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The fallout over the decision to shoot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean this weekend presents new logistical and diplomatic priorities for the United States.
In the immediate term, there’s the debris field to scour – across an area spread out over seven miles, according to a senior military official. There’s also the matter of a second surveillance balloon being tracked over Central and South America that bears similar technical characteristics to the one that flew over the US, a senior US administration official told CNN over the weekend.
Politically, questions surrounding the balloon – should it have been shot down earlier? was it able to collect any intelligence? what should the US response be? – loom large over President Joe Biden as he prepares for his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. The response in Washington has unfolded predictably, with Republicans calling Biden’s response delayed and Democrats rushing to defend the White House’s approach.
Beyond that, the diplomatic ramifications will be felt for some time between Washington and Beijing, as CNN’s Stephen Collinson explains.
US officials had balked at the prospect of shooting down the balloon over the US mainland due to safety considerations on the ground – and the size of the debris field revealed after Saturday’s operation provides justification for such thinking.
“The debris is in 47 feet of water, primarily – the recovery, that will make it fairly easy,” the official who briefed reporters Saturday said once the operation was carried out.
“Actually, we planned for much deeper water. So as far as the specific timeline to recovery, I can’t give you that right now,” the official added.
A second balloon
A balloon spotted over the skies of Latin America belongs to China and was used for flight tests, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Monday in response to CNN’s queries.
This is the first time Beijing has admitted the balloon spotted over two Latin American countries belongs to China.
The balloon “seriously deviated” from its planned course and entered the skies over Latin America and the Caribbean “by mistake” due to weather conditions and limited control ability over the craft, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a regular press briefing on Monday.
China doubles down
China has responded with fury over the US military action, saying on Sunday that it “reserves the right” to deal with “similar situations” going forward.
“The US used force to attack our civilian unmanned airship, which is an obvious overreaction. We express solemn protest against this move by the US side,” China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said in a statement on Sunday afternoon local time.
China’s Foreign Ministry has accused the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice.”
“The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday morning local time.
US officials have pushed back on China’s repeated claims the downed balloon was simply for civilian use and had made its way into American airspace by “accident.”
Tuesday. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed Biden there was a Chinese balloon floating over Montana – and that it appeared to be on a clear path into the continental United States, differentiating it from previous Chinese surveillance craft.
The president appeared inclined at that point to take the balloon down, and asked Milley and other military officials to draw up options and contingencies.
Wednesday. When options were presented to Biden, he directed his military leadership to shoot down the balloon as soon as they viewed it as a viable option, given concerns about risks to people and property on the ground.
“Shoot it down,” Biden told his military advisers, he would later recount to reporters.
But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Milley told Biden the risks of shooting the balloon down were too high while it was moving over the US, given the chance debris could endanger lives or property on the ground below.
“They said to me, ‘Let’s wait till the safest place to do it,’” Biden later told reporters.
Friday. A plan to shoot down the balloon was once again presented to Biden while he was in Wilmington, Delaware, where he approved the execution plan for Saturday.
Government officials were told Friday night “decisions would be made (Saturday) morning” on when to close down airspace, and FAA officials were told to “be by the phone” early Saturday morning and “ready to roll.”
Saturday. Austin gave his final approval for the strike shortly after noon on Saturday from a tarmac in New York, according to a defense official.
At about 1:30 p.m. ET, the FAA instituted one of the largest areas of restricted airspace in US history, more than five times the size of the restricted zone over Washington, DC, and roughly twice the size of the state of Massachusetts.
The Temporary Flight Restriction – put in place at the request of the Pentagon, the FAA said – included about 150 miles of Atlantic coastline that effectively paralyzed three commercial airports: Wilmington in North Carolina and Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina.
US military fighter jets shot down the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean off the Eastern Seaboard.
Read more here: CNN takes you inside Biden’s decision to “take care of” the Chinese spy balloon that triggered a diplomatic crisis.
House Republicans are weighing the passage of a resolution this week condemning the Biden administration for its handling of the suspected surveillance balloon, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN’s Melanie Zanona.
The resolution could pass as early as Tuesday, the same day Biden will deliver the State of the Union address from the US Capitol, although the source cautioned that the discussions were still ongoing and no firm plans had been made yet.
“Letting a Chinese surveillance balloon lazily drift over America is like seeing a robber on your front porch and inviting him in, showing him where you keep your safe, where you keep your guns, where your children sleep at night, and then politely asking him to leave. It makes no sense,” GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin told Fox News Sunday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the administration’s decision to shoot the Chinese spy balloon on Saturday “too late” and said the US let China “make a mockery” of US airspace.
But Democrats aren’t rolling over. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the GOP critiques “premature” and “political.”
“Our friends are playing politics with US intelligence. We sent a clear message to China that this is not acceptable. We protected civilians. We gained more intelligence while protecting our own sensitive information. And the bottom line here is shooting down the surveillance balloon over water wasn’t just the safest option, but it was the one that maximized our intelligence payload,” he said.
A Gang of Eight briefing – with the top leaders in both chambers and key intelligence committee members – on the suspected Chinese spy balloon may occur as early as Tuesday, according to a congressional source. Schumer also announced the full Senate would receive a comprehensive briefing on China next week.
But this isn’t the first Chinese surveillance balloon Congress has been briefed on. The Pentagon briefed Congress on previous balloons during the Trump administration that flew near Texas and Florida, GOP Rep. Michael Waltz said in a statement to CNN.
“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,” the Florida Republican said.
The new details about previous balloons flying near Florida and Texas were confirmed by two additional sources familiar with the briefings, CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Zachary Cohen reported Sunday evening.
But the transiting of those three suspected balloons during the previous administration was only discovered after Biden took office, a senior administration official told CNN’s Natasha Bertrand on Sunday. 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.