A defensive Biden administration insisted Monday that the delay in downing a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that traversed the country last week allowed U.S. analysts to collect valuable intelligence, while also claiming that officials didn’t learn of previous Chinese incursions until after President Trump left office in early 2021.
President Biden’s chief security aide, Jake Sullivan, said it wasn’t until Mr. Biden ordered an increase in efforts to track the balloons early in his tenure that the previous incursions were discovered. His statement undercut claims by some Democrats that Mr. Trump knew of but failed to respond aggressively to the Chinese spying.
The Biden administration is facing fire over its handling of the crisis, which exacerbated tense U.S.-Chinese relations and marked what some call a dangerous turning point in an evolving cold war. Headlines dominating the news before Mr. Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday only intensified reactions from both sides.
Mr. Biden addressed the incident Monday in a brief exchange with reporters. “Once it came over to the United States from Canada, I told the Defense Department I wanted to shoot it down as soon as it was appropriate. His military advisers counseled that “we should not shoot it down over land; it was not a serious threat.”
Asked why he thought China launched the balloon over U.S. airspace, Mr. Biden said only, “Because they’re the Chinese.”
Chinese officials repeated their claim that the balloon was part of a weather-monitoring “civilian” mission and had nothing to do with national security surveillance. U.S. military and intelligence officials have dismissed that explanation out of hand.
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The Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated accusations that the U.S. destruction of the balloon was an “overreaction,” but Beijing acknowledged for the first time Monday that it was behind a second balloon spotted in recent days over the Caribbean. Chinese officials say the suspected spy craft was simply blown off course during a peaceful test flight.
The government of President Xi Jinping has vowed to retaliate for the shoot-down but so far has taken no visible action.
The U.S. says China has used a fleet of balloons in recent years to conduct surveillance around the globe. Without elaborating on their methods, Biden administration officials said China has flown balloons over parts of five continents, including several areas of the U.S.
Rep. Michael Waltz, Florida Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Post over the weekend that defense officials disclosed the U.S. incursions in a briefing to lawmakers Saturday, revealing past encroachments over Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam.
It was unclear precisely where, or when exactly, the balloons were spotted or how deeply they made it into U.S. airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Mr. Sullivan did not explain Monday what technology or tactics U.S. officials used to detect and track the latest balloon or gather intelligence on past incursions.
“The intelligence community made this a priority at the direction of President Biden. We enhanced our surveillance of our territorial airspace, we enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect,” the national security adviser said in remarks at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s regional summit in Delaware.
“We were also able to go back and look at the historical patterns, and that led us to come to understand that during the Trump administration … there were multiple instances where the surveillance balloons traversed American airspace and American territory,” he said.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said incursions in recent years were not discovered until after the fact. “We did not detect those threats,” he told reporters. “That’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”
Without elaborating, Gen. VanHerck said the intelligence community used “additional means of collection” to assess the earlier balloon flights.
Biden response questioned
Questions swirled over specifics of the Biden administration’s claims about previous Chinese spy balloon incursions.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Mr. Biden for not ordering an immediate shoot-down of the latest balloon as it floated over sensitive national security sites, including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to one of the U.S. military’s three nuclear missile silo fields.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican, applauded service members for the “successful mission to neutralize” the balloon but said he was “deeply concerned by the Biden administration’s decision to allow [it] to traverse the United States.”
“It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people,” Mr. Rogers said.
Claims of previous balloon incursions have fueled speculation that Mr. Trump was either kept in the dark about the intelligence or knew about it and declined to take action.
Mr. Trump has furiously rejected the notion that incursions happened on his watch. He said on his Truth Social network over the weekend that the claims were intended to “take the heat” off Mr. Biden. China, the former president said, “had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did.”
Mike Pompeo, who served as CIA director and secretary of state under Mr. Trump, has also pushed back. “I’ve seen the stories that said this happened on our watch,” Mr. Pompeo told the Christian Broadcasting Network on Monday. “I never knew about it.”
Other Trump administration officials, including former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and former National Security Advisers Robert O’Brien and John Bolton, have also said they were not told of previous incursions.
“A balloon the size of three buses slowly making its way against our heartland for days — I’m pretty confident the CIA director or the secretary of state would have been told,” Mr. Pompeo said. “It’s not the case that the military knew and didn’t tell its political leadership.”
Mr. Sullivan defended Mr. Biden’s decision not to order an immediate downing of the balloon. He said the president wanted the balloon to be destroyed quickly but Pentagon officials advised him it would be best to wait until the craft was over water.
Allowing the balloon to transit U.S. airspace for several days gave U.S. military and intelligence officials time to glean valuable information about the Chinese surveillance capabilities, Mr. Sullivan said.
“The intelligence community and the military used every asset at their disposal to collect against the balloon to determine what it was carrying, to learn more about its tradecraft and its capabilities, and we were able to do that over the time that the balloon was flying,” he said.
Mr. Sullivan added that “the first time that any American president has ordered a shoot-down of one of these balloons was on Saturday when Joe Biden did it.”
Gen. VanHerck stood by the decision not to shoot down the balloon until it was well over the ocean.
“There were multiple options considered and asked for at multiple levels. The decisions that were made were based on safety first and then effectiveness,” he told reporters, and the delay gave U.S. intelligence officials the opportunity to study Chinese surveillance capabilities.
“Day to day, we do not have the authority to collect intelligence within the United States of America,” he said. “In this case, specific authorities were granted to collect intelligence against the balloon.”
The general told reporters that military search crews are picking up floating debris off the coast of South Carolina where the balloon was shot down and the FBI, acting in its counterintelligence capacity, is part of the recovery effort. The Navy is using an unmanned underwater vehicle to photograph and track debris. Monday was the first day it could be used because of rough seas, The Associated Press reported.
Geopolitical fallout over the incident continues after the Biden administration canceled a planned trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that “in the face of this kind of unexpected, isolated incident, both sides, the U.S. in particular, should act in a calm, professional and proper manner without the use of force.”
Former State Department China policymaker Miles Yu said Beijing’s deployment of the balloon fits with a pattern of Chinese political tactics before high-level foreign meetings.
“It’s what [the Chinese government] calls ‘use confrontation to extract cooperation,’” Mr. Yu, now director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute, told C-SPAN over the weekend.
Mr. Yu noted the planned visit to Beijing by Mr. Blinken that was canceled over the spying incident. China, he said, has conducted similar controversial activities prior to high-level meetings in the past.
“They want to gain political leverage,” Mr. Yu said. “They want to control the course of the dialogue by creating a minor crisis so they have more bargaining strength at the negotiating table.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that Mr. Blinken made clear the consequences of the balloon incursion to Chinese officials in the days before the decision was made to shoot it down.
“It should not have come as a complete surprise” to Beijing when the F-22 fighter jet was dispatched to bring down the balloon.
If it had been a U.S. military airship over China, “you can only imagine the response from Beijing,” Mr. Price said.
• Bill Gertz, Tom Howell Jr., Mike Glenn and Kerry Picket contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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