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China's spy balloon is a teachable moment

As a former intelligence officer, I know that spying is an everyday occurrence. But Americans must learn to think more critically about threats.

China’s balloon flight over the United States was a brazen, foolish affront by Beijing. The U.S. Navy has just released new images of the ballon after it was shot down. But how much should Americans really worry about the incident? Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called it a national security “crisis.” Not to be outdone, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., declared it “a Sputnik moment.” Most colorfully, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., brought a white balloon to Tuesday’s State of the Union address. She warned that Beijing was able to “spy on multiple, multiple military bases with critical infrastructure.”

This rhetoric is pure hot air. Most likely, Beijing gained little useful intelligence from its aerial misadventure. It also embarrassed itself on the world stage — reinforcing China’s reputation for clumsy, intrusive surveillance and the flouting of international rules. But while Americans don’t have much to fear from the balloon, we should worry about our lost sense of proportion. Espionage is a fact of life, yet U.S. discourse often fails to distinguish severe incidents from banal ones. If this pattern continues, the next Chinese spying scandal — however trivial — may spark a true bilateral crisis.

As a former intelligence officer, I know that spying is an everyday occurrence. China and the United States both continuously target each other with high volumes of cyber operations, signals interception, satellite imaging, human agent recruitment, open-source data mining and beyond.

The two sides aren’t equivalent; Beijing is more reckless and abusive in its means and its ends. U.S. intelligence agencies, unlike their Chinese counterparts, don’t routinely repress minorities and dissidents or hand over foreign trade secrets to domestic companies. And Chinese spying over the years has done great harm to American security.

The balloon incident is a reminder that the severity of a threat doesn’t always match the public attention it receives. Take TikTok, for example.

But the balloon incident is a reminder that the severity of a threat doesn’t always match the public attention it receives. Take TikTok, for example. American politicians are worried that Beijing is exploiting this app to steal personal information. They often don’t realize that much of this same data can be readily purchased from unregulated data brokers. In fact, the U.S. military has already leveraged data brokers to track its own foreign targets. Likewise, China’s hacking of companies like Equifax, Marriott and Anthem has triggered growing alarm that Beijing can use Big Data caches to profile Americans. While this is a real concern, a surprising portion of Chinese human intelligence efforts actually rely on public sources, like LinkedIn, which the Trump administration’s top spy-hunter called China’s “ultimate playground for collection.”

Misperceptions of Chinese espionage are rooted in the secretive nature of spycraft. Because intelligence activities — whether foreign- or U.S.-directed — are usually hidden from view, incidents that do come to light can be hard for the public to interpret. And unfortunately, this knowledge vacuum creates opportunities for spin. U.S. politicians and commentators often hype Chinese threats beyond reason, while officials may sometimes offer false reassurance that everything is under control. Beijing, of course, always denies and deflects.

As the United States and China enter a long-term phase of intensifying competition, Americans must educate themselves about the realities of espionage. This means learning to think more critically about Chinese threats — neither soft-pedaling nor overestimating them. Four simple questions can help cut through the spin and shed light on this shadowy world.

First, ask for facts: What information does China actually obtain in its espionage efforts? There is often a gulf between what’s theoretically possible and what’s actually achieved. China’s balloon, for example, may well have been designed to take detailed photos and electronic readings of U.S. military bases. But in this case, advanced notice and real-time tracking apparently enabled U.S. forces to frustrate Chinese collection. Such “denial and deception” is an age-old counterintelligence craft, with options ranging from high-tech to no-tech.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, the NORAD commander, hinted at “non-kinetic effects,” which might include jamming the balloon’s collection or transmission equipment. U.S. bases on the ground may also have curbed or altered their normal electronic emissions as the balloon passed overhead. A cruder but potentially effective tactic would be simply to cover, or camouflage, the most sensitive U.S. military sites. In the best case, denial and deception could leave Beijing even more confused than before. The Pentagon claimed, quite credibly, that such mitigation activities “bought down a lot of risk.”

The second question is, How does any new Chinese intelligence add to what it already had? Spying operations can be game-changers when critical, exquisite data is obtained. More frequently, though, operatives add small details to a pre-existing picture. The gains can be incremental, and often, nonexistent.

Detailed lists of Malmstrom’s missile silos can be found on Wikipedia.

Consider the Chinese balloon’s transit close to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which alarmed many because the base houses intercontinental ballistic missiles. While this base is certainly sensitive, nothing large and visible from the air can be considered truly secret. Detailed lists of Malmstrom’s missile silos can be found on Wikipedia, including helpful links to up-to-date commercial satellite images. China, of course, has even better imagery of its own. Hence the Pentagon’s assessment that “we don’t think the technology on this balloon provided significant value-added over and above what [Beijing] already had.”

The third question is the most important: What could China actually do with its new intelligence? The purpose of intelligence, after all, is to inform decision-making. Any serious risk analysis should envision how Beijing might act on what it learns.

Ohio’s Rep. Mike Turner, from House Intelligence, described the balloon threat in the starkest possible terms: “I believe that they were trying to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapon systems and our missile defense systems.” This kind of statement demands serious qualification. America’s nuclear arsenal is far superior to China’s in quantity and quality; Beijing would not go to war on the belief that it could out-nuke the United States.

What China can do is threaten America with devastating nuclear attacks, despite its smaller arsenal. Like it or not, the United States and China are in a state of mutual nuclear vulnerability that will persist for the foreseeable future. While Chinese intelligence collection could perhaps improve Beijing’s nuclear efficiency, it won’t change the strategic balance or China’s basic nuclear calculus. Consider that the United States and Russia for decades allowed mutual overflights of nuclear infrastructure — at far lower altitudes than the Chinese balloon — as a confidence-building measure. Deterrence wasn’t jeopardized then, and hasn’t diminished now.

Finally, we must not forget to ask how China’s intelligence operations compare to those of the United States. The Biden administration called China’s balloon incursion “an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.” That’s absolutely right, but it may also confuse those who remember America flying U-2s (and even balloons) over communist countries during the Cold War. While satellites rendered these missions largely obsolete, Washington should make clear whether it has a hard-and-fast rule against all high-altitude incursions — and at what altitude this rule stops applying. The Chinese balloon violated U.S. and international law under any standard. But Washington has a bad habit of blurring the line between principled critiques of China and more selfish defenses of U.S. interests.

If Beijing is smart, Americans won’t see another Chinese balloon anytime soon. But the larger game of spy-versus-spy will only get more intense from here. Washington must take all prudent steps to win this intelligence contest. And that’s why it would be wise indeed to assess threats realistically, articulate principles clearly, and respond proportionally. Failure to do this may well lead to a destabilizing cycle of overreaction, causing more harm to U.S. interests than any Chinese balloon.

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