The transiting of three suspected Chinese spy balloons over the continental US during the Trump administration was only discovered after President Joe Biden took office, a senior administration official told CNN on Sunday.
The official did not say how or when those incidents were discovered.
The official said that the intelligence community is prepared to offer briefings to key Trump administration officials about the Chinese surveillance program, which the Biden administration believes has been deployed in countries across five continents over the last several years.
After the Biden administration disclosed last week that a suspected Chinese spy balloon was hovering over Montana, the Pentagon said that similar balloon incidents had occurred during the Trump administration. In response, former Trump administration Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN on Friday that he was “surprised” by that statement.
“I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” he said.
Former President Donald Trump also said on Truth Social this week that reports of Chinese balloons transiting the US during his administration were “fake disinformation.”
John Bolton, a former national security adviser under Trump, also pushed back on the assertion that balloons surveilled the US during the former president’s tenure, asking, “Did the Biden administration invent a time machine? What is the basis of this new detection?” but added he would take a briefing from the current administration on the Trump-era balloon discoveries if it was offered to him.
“The very fact, if it is a fact, that the Chinese tried this before, should have alerted us and should have caused us to take action before the balloon crossed into American sovereign territory,” Bolton said Monday on “CNN This Morning.”
The Biden administration official now says the incidents were not discovered until after the Trump administration had already left. But the official did not say how those incidents were discovered or when.
CNN reported on Sunday that the Pentagon had briefed Congress of previous Chinese surveillance balloons during the Trump administration that flew near Texas and Florida.
Rep. Michael Waltz confirmed in a statement to CNN that “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.”
Another Chinese spy balloon also transited the continental US briefly at the beginning of the Biden administration, the senior administration official said. But the balloon that was shot down by the US military on Saturday was unique in both the path it took, down from Alaska and Canada into the US, and the length of time it spent loitering over sensitive missile sites in Montana, officials said.
The senior administration official said that with regard to the balloon shot down on Saturday, the analysis into its capabilities is ongoing. But, the official added, “closely observing the balloon in flight has allowed us to better understand this Chinese program and further confirmed its mission was surveillance.”
Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for not shooting the balloon down earlier after it was first noticed over Alaska on January 28. House Republicans are weighing the passage of a resolution this week condemning the Biden administration for its handling the balloon, CNN reported Sunday
Over the weekend, Biden revealed he ordered the Pentagon to shoot the balloon down last Wednesday when he was first briefed on it hovering over Montana, but that he was advised by his military team to wait until the balloon was over water to minimize the risk posed to civilians and infrastructure. Shooting it down over water also maximized the possibility of recovering the payload – the equipment carried by the balloon that the US says was being used for surveillance – intact and able to be examined further by the US intelligence community, officials said.
CNN’s Shawna Mizelle and Andrew Millman contributed to this report.