Biden-era surveillance boosts credited in detecting balloon
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said that improvements ordered by President Joe Biden to strengthen defenses against Chinese espionage helped to identify last week’s spy balloon — and to determine that similar flights were conducted at multiple points during the Trump administration.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that after Biden took office, the U.S. “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.”
Biden, in turn, has been faulted by some Republicans for not ordering the balloon shot down before it made its way across the U.S. Officials have said there was concern about damage to people on the ground, and Biden addressed the issue on Monday.
“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,” Biden said. The military concluded “we should not shoot it down over land, it was not a serious threat.”
In an exchange with reporters, Biden expressed his continued displeasure with Beijing. Asked why China launched the balloon over the U.S., he replied simply, “Because they’re the Chinese.”
China said Tuesday it will “resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests” over the shooting down of the balloon, as relations between the two countries deteriorate further.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated that the “unmanned airship” posed no threat and criticized the U.S. for overreacting.
“The balloon does not belong to the U.S. The Chinese government will continue to resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests,” Mao said without giving further details.
Biden administration officials have planned a classified briefing for all senators on Thursday to discuss the spy balloon situation, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office.
Sullivan, speaking at an event hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, said as part of the surveillance improvements since Biden took office, “we were able to go back and look at the historical patterns” and uncover “multiple instances” during the Trump administration in which Chinese surveillance balloons traversed American airspace.
Before Monday, U.S. officials had said that at least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president balloons have crossed American airspace, but not for this long. In those instances, the United States determined the balloons belonged to China only after they had left U.S. airspace, said Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command.
Sullivan did not explain what specifically allowed the U.S. to detect and track the latest balloon where the previous administration might not have. Officials have said, without elaborating, that China has flown similar balloons over parts of five continents in recent years.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that the U.S. military had begun collecting debris from the balloon.
VanHerck said Navy teams were taking precautions to safeguard against the chance any part of the balloon was rigged with explosives.
The balloon was an estimated 200 feet tall and was carrying a long sensor package underneath, which VanHerck estimated was the size of a small regional jet.
Kirby firmly rejected Beijing’s claim that the U.S. violated international law by shooting down the balloon.
“The United States, under President Biden’s authority and orders acted in accordance with international law and in defense of our homeland and our sovereign airspace,” Kirby said. “We were absolutely within our rights to bring down that balloon.”
Kirby also dismissed China’s contention that the balloon was for meteorological purposes, saying “it strains credulity ... that this was some kind of weather balloon that was floating on the winds.”