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The U.S. shot down a car-size object above Alaska's coast

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The American public could barely get over dramatic news of an alleged Chinese spy balloon floating over the U.S. before the U.S. military spotted a second so-called high-altitude object. This time, the military took it down as it was floating over Alaska to avoid danger to commercial flights. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin joins us now. Jenna, thanks so much for being with us.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How did we learn about the second flying object?

MCLAUGHLIN: So we learned about the second object from National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. He didn't have a whole lot to share, but what we do know is that this object was flying lower than the earlier balloon, around 40,000 feet as opposed to 65,000. The military first became aware of it on Thursday night. The Pentagon also addressed the object in their afternoon briefing yesterday. Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder didn't have a whole lot to add, but he did share that it was an F-22 fighter aircraft that shot the object down just off the northeastern coast of Alaska, near the Canadian border. And the debris fell to the frozen Arctic Ocean.

SIMON: Does the military so far seem to think this was another spy balloon?

MCLAUGHLIN: So far, it doesn't sound like it. It's not totally clear. According to the Pentagon, it's a much smaller object, about the size of a small car rather than the previous balloon, which was as big as three buses. The fighter jets did a couple of passes around it and believed it to be unmanned. They also thought it probably couldn't be remotely piloted. It seemed to move with the wind. The main reason that the president ordered it to be shot down is because of where it was flying. Because it was that low, it posed what DOD said was a reasonable threat to civilian air traffic.

SIMON: The object's been shut down. What does the Pentagon do now?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, they've got their hands full, recovering both objects. As for this latest one, the debris field is apparently smaller, and the Arctic Ocean is frozen. Northern Command, the FBI and regional partners in Alaska are working on that. As for the alleged spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this week, that recovery's also ongoing. The Pentagon told us they're pleased actually with how much they've been able to recover so far as it's given them a fair amount of information about this balloon and its capabilities.

SIMON: Jenna, can we tell yet if there is reason to fear for national security about one or two of these objects?

MCLAUGHLIN: It's too soon to tell. But as far as this latest object, it doesn't seem like it. It's no longer flying, and it doesn't sound like it was over U.S. airspace for long. And with the spy balloon, the main fallout has really been diplomatic, when Secretary of State Blinken's trip to China was canceled. The Pentagon's repeatedly said that China didn't get much intelligence value from the alleged spy balloon either though Pentagon spokesman Ryder did say that they're working on getting more awareness about what appears to be a broader Chinese fleet of balloons traveling around the world.

Honestly, China's gathered a lot more private information through cyber means, from both government and private companies. Recall the breach of the Office of Personnel Management in 2014 when over 20 million sensitive records of government employees were stolen. That's just one example. This balloon is just a much easier symbol for people to grasp onto, and I think that's why it's gotten so much attention this week.

SIMON: Thanks so much, NPR's Jenna McLaughlin. Good to be with you.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 10, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous headline incorrectly stated that the FBI shot down the object. It was the U.S. military.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.