The Dallas Morning News
Officials report previous balloons
Sightings were near Texas, Florida; Cruz, GOP fault delay
The Defense Department has notified Congress of several previous incursions of U.S. airspace by Chinese surveillance balloons, with earlier sightings near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam, U.S. officials said Sunday, as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republicans criticized the Biden administration for allowing a suspected surveillance balloon to track across much of the United States over the last week.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-fla., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that defense officials identified the locations in a discussion with lawmakers and staff Saturday, disclosing for the first time that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace near the contiguous United States before. The existence of such balloons near Hawaii and Guam has been reported previously.
Two such incidents were reported near Florida, while there was at least one each in the other three locations, Waltz said.
The defense officials said that several of those events occurred during the
Trump administration, Waltz said. Officials had also said that during a news briefing with reporters Saturday.
The Defense Department was not specific about where in each state the previous incursions occurred, or whether they made it into U.S. airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from the shore, or over U.S. territory, too, Waltz said. Fox News first reported the additional locations.
The account, verified by two U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, adds to an issue that has become vexing for the U.S. government.
One of the other officials, a congressional aide, said that the disclosure came during a phone briefing with congressional leaders and national security committees. The Biden administration official briefing them said the other incidents had mostly been along or off the coast of the United States.
Several former Trump administration officials, including former defense secretary Mark T. Esper, said they do not recall reports of such balloons reaching their level, raising questions about how they were handled at the time.
Pentagon officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. They have previously declined to specify where the previous incursions occurred.
The disclosure came as U.S. Navy and Coast Guard crews worked off the Atlantic coast to recover debris from the shootdown, including sensors. A senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Pentagon, said the work could continue for days but will be aided by the debris landing in relatively shallow 47-foot water.
Cruz on Sunday commended President Joe Biden for having “the guts” to take out a suspected Chinese spy balloon, but said the commander in chief waited too long to pull the trigger.
“He allowed a full week for the Chinese to conduct spying operations over the United States, over sensitive military installations,” Cruz said during an appearance on CBS’ Face The Nation.
Cruz said the delay gave China the opportunity not just to capture photographs but potentially intercept communications.
He questioned whether Biden would have acted at all if not for extensive news coverage of the balloon and the ensuing public pressure to shoot it down. The whole episode telegraphed U.S. weakness, Cruz said.
Biden told reporters Saturday that he had given the order to shoot down the balloon “as soon as possible” back on Wednesday but that the Pentagon decided the best time to do so was when the balloon was over water to prevent debris from hitting anyone on the ground.
Texas’ junior senator was one of many Republicans in Congress — and even some
Democrats — who declared the entire balloon incursion unacceptable.
“It’s not just the balloon,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-fla., said on CNN. “It’s the message they are trying to send the world: ‘We can do whatever we want, and America can’t stop us.’”
Rep. August Pfluger, R-san Angelo, an Air Force command pilot now retired from active duty who has more than 2,000 hours flying F-22s, echoed the view of many that the Chinese used the incident to test U.S. capabilities to respond.
“President Biden needs to reassert American strength. He must unequivocally stand up and make it clear that violating our sovereign territory is not okay, and that we will defend our country at all costs,” Pfluger tweeted.
Some Democrats from Texas and elsewhere also criticized the events that unfolded over the U.S. mainland the last several days. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-mcallen tweeted Friday while pressure built on Biden to act: “This is unacceptable! The American people deserve
answers to why this was allowed to happen.”
Briefing to come
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the full Senate will get a briefing next week on the balloon, including details about its surveillance capabilities, and that the Biden 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.”
The balloon — which had equipment about the size of three large buses, according to U.S. officials — was shot down Saturday by a missile launched from an F-22 Raptor, once it moved off the coast of South Carolina.
A U.S. defense official has said the balloon’s capabilities did not appear to be “over and above” those of Chinese satellites and other tools.
Democrats defended Biden’s handling of the matter, noting the balloon was brought down without injury to Americans.
“The president called for this to be dealt with in a way that balanced all of the different risks,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on CNN’S State of the Union. “That’s exactly what happened. The military did a terrific job.”
Point of tension
Cruz also drew attention to another point of tension between the countries in the case of Houston resident and businessman Mark Swidan, and reiterated his call for Swidan’s release.
Cruz last week introduced a resolution calling for the Biden administration to prioritize efforts to secure freedom for Swidan, who has been detained by China since 2012. Cruz had urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to press Swidan’s case during a scheduled visit to China, but that trip was canceled amid the balloon furor.
“If they want to demonstrate that they’re not bad actors, if they want to demonstrate that they can aspire to being a great nation, they should release Mark Swidan,” Cruz said of China. “Because great nations and great powers don’t hold political prisoners.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the balloon incursion was just one example of how China is “not playing by the rules of the world order.” But, Booker said, Biden’s handling of the balloon situation was “very just and very defensible.”