The Biden administration suspects that three unidentified objects downed since last Friday served commercial purposes and weren’t used for spying, a judgment that may help ease anxiety over a Chinese balloon that traversed the U.S. before being shot down.
The intelligence community believes the objects — unlike the giant airship shot down on Feb. 4 — “could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.
“We don’t see anything that points right now to these being part of the PRC spy balloon program or in fact, intelligence collection against the United States of any kind,” Kirby said, using the abbreviation of China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
That determination will ease concerns that the U.S. has become subject to an intensive and broad-based surveillance program orchestrated by the Chinese military. Those fears were stoked by the series of shootdowns over Alaska, Canada and Michigan starting Friday and raised pressure on the Biden administration to explain the nature of the high-altitude craft, their origins and whether they posed national security threats.
Signs are emerging that both the U.S. and China are trying to figure out a way past the balloon dispute. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who canceled a trip to Beijing after the Chinese balloon was identified, is considering a meeting with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Germany this week, people familiar with the matter said.
All along, China has insisted that the balloon shot down off South Carolina was a weather-monitoring device that blew off course, and accused the U.S. of hyping the issue.
The administration has scrambled to keep the uproar around the balloon under control, amid criticism from Republicans that President Joe Biden was wrong to let it traverse the U.S. before shooting it down. Officials provided senators a classified briefing to senators on Tuesday to lay out their latest findings.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed frustration with the dearth of concrete information and called on the White House to provide more details.
“The American people need to know more so they’ll have more confidence in our national security,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “Our adversaries often know what we know.”
“The president needs to find the courage to get up in front of the American public and tell him what he knows,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican. “The president can get in front of America and tell them firsthand that we’re safe and everybody’s going to be OK, that we’ve got this under control.”
Any future determination about the extent of the Chinese surveillance program and the threat posed by it will depend on the recovery of the payload of the balloon that was shot down off South Carolina. On Monday, the U.S. Northern Command said U.S. Navy salvage operations have recovered “significant debris” from the balloon.
Crews found “all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure,” the command said in a statement late Monday night.
Crews are still trying to recover the three other objects that were shot down. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Brussels Tuesday that two were in extremely remote areas while the third was under about 200 feet of water in Lake Huron.
“We’ll get them eventually, but it’s gonna take some time to recover,” he said.
Milley also provided new details of the circumstances under which the last object was shot down over Michigan. He said a first missile fired at it missed and fell “harmlessly” into Lake Huron, while a second hit the target.
Milley said the U.S. military assesses the level of risk — kinetic, intelligence, or civil aviation safety — posed by an object in determining whether and how to intervene, while also working to avoid collateral damage.
“We go to great lengths to make sure that the airspace is clear and the backdrop is clear, out to the max effective range of the missile,” he said.
One of the big questions faced by the administration is what to do next time an object is deemed to pose a threat, and whether jets will be deployed frequently to down objects spotted above U.S. airspace. Kirby said Biden has set up a group to come up with new criteria by the end of the week for how to respond.
The shootdown of the Chinese balloon, followed by the raft of new detections and interceptions in recent days, has created “a lot of legitimate confusion” in Washington and created a “tense and unpredictable time” for U.S.-China relations, Leon Panetta, a former Defense secretary and CIA director, said Tuesday on Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power with David Westin.”
“It’s important to be able to determine just exactly what we’re dealing with, and then develop a comprehensive strategy to be able deal with those situations so that we do not have a period of high unpredictability, where we just are reacting on a crisis-by-crisis basis,” he said.
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