Senior FBI officials have detailed the Bureau’s role as the lead governing agency for the forensic examination of the Chinese high-altitude balloon identified and shot down earlier this month by the U.S. military off the coast of South Carolina.
The FBI’s Operational Technology Division (OTD) and the Laboratory Division are working closely with subject matter experts from the Department of Defense—including the Naval Criminal Investigative Service—and other government agencies. Additionally, personnel from the FBI’s Washington, Columbia, Charlotte, and Norfolk field offices have deployed personnel, including ERT- and USERT-trained agents, to assist with the logistics of the recovery and analysis of the debris.
Michael Paul, assistant director OTD, and Eric Pokorak, assistant director of the Laboratory Division, said it is too early in the investigation to determine the intent and capabilities of the balloon.
Pokorak said that the FBI has been coordinating further searches with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. Dive teams from the FBI and U.S. Navy are working together.
“We were on-scene late Sunday, on February 5, and the first evidence that was received was transported to Quantico and received late Monday, February 6,” he explained. Pokorak described the search area as a “large-scale scene” and said weather concerns in the next few days “may impact” evidence collection and the transportation of recovered items.
Once the evidence is received at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, a team of experts engages in a decontamination process, Pokorak continued. “In simple terms, that is removing the salt water from the evidence itself. Rinsing and washing it so that it can be further processed.”
Shortly before the Navy concluded its underwater search efforts last week, a significant portion of the balloon’s payload was recovered. This will now be fully assessed by the FBI team.
This investigation marks the first time the FBI Laboratory and OTD have responded to a “hot air balloon of this nature” and the processing of the corresponding scene.
Asked about the manufacturer of the balloon or whether its design was based on stolen intelligence, Paul said the FBI is not in position “at this point to have that information.” He said both the FBI Laboratory and OTD are working to determine the source of the balloon components. Additionally, the FBI has no information or physical evidence at this time that contradicts previous statements made by other government agencies.
The Laboratory Division leads the collection, transportation, and subsequent forensic examinations of evidentiary material. It is staffed with subject matter experts, including highly trained evidence response dive teams and hazardous evidence response teams, which contribute to the mission of collecting, analyzing, and sharing timely scientific and technical information within the FBI and with other government and law enforcement agencies.
The OTD is the FBI’s provenance for applied technology enabling and enhancing investigations. OTD personnel have been deployed to assist with recovery efforts and initial assessments of technological evidence.