The Reporter (Vacaville)

Latest downed objects could well be `benign,' US says


WASHINGTON >> The three still-unidentifi­ed aerial objects shot down by the U.S. in the past week likely had merely a “benign purpose,” the White House acknowledg­ed Tuesday, drawing a distinctio­n between them and the massive Chinese balloon that earlier traversed the U.S. with a suspected goal of surveillan­ce.

“The intelligen­ce community is considerin­g as a leading explanatio­n that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.

Officials also disclosed that a missile fired at one of the three objects, over Lake Huron on Sunday, missed its intended target and landed in the water before a second one successful­ly hit.

The new details came as the Biden's administra­tion's actions over the past two weeks faced fresh scrutiny in Congress.

First, U.S. fighter jets didn't shoot down what officials described as a Chinese spy balloon until after had crossed much of the United States, citing safety concerns. Then the military deployed F-22 fighters with heat-seeking missiles to quickly shoot down what likely were harmless objects.

Taken together, the actions raised political as well as security questions, about whether the Biden administra­tion overreacte­d after facing Republican criticism for reacting too slowly to the big balloon.

Even as more informatio­n about the three objects emerges, questions remain about what they were, who sent them and how the U.S. might respond to unidentifi­ed airborne objects in the future.

Still unaddresse­d are questions about the original balloon, including what spying capabiliti­es it had and whether it was transmitti­ng signals as it flew over sensitive military sites in the United States. It was believed by American intelligen­ce to have initially been on a track toward the U.S. territory of Guam, according to a U.S. official.

The U.S. tracked it for several days after it left China, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligen­ce. It appears to have been blown off its initial trajectory and ultimately flew over the continenta­l U.S., the official said.

Balloons and other unidentifi­ed objects have been previously spotted over Guam, a strategic hub for the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the western Pacific.

It's unclear how much control China retained over the balloon once it veered from its original trajectory. A second U.S. official said the balloon could have been externally maneuvered or directed to loiter over a specific target, but it's unclear whether Chinese forces did so.

Even less is known about the three objects shot down over three successive days, from Friday to Sunday, in part because it's been challengin­g to recover debris from remote locations in the Canadian Yukon, off northern Alaska and near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Lake Huron. So far, officials have no indication they were part of a bigger surveillan­ce operation along with the balloon that that was shot down off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4.

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