Chris Lange, FISM News
U.S. Naval vessels continued efforts throughout Monday to collect debris from a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down off the South Carolina Coast Saturday afternoon as the head of U.S. Northern Command (NORAD) appeared to shoulder the blame for previous surveillance aircraft incursions that went unreported.
Air Force General Glen VanHerck told reporters at a briefing Monday that the U.S. was not aware, until well after the fact, that suspected Chinese surveillance aircraft intruded into U.S. airspace on at least three occasions during the Trump administration and on at least one previous occasion under the Biden presidency.
“As the NORAD commander, it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,” VanHerck said. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”
“The intel community, after the fact, made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America,” he added.
VanHerck’s admission appeared to undercut Democrats’ claims that Trump had been aware of Chinese spying but failed to respond.
Mark Esper, a former Trump administration defense secretary, told CNN: “I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States.”
Trump refuted the claims as “fake disinformation” in a post to his Truth Social account Monday.
“The Chinese Balloon situation is a disgrace, just like the Afghanistan horror show, and everything else surrounding the grossly incompetent Biden Administration,” Trump wrote. “They are only good at cheating in elections, and disinformation — and now they are putting out that a Balloon was put up by China during the Trump Administration, in order to take the ‘heat’ off the slow moving Biden fools. China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did. JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION!”
U.S. officials have so far not provided any information as to precisely when and where previous incursions were discovered, nor why they were only able to be identified in retrospect.
Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz told CNN, however, that members of Congress discovered at a Pentagon briefing Monday that suspected Chinese surveillance balloons flew near Texas and Florida during Trump’s tenure in the White House.
“Currently, we understand there were incursions near Florida and Texas, but we don’t have clarity on what kind of systems were on these balloons or if these incursions occurred in territorial waters or overflew land,” Waltz said in a statement.
Defense officials also said incursions were discovered to have taken place over Hawaii and Guam, according to the report.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials appear to be baffled by Beijing’s most recent known surveillance attempt, given that far more advanced Chinese satellites have most likely already acquired identical or similar information to that which may have been gleaned by the far less sophisticated balloons.
“China’s massive espionage program is considered first-rate. Yet the balloon operation over the U.S. was seen as clumsy and clunky,” according to NPR’s assessment.
“The Chinese had to know that a large balloon — visible to civilians with the naked eye — would be detected. That raises the possibility that one of the Chinese goals was to see how the U.S. would react to this kind of provocation.”
Navy vessels on Monday set about mapping out and sorting debris from the downed surveillance balloon spread out across a one-mile radius in the Atlantic.
An explosive ordnance disposal scene was onsite to determine whether the debris contained any explosives or other hazardous material, VanHerck said in statement.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that recovering the balloon debris will take some time but said that the materials collected will enable the U.S. to “exploit what we recover and learn even more than we have learned,” according to The Hill.
President Biden will make his first State of the Union address of 2023 Tuesday night under a cloud of intense criticism by GOP lawmakers who said that he acted too slowly to shoot down the balloon. Republicans said the delay projected U.S. weakness, an accusation from the right that has long plagued the Biden presidency, particularly after the deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
Politico said on Saturday that the House Republicans may be planning to add Biden’s alleged mishandling of the Chinese spy balloon incident to their long list of probes into the administration, suggesting that an announcement could come today ahead of Biden’s State of the Union speech.
“NEWS: House Rs are discussing moving a resolution that’d criticize the Biden admin for inaction re. the Chinese surveillance balloon,” Politico reporter Olivia Beavers tweeted Saturday. “My leadership source says if they pull trigger, it’d likely hit the floor Tuesday.”
The balloon incident has caused further tensions in an already strained relationship between Washington and Bejing.
Biden came under heavy criticism from Republicans for allowing the suspected spy balloon to transverse the U.S. before shooting it down, but China still voiced displeasure for the response, calling it an “obvious overreaction” and demanding that debris be handed back over to them. A Chinese spokesperson went a step further on Monday, saying that there could be “serious repercussions” for Biden’s military action.
President Biden defended his actions to reporters yesterday, trying to both save face for his delayed reaction and cool down heightened tensions between the U.S. and China.
“We made it clear to China what we’re going to do,” Biden said when asked whether the incident would strain U.S./China relations. “They understand our position. We’re not going to back off. We did the right thing and it’s not a question of weakening or strengthening – it’s reality.”
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the balloon‘s flight over the United States had done nothing to improve already tense relations with China and dismissed Beijing’s contention it was for meteorological purposes. He also said that security officials hope to gather information from the remains of the balloon to give insight into any intel that may have been gathered.