Balloon bickering over Biden's actions, China's intentions

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican lawmakers on Sunday accused China of deliberating 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 high-altitude 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. “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.

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. He has defended the administration for making “the right call” on when to shoot it down and said the Republican criticism was “wrong and political.”

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.”

The flight came to an end at about 2:39 p.m. EST Saturday, when an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, defense officials said.

The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over roughly 7 miles. Officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks.

Defense officials who briefed reporters have said the U.S. was able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the country. They said the military concluded that the technology on the balloon didn’t give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could already obtain from satellites, though the U.S. took steps to mitigate what information it could gather as it moved along.

Chris Megerian, The Associated Press