The Chinese spy balloon business has gotten a lot more serious in the last few hours, and it was serious enough, to begin with.
Of course, there are many questions following the shooting down of the balloon by the US Air Force on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina.
Questions like what specifically was it spying on? What information had it collected? When did the United States know of its existence? Will the experts be able to collect enough of the balloon remains from the ocean floor to answer these and other questions?
But there are perhaps more troubling questions raised by the conduct of senior Biden administration officials. First, they sought political cover by claiming that Chinese spy balloons had flown over the United States three times during the Trump administration, and no one did anything about it then.
Then, when a chorus of senior officials from the Trump years said with one voice that simply hadn’t happened, the Biden team responded with an explanation that stretches credulity. That is where we are now.
As the balloon swept across the United States, starting in Alaska, then Canada, then from Idaho to South Carolina, with the Biden administration refusing to remove it, Republicans were shocked at the lukewarm White House response to such a flagrant violation of the American airspace and sovereignty. Shoot it down, many of them urged President Joe Biden.
Biden tried to sound tough by saying that he had ordered the balloon shot down but that military officials argued that doing so would be too dangerous for people on the ground. That argument didn’t make much sense when the balloon was flying over empty parts of the United States in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana.
However, Biden ignored his military command, and the balloon was allowed to fly across the entire continental United States, possibly feeding intelligence to the Chinese all the way. (Biden officials suggested they had somehow neutralized the balloon’s intelligence-gathering capabilities but offered no details.)
Meanwhile, defense officials from the Biden administration, along with top military officials, began telling the press that the balloon affair was nothing new, that, in fact, it had happened not once, not twice, but three times during the Trump administration, and that President Donald Trump did not shoot down any of those balloons.
“[The] Chinese government surveillance balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the previous administration,” a senior defense official told reporters at a briefing on the ground on Saturday. A Pentagon publication, DOD News, reported the same, citing the same anonymous official.
Given the three raids during the Trump years that no one got too worked up about, why are people so upset that this particular Chinese balloon is doing the grand tour across America, from the mountains of Montana to the beaches of South Carolina?
But one big question remained: Was what Biden said true? One former Trump official after another was quick to say that this had not happened.
In a telephone conversation, Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser from 2019 to 2021, said: “I can tell you unequivocally that no flights over the United States were made known to me, nor to my staff, including those who were in the National Security Council during the four years of the Trump administration.”
Then John Bolton, O’Brien’s predecessor, told Fox News: “I don’t know of any balloon flights by any power over the United States during my tenure, and I’ve never heard of any of that happening before I joined in 2018.
I also haven’t heard anything that happened after I left. I can say with 100% certainty; Other senior officials said the same. Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said that did not happen. The former acting DNI Richard Grenell said the same. Also, former CIA director and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Also, former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. And former acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller. And former Deputy National Security Advisor Keith Kellogg. And Trump himself.
Some of the former officials called each other to compare notes. “Am I missing something?” one asked the other. “Do you remember something like that?” No one was aware that it had happened.
It looked amazing. After all, the Chinese spy balloon shot down on Saturday was very large. People saw it from the ground. The plane pilots saw it. In fact, it was first made public when a citizen saw it over Montana, and the local newspaper published a photo. Did the Biden administration mean that it had happened three times during the Trump years and no one had noticed? It turned out yes.
On Sunday, administration sources began telling reporters that, yes, the Chinese incursions had happened during the Trump years, but no one knew about it. And not just anyone in the public sense. No one in the government’s vast military surveillance and intelligence apparatus noticed them. Everyone overlooked the giant Chinese balloons.
“Those earlier balloon flights were much shorter in duration, possibly explaining why some went undetected at the time,” the Wall Street Journal reported, citing “senior administration officials.” “An official said that much of the flight information was reconstructed later.”
“They flew under the radar,” a senior administration official told Fox News. “This information was discovered after the [Trump] administration left.” Only then, the official said, did the Biden administration piece it all together and realized that the Chinese had been sending massive balloons over the United States, and no one, citizen or military intelligence, noticed.
A slightly different story emerged in the Washington Post, which reported that the Pentagon knew of “passed Chinese surveillance balloons near Florida and Texas.” Wait a minute: Close to Florida and Texas? What does close mean? Were the balloons over those states? Were they offshore but over US territorial waters? The Washington Post suggested that the Pentagon was not entirely clear. “The Department of Defense did not specify where in each state the previous raids occurred,” the newspaper reported, citing Rep. Michael Waltz, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. “[Waltz] added that officials did not say whether the balloons reached US airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from the coast, or also on US territory”.
It’s an important distinction, isn’t it? Were the previously undiscovered balloons over US territory or not?
At this point, nothing is clear. In a text exchange, a Republican on Capitol Hill, eager to question the administration about the events, saw three possible explanations. The Department of Defense is “mixing totally different incidents, i.e., ballooning around Hawaii or Key West vs. going across Central America,” a mix-up called a “partisan twist.”
Two, the Pentagon really only realized the Chinese were flying over the mainland US after the fact, calling it “a huge failure of military intelligence.” Or three, the military actually tracked the flights at the time but failed to inform civilian leadership of what was taking place, which he called a “huge civil-military scandal if that’s the case.”
The answers are urgent. Allowing a large, obvious aircraft, presumably packed with intelligence from a foreign adversary, to fly around the United States is a big deal. The fact that Biden’s State of the Union address is set for Tuesday and the White House wishes to downplay the balloon issue is irrelevant. Now, responses are required.