OTTAWA — The Department of National Defence says Canada is working with the United States to protect sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats after a high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected.
The U.S. says it is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a few days.
The Pentagon says it decided not to shoot it down over concerns of hurting people on the ground.
The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces issued a joint statement Thursday night that says the balloon's movements were being actively tracked by the North American Aerospace Defence Command.
The statement doesn't mention China or state whether the surveillance balloon flew over Canadian airspace.
It says Canadians are safe and that Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.
"NORAD, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and other partners have been assessing the situation and working in close coordination," says the statement.
"Canada’s intelligence agencies are working with American partners and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats."
A senior U.S. defence official said the U.S. has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon, and said it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, provided a brief statement, saying the government continues to track the balloon. He said it is “currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the U.S. took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.
A senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information, said President Joe Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of risks to the safety of people on the ground. Biden accepted that recommendation.
The defence official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
The senior defence official said the U.S. did get fighter jets, including F-22s, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered to by the White House. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.
It was not clear what the military was doing to prevent it from collecting sensitive information or what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t shot down.
China said Friday it was looking into the reports, and urged calm.
"China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention to violate the territory and airspace of any sovereign countries," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning at a daily briefing.
"As for the balloon, as I've mentioned just now, we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully."
Mao said that politicians and the public should withhold judgment "before we have a clear understanding of the facts."
The surveillance balloon was first reported by NBC News.
Some Montana residents reported seeing an unusual object in the sky around the time of the airport shutdown Wednesday, but it’s not clear that what they were seeing was the balloon.
From an office window in Billings, Chase Doak said he saw a “big white circle in the sky” that he said was too small to be the moon.
He took some photos, then ran home to get a camera with a stronger lens and took more photos and video. He could see it for about 45 minutes and it appeared stationary, but Doak said the video suggested it was slowly moving.
“I thought maybe it was a legitimate UFO,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure I documented it and took as many photos as I could."
-- With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.
The Canadian Press