Details surrounding the Chinese intelligence-gathering balloon are becoming harder and harder to come by. After learning of a 14-story high, white Chinese balloon loaded with sensors and other surveillance gear moving lazily across the skies of the Aleutian Islands, the Alaskan mainland, Canada, the US border into Idaho, the Biden administration has not offered a compelling explanation for its response. Instead, the narrative from the Defense Department remains a Cliff’s Notes version of what Americans watched on their living room flatscreens. People noticed a giant white balloon over Montana. President Biden was briefed that a giant white balloon over Montana came from China. The president says he directed the giant white Chinese balloon to be shot down. The Defense Department waits four days to shoot down the giant white Chinese balloon.
Why didn’t the Air Force shoot the balloon down when it was first discovered? The reasoning was supposedly that, though the balloon had crossed thousands of miles of open, uninhabited geography, the US was waiting until there was no risk to lives on the ground from falling debris. In a recent Senate hearing, one of the witnesses provided an answer. “We work our way to a near zero probability of collateral damage when we take that shot…Although Alaska is, in places, not as inhabited as other places, it is inhabited,” Lieutenant General Douglas Sims III, director for operations (J-3) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations for Defense, Thursday, February 9.
Pentagon Doesn’t Add to the Balloon Story
Over at the Pentagon on Wednesday, February 8, Defense Department spokesman US Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, answering press questions, did not add to what is known. When asked about how the US knows it was a Chinese balloon and where in China did originate, Ryder explained: “I’m not able to go into the intelligence. As you highlight, we are aware there have been four previous balloons that have gone over US territory. This is what we assess as a larger Chinese surveillance balloon program…[T]his is a program that has been operated for several years.” Ryder continued that though the balloons were not identified for what they were initially, the subsequent analysis determined they were Chinese. According to an Associated Press readout of Ryder’s comments:
“When similar balloons passed over US territory on four occasions during the Trump and Biden administrations, the US did not immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance balloons, said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary. But he said ‘subsequent intelligence analysis’ allowed the US to confirm they were part of a Chinese spying effort and learn ‘a lot more’ about the program.
In other words, it took some time for the analysis to identify and verify previous People’s Liberation Army (PLA) US sovereign airspace incursions. The takeaway is that in the case of each of the previous PLA balloon overflights of the US, detection and identification took place after the fact. Ryder did not explain why, until now, the public was not made aware of the PLA reconnaissance balloon program. The Trump administration was unaware as well.
Biden Administration Balloon Briefing to Congress Not Compelling
In a session closed to the public, unnamed administration officials briefed Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), a House Foreign Affairs Committee member, on the Beijing spy flight over the US. It was held in a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, so very classified intelligence information could be communicated – information that might have cleared up a lot of questions. But that wasn’t the case. “What I took away from this briefing confirmed that this administration and not the previous one had plenty of advance warning of an escalating Chinese espionage program, failed to act, and has now humiliated this country on the world stage,” Issa explained to Fox News Digital. Additionally, the presentation was “unspecific, insufficient, and backward-looking,” the congressman continued.
What Americans have gotten from President Biden and his national security team during the PLA surveillance tour of the US and after the balloon was finally destroyed has been confusing and, in some cases, nonsensical. However, the impression we are left with is the Chinese Communist Party has been using high-altitude reconnaissance balloons to surveil broad swaths of the US along with very sensitive military installations. Additionally, the US apparently cannot detect the balloons in real-time as they penetrate the US Air Defense Identification Zones. And lastly, if the previous breaches of US airspace are true, the intelligence analysts who assess these incursions pick and choose who they tell. This behavior puts the defense of the homeland in serious jeopardy.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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