June 12, 2024

Of course, there is nothing new about superpowers spying on one another, even from balloons. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized surveillance of the Soviet Union by lofting cameras on balloons in the mid-1950s, flying them “over Soviet bloc countries under the guise of meteorological research,” according to an article published by the National Archives in 2009. It “yielded more protests from the Kremlin than it did useful intelligence,” the author, David Haight, an archivist at the Eisenhower Library, reported.

With the advent of the first spy satellites, the balloons appeared to become obsolete.

Now they are making a comeback, because while spy satellites can see almost everything, balloons equipped with high-tech sensors hover over a site far longer and can pick up radio, cellular and other transmissions that cannot be detected from space. That is why the Montana sighting of the balloon was critical; in recent years, the National Security Agency and United States Strategic Command, which oversees the American nuclear arsenal, have been remaking communications with nuclear weapons sites. That would be one, but only one, of the natural targets for China’s Ministry of State Security, which oversees many of its national security hacks.

The N.S.A. also targets China, of course. From the revelations of Edward Snowden, the former contractor who revealed many of the agency’s operations a decade ago, the world learned that the United States broke into the networks of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications firm, and also tracked the movements of Chinese leaders and soldiers responsible for moving Chinese nuclear weapons. That is only a small sliver of American surveillance in China.

Such activities add to China’s argument that everyone does it. Because they are largely hidden — save for the occasional revelation of a big hack — they have rarely become wrapped in national politics. That is changing.

The balloon incident came at a moment when Democrats and Republicans are competing to demonstrate who can be stronger on China. And that showed: The new chairman of the House intelligence committee, Representative Michael R. Turner, an Ohio Republican, echoed the many Republicans who argued the balloon needed to come down sooner.

He called the shoot-down “sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over. The satellite had completed its mission. It should never have been allowed to enter the United States, and it never should have been allowed to complete its mission.”

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