Navy Divers Work to Recover Debris From Chinese Spy Balloon

WASHINGTON — Navy divers were working to locate portions of the debris from the Chinese spy balloon that a U.S. fighter jet shot down six miles off the coast of South Carolina, defense officials said on Sunday.

The recovery effort, which is expected to take days, began not long after debris from the balloon hit the water, a defense official said. He added that a Navy ship arrived on the scene soon after the balloon was shot down, and that other Navy and Coast Guard ships, which had been put on alert, were also sent to the scene.

The shooting down of the balloon capped a remarkable week of high-stakes international drama, played out over the skies of the continental United States. While China has insisted that the balloon was not for surveillance, but rather a weather balloon that drifted off course, the Biden administration has stood firm that the balloon’s purpose was a somewhat hapless effort by China to spy on American military installations.

On Saturday, President Biden said that he had told Pentagon officials to shoot down the balloon, and that they “said to me, let’s wait until the safest place to do it.”

Pentagon officials said they took steps — without offering specifics — to make sure that the balloon did not yield much fruit as it hovered near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and other installations. They also said China could glean the same amount of intelligence from a spy satellite.

Nonetheless, the incident turned into a full fledged diplomatic quarrel between the world’s two great powers, with Biden administration officials calling their Chinese counterparts and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken canceling what was to be the first trip to China by a Biden cabinet secretary.

Pentagon officials have made clear that they plan to collect every piece of debris that Navy divers can retrieve, for America’s own intelligence purposes. Because the balloon was shot down in relatively shallow water, they believe that the recovery effort will not be difficult.

Still, Navy divers will have to contend with cold water temperatures during the recovery effort. The defense official said that once all the debris is collected, the Pentagon will hand it over to be studied by various federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

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