San Francisco Chronicle
Biden-era surveillance boosts are credited in detecting spy balloon
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said that improvements ordered by President 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.”
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 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.
The head of U.S. Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck, who is in charge of the recovery effort, and several Biden administration officials will brief members of Congress on the balloon on Wednesday and Thursday.
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 U.S. determined the balloons belonged to China only after they had left U.S. airspace, VanHerck said.
Sullivan did not explain what allowed the U.S. to detect and track the 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 that the U.S. military had begun collecting debris from the balloon.
Navy divers began pulling pieces of the downed balloon from the depths of the ocean floor on Tuesday, using sophisticated reconnaissance drones dubbed the Kingfish and the Swordfish to locate the debris.
After collecting all of the balloon's white fabric and shell structure found floating on the surface, the Navy has now shifted to an all-underwater search for the remnants of the massive balloon that a U.S. fighter jet shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, officials said.
The debris already collected was being hauled by small boats to a few area locations, including a Coast Guard station south of Myrtle Beach, and, depending on the size, will eventually go to the FBI lab at Quantico, Va., or other sites where experts can analyze it, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 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.