FBI on Chinese surveillance balloon recovery off S.C. coast: ‘Much of the evidence remains underwater’

Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 12:29 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 9, 2023 at 5:55 PM EST
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) – The process to recover all the evidence from the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down off the Myrtle Beach coast may take a long time, according to the FBI.

Senior FBI officials familiar with the operation gave an overview on Thursday of the recovery process and what has been collected so far.

TIMELINE | U.S. downs Chinese suspected spy balloon off coast of Grand Strand

Officials revealed that as early as Feb. 1, field elements with the FBI were in contact with United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM) due to the fact that the balloon was suspected to have an electronics payload.

The balloon was first spotted on Jan. 28 in U.S. airspace over Alaska and then made its way across the United States before it was shot down by an F-22 on Saturday afternoon over the Atlantic Ocean.

The mission now is to collect evidence and analyze it to determine the Chinese surveillance balloon’s intent.

The FBI said specialists arrived late Sunday and the first piece of evidence was received and transported to Quantico, Virginia, which arrived there on Monday.

Officials said they are dealing with a large-scale scene and a time-consuming recovery process.

“Much of the evidence remains underwater,” said one senior FBI official familiar with the operation. “We are coordinating with the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard in the collection of that evidence to include dive team experts that we have, as well as U.S. Navy divers. The time it takes to get on scene to identify the items of evidence underwater, to safely stabilize them, to transport them to the surface and the transport them back to the harbor for further evaluation and potential transportation to Quantico takes time.”


Senior officials said that it’s very early in the process and so far have only recovered pieces of evidence that were on the surface.

Those pieces include the balloon, some wiring and a very small amount of electronics.

“We have not seen the payload which is where we expect to see the lion share of the electronics,” the senior official stated.

The FBI added that it’s still too early to determine the intent of the balloon.

Senior officials also said that this weekend’s weather may also impact the search.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. House voted unanimously to condemn China’s balloon surveillance program, calling it a “brazen violation” of U.S. sovereignty.

China has insisted that the balloon was a civilian airship that was used for meteorological research and had gone off course due to winds and had limited “self-steering” capabilities.