Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
GOP rips Biden for not acting sooner
Navy divers work to recover balloon debris off SC coast
WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers Sunday accused China of deliberately monitoring 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 earlier during its high-altitude drift through American airspace.
The shooting down of the balloon Saturday capped days of high-stakes international drama, played out over the skies of the continental United States.
“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.”
While China has insisted that the balloon was not for surveillance, but rather a weather balloon that drifted off course, the Biden administration has stood firm that the balloon’s purpose was a somewhat hapless effort by China to spy on U.S. military installations.
The incident turned into a full fledged diplomatic quarrel between the world’s two great powers, with Biden administration officials calling their Chinese counterparts and Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling what was to be the first trip to China by a Biden Cabinet secretary.
On Sunday, defense officials said Navy divers were working to locate portions of the debris that a U.S. fighter jet shot down 6 miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The recovery effort, which is expected to take days, began not long after debris from the balloon hit the water, a defense official said.
The defense official added that a Navy ship arrived on the scene soon after the balloon was shot down, and that other Navy and Coast Guard ships, which had been put on alert, were also sent to the scene.
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 over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories last 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.
Pentagon officials said they took steps — without offering specifics — to make sure that the balloon did not yield much fruit as it hovered near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and other installations. They also said China could glean the same amount of intelligence from a spy satellite.
Nonetheless, the balloon’s presence in the sky above the country further strained U.S.-China ties.
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.”
Pentagon officials have made clear that they plan to collect every piece of debris that Navy divers can retrieve, for America’s own intelligence purposes. Because the debris landed in 47 feet of water, they believe that the recovery effort will not be difficult.
Still, Navy divers will have to contend with cold water temperatures during the recovery effort.
The defense official said that once all the debris is collected, the Pentagon will hand it over to be studied by various federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers questioned how the balloon was allowed to pass over the country, with Republicans blaming Biden for not acting sooner.
“We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutians instead of letting it float across middle America on its merry way,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The idea that we were going to let this go all across America, a spy balloon complete its spy mission, before we shot it down, I’m afraid is an embarrassment to the United States, not an embarrassment to the Chinese.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed.
“It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere” between Alaska and the Carolinas where the U.S. could have safely shot down the balloon, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the full Senate will get a briefing 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.