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Chinese spy balloon went past ballistic missile fields and B-2 stealth bomber base, defense secretary says

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Chinese spy balloon flew a route that took it past ballistic missile fields and a B-2 stealth bomber base. But he said the Pentagon took steps to protect "strategic assets" — the U.S. nuclear force — from the balloon's surveillance.

"All of our strategic assets — we were, made sure that we were buttoned down and movement was limited and communications were limited so that we didn't expose any capability unnecessarily," Austin told CBS News, speaking publicly for the first time since the U.S. shot the balloon down Saturday over the Atlantic.

The U.S. Navy has now recovered most of the balloon and is getting ready to bring up the pieces of the cameras and antennas it was carrying, he said.

This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023.  U.S. Navy via AP

"We've mapped out the debris field and now we'll go through detailed efforts to recover the debris that's on the ocean floor," Austin said.

He said that this was not the first time a Chinese spy balloon has violated U.S. airspace. The most recent balloon flew over or near four military sites in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and Missouri after it first entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28. Previous balloons have flown over parts of Hawaii, Texas and Florida — three during the Trump administration and one at the beginning of the Biden administration.

Last week, a balloon was spotted over Costa Rica — as Chinese balloons have been violating air space all over the world, much of the time without anyone noticing.

The low tech of the balloon that flew over the U.S last week didn't stand a chance against the high tech of American jet fighters. 

Immediately after it was shot down, Austin tried to call his Chinese counterpart.

"I put in a request for a call, and they did not accept that request," he said.

China's balloon program is "designed to augment" its surveillance capabilities, Austin said. The balloons are easier to maneuver and can remain over an area longer than a satellite in orbit, a senior administration official said.

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