WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers on Sunday accused China of deliberately 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.
China, meanwhile, accused the U.S. of indiscriminate use of force when the American military shot down the balloon. Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said he lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy on Sunday over the “U.S. attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.”
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, among the members of Congress on the Sunday news shows. “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.
“It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere” between Alaska and the Carolinas where the U.S. could have safely shot down the balloon, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the full Senate will get a briefing next week on the balloon, including details about its surveillance capabilities, and that the administration is considering measures against the Chinese for “their brazen activities.” He said the GOP criticism was political and premature, and that the U.S. had “sent a clear message to China that this is not acceptable.”
A senior administration official said other Chinese balloons transited the U.S. at least briefly on three different occasions during the Trump administration and once previously since Biden took office. The official said that the Trump balloon transits only became known after Trump left office and that intelligence agencies would offer briefings to former officials from the last administration on China’s global surveillance programs.
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?’”
By Wednesday the balloon was over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos.
The Chinese "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.”
On Thursday the Pentagon publicly exposed the balloon, and after that, “China maneuvered the balloon to leave the U.S.,” Schumer told reporters Sunday. A U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the balloon changed course at that point.
That it could be maneuvered ran counter to China's contention that the balloon — claimed to be a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research — had limited “self-steering” capabilities and had “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.
"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.”
To Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who leads a new House committee on China, the message conveyed by Beijing is “look what we can do to you and get away with. Your corporations, your career politicians, they will come crawling back.”
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.
A U.S. official said those involved in the recovery were planning to take the remnants of the downed balloon to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, for further analysis. The official wasn't authorized to discuss the plan by name and requested anonymity.
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.
The Pentagon has said a second balloon had been flying over Latin America. On Sunday, Colombia’s Air Force said in a statement that an object matching the characteristics of the Chinese balloon entered the country’s airspace, at a height of around 55,000 feet, on Friday morning. The Air Force said it monitored the object’s flight path until it left the country and at no time did it pose a national security risk.
In neighboring Venezuela, people on social media reported seeing a balloon, but the government did not confirm its presence. In a statement, however, President Nicolas Maduro’s government condemned the U.S. for downing the balloon that had crossed the states, saying such actions against what China has said is a civilian aircraft that flew off course was an affront to international norms.
Turner was on NBC's “Meet the Press,” Rubio was on ABC's “This Week" and CNN's “State of the Union,” Mullen was on ABC and Gallagher appeared on Fox News Channel's “Sunday Morning Futures.”
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Tara Copp, Eric Tucker and Zeke Miller in Washington and Joshua Goodman in Cusco, Peru, contributed to this report.