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Pentagon is tracking a spy balloon, which it suspects belongs to China, over the U.S.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Pentagon says the U.S. has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that has been over the continental U.S. for the past few days. U.S. officials say they believe the balloon has come from China. For more on this breaking story, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Greg, when did the U.S. become aware of this balloon?

MYRE: Well, at some point in the past few days - U.S. officials aren't saying exactly when, but they are saying that it's been monitored. The balloon has been under counter-surveillance, if you will, since it came over the continental U.S. Now, a senior defense official said it was over Montana at one point. He didn't say exactly when and did not provide its current location, but said the balloon is still up there. Now, the national security community has what it's calling high confidence that this balloon has come from China. And the U.S. is in contact with China, including the embassy here in Washington, but no word on how the Chinese are responding.

SUMMERS: OK. And how about the Pentagon? How is the Pentagon responding?

MYRE: So there was a debate among national security officials about what they should do - possibly even shoot it down. Now, the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, convened a meeting yesterday, even though he's traveling - he's in the Philippines - but gathered other national security officials, and their conclusion or decision was not to shoot it down, which they passed on to the White House, for several reasons. One, it doesn't seem that this balloon is capable of gathering intelligence that would be significantly beyond what could also already be gathered by, say, satellites. It is well above commercial air traffic. Commercial planes would be at about 30-, 35,000 feet, so it's higher than that. We don't know how much higher. There was also a feeling that, if it was shot down, the debris could pose a risk to people on the ground. So right now, the U.S. continues to monitor it, and this includes fighter jets - sending up fighter jets to take a peek. But that's all the U.S. is doing (inaudible) to shoot it down.

SUMMERS: OK. And I know it's still early here, and this is still developing, but do we have a sense at this point of what sort of intelligence the balloon is looking for?

MYRE: We don't. That question was posed to the senior defense official, and he didn't - he said he didn't know. You'd have to put that question to the Chinese. Certainly, there's the presumption that it's looking for something sensitive - looking at some sensitive sites. We know, for example, that, in Montana, there are a number of U.S. missile silos, so that would certainly be something that could be of interest. The U.S. and China are always trying to gather intelligence on each other, but usually not in a way like this that is so obvious and almost certain to be detected.

SUMMERS: OK. And Greg, last question - given what you've just said there, do we know any other time where something like this has happened before?

MYRE: Yeah, the defense official said the answer to that is yes, it has happened on occasion in recent years. Now, he said he wouldn't characterize this is as revolutionary. What seems to be a little bit different this time was the altitude of the balloon and the length of time that it's staying over the U.S. Now, this is also coming at a fairly tense moment in U.S.-Chinese relations. Secretary of Defense Austin is in the Philippines, as we mentioned. The U.S. is getting more access to bases there. This is very close to China. The Chinese are very upset about that. They've already made that clear. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken is headed to China in the next few days, so he may have some pretty tense talks with some Chinese officials.

SUMMERS: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks for the update.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.