Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) A Chinese surveillance balloon was detected above Billings within days of a hearing on a bill to prevent foreign adversaries from buying up agricultural land in Montana.

NBC reported Thursday the U.S. military had been monitoring a suspected Chinese spy device hovering over the northern U.S. “for the past few days” and identified in Montana on Wednesday.

The Pentagon said it has “very high confidence” the balloon is from China, according to the Associated Press.

Montana has nuclear missile sites.

Sources told NBC the U.S. government made sure the balloon can’t collect sensitive information and briefly considered shooting it down but decided against doing so because of possible danger to people on the ground. They said it is not considered a threat to aviation.

However, U.S. defense leaders continue to track it and may still take it out, sources told NBC.

Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, is sponsoring the bill heard in committee on Jan. 26 — with only proponents and no opposition — that he said will help protect the U.S. from foreign adversaries, including China.

In a statement Thursday, Bogner said news of the possible spying is evidence his legislation is much needed. It would ban foreign adversaries from owning, leasing or renting critical infrastructure in Montana.

“A reported Chinese spy balloon operating in U.S. airspace, including over Billings, is yet another example of the seriousness of China’s interest in operating asymmetrically within the borders of the United States,” said Bogner, a Marine Corps veteran.

“This is why my Senate Bill 203 … is so important for us to pass.”

At the hearing, Bogner said he planned to work on some amendments, but he said Montana should be proactive to be sure buyers with bad intentions don’t control land in the state.

He said the federal government determines foreign policy, and the Secretary of Commerce has found China, North Korea, Russia and Iran should not be trusted, especially with critical infrastructure. He said that infrastructure includes agricultural production land.

“It supports our economy here in Montana and helps feed the entire nation,” Bogner said. “We need to be securing our borders against those countries that want to do us harm.”

Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City
Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City
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In testimony to the Senate Agriculture Committee, representatives from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and Montana Stockgrowers Association both said the concern was well-discussed at their recent annual meetings.

Nicole Rolf, with the Farm Bureau, said members have a wide range of opinions.

“But really what they came down to and could agree on is that we needed to make sure to protect and keep agricultural lands and critical infrastructure — things that are important to Americans — out of the hands of our adversaries,” Rolf said.

Sam Sill, with the Montana Association of Realtors, was among the supporters who said food security is critical.

He said he appreciated the balanced approach in the bill — it didn’t overly infringe on private property rights and still allowed people to do business with friendly foreigners such as Canadians.

Sill urged the sponsor to ensure any amendments didn’t create “an undue burden” on property owners with inspections or enforcement.

Bogner said he’s doing research to figure out the best way to enforce the legislation. Some 339 counties in the U.S. have some type of similar prohibition, he said, and he’d like to find out the best way to track red flags in sale agreements.

“These adversaries have done a good job of hiding who they are through shell corporations, so there needs to be some kind of investigative piece,” Bogner said.

Thursday, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte issued a statement in response to the suspected spy balloon.

“From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I’m deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security,” Gianforte said.

In December, citing a warning from the FBI, the governor banned the use of TikTok on state equipment and for state business in Montana due to “grave security concerns,” a move also related to concerns about China.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has not acted on the bill, and Bogner said he anticipated amendments would take some time to develop.

“Our adversaries are becoming more sophisticated in how they compete with and threaten the U.S. economically, culturally and militarily,” Bogner said at the hearing. “While national security is primarily the responsibility of the federal government, keeping our adversaries from buying up critical parts of Montana is something we can achieve at the state level.”

Officials told NBC that aircraft including F-22 Raptors were deployed from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada but did not say whether they had planned to possibly shoot down the balloon.

Officials also said similar occurrences have taken place over the last several years, although one difference this time is the duration of the flight over the U.S.

U.S. and China relations are tense.

NBC said the balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana, and one official told the news outlet the U.S. is confident it belongs to China.

Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls controls 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, the Pentagon told the Independent.

Wednesday, the possible spy balloon temporarily affected Billings Logan International Airport.

A “Ground Stop” was issued that stretched from Helena to Billings and lasted approximately two hours from around 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., according to the airport.

Airport Assistant Director of Aviation and Transit Shane Ketterling said in a statement the stop took place in the afternoon when few flights are scheduled.

“A total of three flights experienced delays; two inbound flights were diverted and arrived in Billings late, and an outbound United Airlines flight was also delayed,” Ketterling said in an email. “Since the Ground Stop was lifted, there have not been any more issues or delays.”

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