Ottawa is not part of the U.S. investigation into the purposes and abilities of last week’s spy balloon, and has no insight into whether it hoovered up any Canadian information.
“The analysis of the balloon and contents, et cetera … is what the United States is undertaking on its own. We’re not part of that,” she said when asked if Canadian intelligence was compromised by the balloon. “That’s the analysis that they’re doing in terms of retrieval of the balloon.”
During Ms. Anand’s sit-down with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, a U.S. fighter jet shot down another object over American territorial waters, in the Beaufort Sea near the border between Alaska and Yukon. Ms. Anand said she and Mr. Austin took part in a call with NORAD commander General Glen VanHerck, during which she conveyed Canada’s support for downing the object.
Brigadier-General Patrick Ryder told a Pentagon briefing that NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canada air-defence system, first detected the aircraft via ground radar on Thursday. The second object was much smaller than the spy balloon – roughly the size of a small car, whereas the previous craft was about as large as two or three city buses.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House national-security council, said U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the craft shot down Friday because it was sitting at 12,000 metres, low enough to pose a threat to commercial aircraft. The spy balloon had been far higher, at more than 18,000 metres.
Neither Mr. Kirby nor Brig.-Gen. Ryder would say whether the second object was also a balloon or another kind of vessel. It was also not immediately clear where it had come from or who sent it.
“We don’t understand the full purpose. We don’t have any information,” said Mr. Kirby, who added that the military would “be able to recover” the wreckage from where it crashed into Arctic sea ice.
Earlier in the day, Ms. Anand recalled first learning about the spy balloon last week while on her way to an unrelated meeting in Ottawa. She said she spent several days receiving regular updates as the craft crossed North America. It was downed Saturday by the United States Air Force off the coast of South Carolina.
“I was on my way to urgent meetings in Ottawa when I was pulled into a room for further urgent meetings relating to the balloon,” she said. “That happened throughout last week, all Friday night, Saturday and Sunday.”
Both the U.S. and Canadian governments have been vague about when they first found the balloon. The aircraft appears to have crossed Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia and Idaho before civilians in Montana spotted it from the ground, which prompted the U.S. government to acknowledge its existence.
Asked Friday when NORAD detected the balloon, Ms. Anand said: “As soon as it reached territory, we were tracking it very, very closely.” She said the Canadian military didn’t take down the balloon because “it posed no imminent risk to Canadians at all.”
By the time the balloon was over Montana, the White House said shooting it down could have killed people on the ground, so Mr. Biden ordered the military to wait until it had crossed the continent and flown out to sea.
The U.S. military is in the process of recovering pieces of the craft from the ocean floor for analysis. So far, the U.S. has said the balloon was equipped with sensors for monitoring communications. In Montana, it was seen hovering near nuclear-missile silos.
The earliest indication NORAD was aware of the balloon was Tuesday, Jan. 31, when it was over the Canadian Rockies, one day before the U.S. publicized its presence.
Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa-based consultant who tracks aircraft and ships, said based on aircraft movement data, it appears Canada dispatched a CP-140 surveillance aircraft from Comox, B.C., to monitor the balloon that day. Flight-tracking data also suggest Canada intercepted the balloon with CF-18s on Jan. 31, assisted by a CC-150 Polaris refuelling tanker.
An Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Winnipeg encountered the balloon on Jan. 31 near the Canadian Rockies, according to Canada’s Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System. The flight reported “a large balloon about 4,000 feet above them with something hanging from it” at 11:06 a.m. Pacific Time. The sighting was passed on to NORAD.