Daily Montanan: Tester: Investigate China’s ‘brazen’ use of U.S. technology in spy balloon

by Keila Szpaller

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wants to know why the Chinese balloon that flew over Montana earlier this year was using American technology to spy on U.S. citizens — an act he described as “brazen.”

In a letter this week, the Montana Democrat asked the Biden administration to investigate how China acquired the technology and to “bolster our export controls” so the Chinese Communist Party can’t use American technology in its spy program again.

“This is a clear demonstration that our current defense and technology export controls may not be adequately preventing or dissuading adversaries from using our own technology against us,” Tester said in the July 12 letter.

Tester, chair of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, has been leading the bipartisan investigation into the spy balloon.

Thursday, his office announced he is proposing an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to investigate the types of technology used in foreign espionage programs. 

In February, the Department of Defense acknowledged it was monitoring a Chinese spy balloon after a couple of Montana photojournalists captured images of a “suspicious” circle over Billings. 

The U.S. military shot down the balloon off the South Carolina coast after it had crossed the continent and then collected debris for studying.

A New York Times timeline said it drifted over the U.S. for seven days.

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported an analysis of the material showed the balloon was full of gear, including material from the U.S. and pieces available for sale online. The report said the FBI and defense and intelligence agencies had conducted the analyses.

The story said the mashup of gear allowed information collection and supported the conclusion the balloon was for espionage. 

China had said the balloon was used mainly for weather research.

However, U.S. officials said the balloon didn’t appear to have transmitted information back to China, according to the Wall Street Journal story.

In addition to an investigation, the amendment from Tester also calls for a report to Congress on findings and updates to export control regulations as necessary.

“Montanans want answers and the assurance this won’t happen again, and this provision is a step in the right direction,” Tester said in a statement.

The National Defense Authorization Act is a “must-pass defense bill,” and Tester’s office believes the Senate may take up the amendment as soon as within the next couple of weeks. 

Thursday was the deadline to file proposed amendments for the bill.

In February, Tester chaired a hearing where senators grilled Defense officials about the reason they had let the balloon fly over the U.S. for so long and its purpose and capabilities. They heard few answers in the public forum.

Tester’s letter this week said the reports indicating the balloon relied on American-made technology were “extremely troubling,” and he called for a “swift review.” He addressed the letter to U.S. secretaries of the departments of Defense, Treasury and Commerce.

The senior senator from Montana thanked the Department of Commerce for restricting several Chinese entities with military ties from obtaining American technologies, but he requested additional measures.

“I expect this Administration, and the individual departments you oversee, to take whatever necessary action is required to bolster our export controls so that this doesn’t happen again,” Tester said.

“If you determine that additional authorities are necessary from Congress, I stand ready to help you bolster our national security tools.”