New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Republican lawmakers criticize delay in downing China spy balloon
WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers on Sunday accused China of deliberately surveilling sensitive U.S. military sites with a suspected spy balloon and said the Biden administration had given Beijing an intelligence opening by not downing the balloon during its highaltitude drift through American airspace.
The balloon’s presence in the sky above the United States before a military jet shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean with a missile Saturday further strained U.S.-China ties. America’s top diplomat abruptly scrapped a trip to Beijing and China’s defense ministry said in a statement after the balloon fell into the waters off the Carolina coast that it “reserves the right to take necessary measures to deal with similar situations.”
“Clearly this was an attempt by China to gather information, to defeat our command and control of our sensitive missile defense and nuclear weapon sites,” said the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, among the members of Congress on the Sunday news shows. “And that certainly is an urgency that this administration does not recognize.”
U.S. defense and military officials said the balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said President Joe Biden was first briefed on it. “It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere” between Alaska and the Carolinas where the U.S. could have safely shot down the balloon, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the full Senate will get a briefing this month on the balloon, including details about its surveillance capabilities, and that the administration is considering measures against the Chinese for “their brazen activities.” He said the GOP criticism was political and premature, and that the U.S. had “sent a clear message to China that this is not acceptable.”
Biden issued the shootdown order but had wanted it to happen earlier, on Wednesday. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water, U.S. officials said. Military officials determined that bringing down the balloon over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
“The message they (the Chinese) were trying to send is what they believe internally, and that is that the United States is a once great superpower that’s hollowed out, that’s in decline,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “And the message they’re trying to send the world is, ‘Look, these guys can’t even do anything about a balloon flying over U.S. airspace. How can you possibly count on them if something were to happen in the Indo-Pacific region?’”
The balloon was spotted Wednesday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos.
“They didn’t go and look at the Grand Canyon,” Turner said. “They went and looked at our nuclear weapon sites and the missile defense sites throughout the country.”
Taking it down only until it reached the ocean “is sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over,” Turner said, after the balloon “had completed its mission.”
But Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he trusted the military, adding, “We should remember that this is now known to have happened under the Trump administration multiple times. And so to create another standard for Biden when Trump, it seems, allowed this to go over the United States is just a bit hypocritical.”
China has denied any claims of spying and said it was a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs contended that the balloon’s journey was out of the Chinese government’s control.
“This was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence, you know?’’ said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
Asked whether elements of the Chinese military may have wanted to disrupt Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit, Mullen responded: “Clearly, I think that’s the case.”
He said “this really damages a relationship between us and China” and “puts a big dent in moving forward in a constructive way, which we really need to do.”