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Spy Historian Debunks Chinese Spy Balloon Theories

Dr. Andrew Hammond, Historian & Curator at the International Spy Museum, breaks down some common misconceptions about the Chinese 'spy' balloon that was shot down in the United States. Did the U.S. shoot down the balloon too late? Was this a dry run for a military attack? Was this the first time this has happened? Could the spy balloon see into our homes? For more info about the world of espionage, check out the International Spy Museum: Director: Lisandro Perez-Rey Director of Photography: Eric Bugash Editor: Anna O'Donohue Expert: Andrew Hammond Producer: Anna O’Donohue Line Producer: Joseph Buscemi Associate Producer: Samantha Vélez Production Manager: Eric Martinez Production Coordinator: Fernando Davila Camera Operator: Mike Audick Audio: Elijah Sutton Production Assistant: Will Hoffinger Post Production Supervisor: Alexa Deutsch Post Production Coordinator: Ian Bryant Supervising Editor: Doug Larsen Assistant Editor: Billy Ward

Released on 03/10/2023


This balloon, its payload is around 2000 pounds.

It has 16 solar panels. [chuckles]

A weather balloon gets the temperature, the air pressure,

the wind speed, and so forth.

Why would you need 16 solar panels?

Said to be three buses across, very, very large,

much bigger than a weather balloon.

My name is Dr. Andrew Hammond,

and I'm going to debunk

some spy balloon theories for Wire.

[upbeat percussion music]

In the world of intelligence espionage, [laughs]

almost anything is possible,

but it's highly unlikely that this was a weather balloon.

It's quite interesting, the flight path that this took.

It left from the island of Hainan, in the south of China,

it drifted across the country,

it goes over important air force bases

in Montana and Nebraska, Missouri,

until it got to South Carolina, and it was shot down.

[Bystander] Got it. He got it!

[Bystander] He got it.

[Bystander] He just shot it.

It could be a coincidence

that it went over an important base

that has intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In intelligence and espionage,

sometimes there's coincidences,

quite often there's not.

[upbeat percussion music]

One of the other explanations out there,

is that this is a practice run for a future military attack.

Attaching a bomb to a balloon,

that's not a particularly effective means

to wage modern warfare.

You've got planes.

You've got missiles that can be fired

from one continent to another.

Why put it on a balloon that's very slow moving?

Doesn't make any sense.

Often when you want to attack somebody,

you probe their defenses.

You can even think about this,

if you watch two boxers, they're probing each other.

Where are they weak?

There's an entity called NORAD, N-O-R-A-D.

This is the defense of the environment around North America.

If you're thinking about this as an outsider,

what a great way to test NORAD,

to see how effective they are, to see what they pick up on.

[upbeat percussion music]

I think the amount of mental gymnastics

that you'd have to do

to make this a UFO-based explanation, would be incredible.

Let's just go with the simple one.

The Chinese said it's theirs.

It's a Chinese balloon, came over the United States,

it was shot down.

Look for the simplest possible explanation.

[upbeat percussion music]

It was a common misconception that balloons

have never been used for intelligence purposes before.

Balloons starts off 1794, the Battle of Fleurus

in the French Revolutionary Wars.

Fast forward, the Civil War.

Lincoln's worried that Washington could be captured,

with a potentially devastating effect

on morale in the North.

They're used to try to make sure

that Washington is not captured, that it's not surprised.

Were also used in the Second World War

as an obstacle over London,

to try to disrupt German bombers during the Blitz,

the Cold War, there's various balloon programs.

The United States, for example, had a program,

Project Moby Dick, 1956, to send balloons

up over the Soviet Union

to try to get a picture of what they were up to.

[upbeat percussion music]

Can they see inside your house? They probably could.

I guess the question is, why would they want to?

They might be interested in

what the vice president's up to,

they're not going to be interested

in what the average person is up to.

You can get incredible resolution.

I say this as someone that used to be

in the Royal Air Force, and who used to spend time

looking at aerial reconnaissance images.

I've heard that the resolution,

it can capture up to 10 centimeters

from that height of 60,000 feet.

[camera clicking]

That's probably what military nation state satellites

can capture.

Other things we can think about, is what can it hear?

What kind of communications are being sent

that the balloon can pick up?

Human language, or encrypted human language?

Another one that's often overlooked,

is what we call measurements and signature intelligence.

What can you smell? What can you detect in the atmosphere?

Gases, vapors, particles, dust.

1949, the Soviet Union detonates the nuclear weapon.

[Reporter] The stunning news Russia has the atom bomb,

and has exploded it.

They've used information intelligence

from people that they had inside the Manhattan Project,

built their own bomb, and they detonate it.

How did the United States find out about it?

It was the detection of nuclear particles in the air.

That's how they knew the Soviets had the bomb.

This is quite common

in the history of intelligence and espionage.

You wait, you watch, who are they speaking to,

who are their contacts?

Is this a spy ring, or is it just one person?

This is something that investigators, intelligence analysts,

mole hunters, do all the time.

The more you let it go on,

the more you can see the tentacles of the espionage.

It's something that happens every day

in international politics, as part of the world around us.

Maybe you don't see it,

but it's taking place almost everywhere.

[upbeat percussion music]

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