WASHINGTON – Three unidentified flying objects shot down from North American airspace could turn out to be balloons used for research or commercial purposes that posed no direct threat to the U.S., a White House spokesman said Tuesday.
“Given what we’ve been able to ascertain thus far, the intelligence community is considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” said spokesman John Kirby.
No one has come forward to claim responsibility. And there are still a number of unanswered questions.
But Kirby said the U.S. hasn’t seen any indication that points directly to the objects being part of China’s spy balloon program, even though they were shot down about a week after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the Atlantic coast. He said the Pentagon has ruled out the possibility that the objects were from the U.S. government.
Complicating the search for more details, the U.S. has not yet retrieved debris from the objects shot down over Alaska, Canada’s Yukon territory and in U.S. airspace over Lake Huron because each is in remote areas with difficult conditions and two are in bodies of water.
“We’ll get them eventually but it’s going to take some time,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday in Brussels.
Some remnants of the Chinese spy balloon have been retrieved from about 50 feet of ocean off the coast of South Carolina. The object shot down Sunday over Lake Huron is in hundreds of feet of water, he said.
One missile fired at that object missed its mark and landed harmlessly, according to Milley.
Senators briefed on the incidents Tuesday said the threat level from the unidentified objects is low.
But Republicans say the American people need to hear that from President Joe Biden.
“I mean, my phone is ringing off the wall, and we’ve got a president of the United States that’s not saying anything,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said after the briefing. “Get out there and tell the people we’re in good shape, we know what’s going on, and let’s go on with life.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Biden administration is being “very careful and very thoughtful.” Some of the information can’t be made public because it is classified or “on the edge of classified, and it’s difficult,” he said.
Multiple senators and Kirby confirmed Tuesday that officials haven’t been able to retrieve data from the last three objects that were shot down.
Idaho Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at least one of the three objects had a payload.
More:How many spy balloons have been spotted? Questions mount after flying objects shot down
What senators are saying about the spy balloons
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley said they didn’t learn much in the briefing.
“I get the feeling they don’t really know what in the world is going on,” Hawley said.
Biden should be addressing the nation and “laying out what they know,” said Hawley, who expressed frustration that nobody from White House administration was in the briefing.
Schumer said some of his Republican colleagues are being “premature” and “very political” in their views.
Other Republicans, such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, had a measured tone Tuesday.
Murkowski said she was “angry” last week about an incursion in American airspace, especially because her home state is the first line of defense to foreign adversaries China and Russia.
On Tuesday morning, she said she still has questions, but some may not be answered until data is retrieved.
“It’s pretty tough conditions up north right now, and they’re looking for a needle in a haystack – but it’s probably worse. It’s about 50 below up there right now,” she said of the temperature in Alaska and over the border in the Canadian Yukon.
When asked if he approved of the Biden administration’s decisions, Tillis said, “I think so” and expressed confidence that data retrieval from the spy balloon shot down over South Carolina would produce “very valuable information.”
“I think they’ve done a good job of getting our situational awareness to where it is today and we had no situational awareness a month ago,” he said after the briefing.
Congress has called for swift action from Biden, including fellow Democrats saying they want transparency and consequences for spying. Biden, meanwhile, is threading a delicate balance of trying to show strong leadership and strong diplomacy with a foreign adversary.
Kirby said Monday the administration is being “as transparent as we can be.” He said Biden has directed his team to properly consult and brief members of Congress and state leaders. “We’re also doing what we can in the public sphere.”
How many spy balloons have been spotted and shot down?
At least one spy balloon and three unidentified flying objects have been detected and shot down:
- A suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon was shot down six miles off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4.
- A flying object was shot down Friday near Deadhorse, Alaska.
- Another flying object was shot down Saturday in Canada’s Yukon.
- A fourth flying object was shot down Sunday about 15 nautical miles off shore in Lake Huron, likely landing in Canadian waters.
Why weren’t the spy balloons spotted sooner?
Senators – and House members – have questioned why suspected Chinese spy balloons were in U.S. airspace during the Trump administration but weren’t spotted until the Biden administration was in office.
U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD, did not identify at least four Chinese balloons that entered U.S. airspace through Florida, Hawaii and Texas.
VanHerck, the NORAD commander, said not detecting those threats is “a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”
Some Republican senators said Tuesday morning that gap is unacceptable.
“This has been going on for years,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “We don’t really know what they are. We don’t even know if we’d caught all of them.”
Senators will get another classified briefing Wednesday afternoon on overall threats from China.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe and Joey Garrison
Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
Story Credit: usatoday.com