Opinion: The Chinese spy balloon is the latest chapter in the history of high-altitude espionage and surveillance

David Shribman is the former editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his reporting on US politics. He teaches at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

It entered Canadian territory, transited the United States, and then was destroyed over the Atlantic. Thousands let their eyes wander to the winter sky on its way from Montana to South Carolina. It prompted the US Secretary of State to cancel his diplomatic mission to China, prompted the President to fly fighter jets, gave conservative critics of Joe Biden a chance to accuse him of weakness, and ignited the search for ocean recovery, which was a staple of Project Mercury’s space capsule flights in the early 1960s.

The story of the flight of the Chinese balloon almost caused hysteria in political circles, if not on the ground, and in breathless cable news foreshadowed a frightening new frontier in international espionage. But the truth is, balloon surveillance dates back to the late 18th century, the United States fired on German balloons in World War I, and used balloons for surveillance in Afghanistan this century. China has been sending balloons into the air for years.

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In fact, the US and China shared almost a mirror image of the 2023 episode set in 1952, when in the chilliest days of the Cold War an American spy plane flying into Chinese airspace on a full moon evening was shot down and its two CIA agents were captured taken. Thus began a two-decade ordeal of imprisonment, torture, and meals like a dead sparrow boiled in water without being cleaned first.

Aerial surveillance has always been associated with risks. Though China has argued that its balloon, which is the size of three city buses, was studying atmospheric weather patterns rather than missile launch sites on America’s northern plains, US intelligence officials concluded this week that it was part of a massive surveillance program.

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Much of the CIA’s 1952 mission to China and its aftermath was conducted in Cold War secrecy, but the most famous episode of aerial surveillance occurred in 1960 and was publicly played out, much to the embarrassment of the Dwight Eisenhower administration.

It began with a U-2 overflight into Soviet airspace and ended with the cancellation of a summit meeting between Mr. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. When Francis Gary Powers was shot down near the city of Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains, the administration fabricated a story that the pilot strayed from his flight plan during a 4,700-kilometer flight at high altitude over the Soviet Union after being blacked out, when an oxygen supply system was not working.

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That cover story lasted until Mr. Khrushchev announced that Mr. Powers had not died, as American intelligence leaders expected, and that the Soviets had recovered the plane and determined it was not intended to measure meteorological phenomena. A mortified Mr. Eisenhower then admitted what had been evident for days.

In the current episode, American intelligence officials argued that the Chinese balloon posed no threat to the country and allowed it to transit the country to observe its functions. They said that at a time when satellite surveillance was commonplace and sophisticated, balloons could fly closer to the ground and therefore offered advantages over other surveillance techniques.

“They must have known that something this huge was going to be discovered,” said Iain Boyd, professor of aerospace engineering and director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, in an interview. “It was probably a provocative move, a counterpoint to American spying in China, showing they can create a stir thousands of miles from home. It seems like a political blow to the United States.”

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But the question remains why Chinese President Xi Jinping would launch a surveillance offensive just ahead of a key meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that would surely be spotted even by Montana ranchers and Kentucky farmhands. The balloon’s dispatch seemed out of character for a Chinese leader who, faced with internal challenges, has moderated its rapprochement with the West.

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The 1952 CIA mission over China had far greater intelligence potential – and posed a far greater threat.

“This story is important as part of the history of US intelligence because it explores the risks of operations (and the consequences of operational errors), the character traits necessary to endure adversity, and the potential damage to reputation through the persistence of false ones.” Stories about it reveals past events,” wrote a former CIA Assistant Historian, Nicholas Dujmovic, in an assessment commissioned by the agency.

Initially, the CIA denied that its two agents were Secret Service agents, instead arguing that they were on a routine cargo flight between Korea and Japan that had gone awry. Instead, they were part of a CIA effort to use US-trained Chinese agents to work with dissident generals to foment insurrection, if not counter-revolution, against China’s fledgling communist regime.

When the Americans’ engine died, their plane crashed in a grove. The pilots were killed but the CIA agents survived and were captured. “Your future is very dark,” a Chinese security official told Richard Fecteau, one of the CIA detainees.

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The fate of the two survivors – subjected to brutal interrogations, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and taunts that no one at home would ever know of their whereabouts – remained unknown for two years.

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The two were eventually released after Richard Nixon’s trip to China. Mr. Fecteau, now 96, lives in Lynn, Mass.

John Downey, the second CIA agent captured by China, was the longest-serving military prisoner in American history. Mr. Fecteau was released before Mr. Downey because the Chinese viewed him as a rookie in comparison to Mr. Downey, who was recruited into the CIA during his senior year at Yale and whom the Chinese considered “the arch-criminal of all Americans.” Spy looked at prisoners.” After his release, Mr. Downey became a Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court and died eight years ago.

While Mr. Fecteau and Mr. Downey were in Chinese custody, Albert Lamorisse produced a short film and illustrated book entitled The red balloonthe story of a lonely Parisian boy socializing in a red balloon – until the neighborhood’s older boys burst the balloon with rocks.

The contemporary episode featuring a Red Balloon – believed to be equipped with cameras and imaging technology whose continent-wide drift startled Americans – suffered the same fate last week, destroyed by a heat-seeking missile fired from an F-22 fighter jet. Mr. Lamorisse is known for this much-loved story – but also for inventing a board game. It’s called risk.


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