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What we can learn about a Chinese balloon now that the U.S. has shot it down

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sometime soon, the U.S. military may tell us what they found aboard a Chinese balloon. What the U.S. called a surveillance craft over U.S. territory and China called an errant weather balloon went down over the weekend. A U.S. fighter jet punctured it with a missile, and it fell into the Atlantic. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Dennis Blair served as director of national intelligence during the Obama administration, and he's on the line. Admiral, welcome back.

DENNIS BLAIR: Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: I got to be frank - this story doesn't entirely make sense. Does it make sense to you that China would send this kind of a balloon drifting on the wind for surveillance purposes over the United States?

BLAIR: Yeah. It does seem a little bizarre and silly, doesn't it? Balloons, children's toys. But I think it - Steve, it points to something deeper, which is that China is really engaged in a full-scale challenge to the United States, that it will try any tactic it can to gain an advantage over the United States. And it really won't stop until it is forced to. It simply doesn't have recognition of limits of international norms.

INSKEEP: Do you understand what a balloon could gather in terms of information that a satellite, a Chinese satellite, could not?

BLAIR: I don't have a full technical review of that. But my overall view is that there's very little that it could gain that is not - could not be collected by more reliable and more internationally accepted systems of gathering information on other countries.

INSKEEP: Can we put this in a little bit fuller context? Should we assume, whatever the purpose of this balloon was, that Chinese satellites are overhead all the time, that China's using other means to gather any information it can about the United States and that the reverse is also true, that American satellites and other means are being used all the time against China?

BLAIR: (Inaudible) But certainly, we should assume that. But we have also - in the spy trade, there are certain conventions that have been established in order not - so that intelligence doesn't exacerbate overall geopolitical relations. When there's - when we have a visit from a high-level official, we throttle back some of our activities that are - that might be - cause trouble if they were to be discovered. The Chinese don't.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is interesting. You're saying that you're trying to learn all the time what Xi Jinping is thinking or what a Chinese foreign minister is thinking. But if they were to come to the United States, you might back off a little bit. People think about the niceties here is what you're saying.

BLAIR: Yeah. I mean, there's always risk in intelligence - right? - that you'll be exposed, that something may go wrong. And then you try to - most countries try to lessen that risk, try to postpone or control some of the higher-risk activities for fear of embarrassing their own senior officials or those of the other country because diplomatic contact is extremely important. And as you know from history, Steve, the U-2 plane derailed a real chance at a different - a whole different U.S.-Soviet relationship. And when I was commander in chief of the Pacific Command, the actions - the downing of the EP-3...

INSKEEP: Yes.

BLAIR: ...On April Fool's Day off of Hainan completely soured the relationship between the incoming Bush administration and China. So having an espionage operation - and espionage operations are important. We should know about the Chinese. They should know about us. But having one exposed and derailed can cause real negative consequences. But the Chinese don't throttle their activities with that overall goal in mind.

INSKEEP: Great bits of history there, referring to the U-2, the American U-2 plane shot down over the Soviet Union decades ago, and a 2001 incident where an American surveillance plane was forced down off the coast of China. Former Admiral Dennis Blair, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, always a pleasure. Thank you so much.

BLAIR: All right, Steve. Good to talk to you. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.