Maine’s senior senator and a colleague will hold a hearing to press President Joe Biden’s administration on its response to the suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast on Saturday.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine joined other Republicans in criticizing the Democratic president for not shooting the balloon down when it was over remote areas of Alaska or Montana. The Biden administration has countered by saying the balloon posted no urgent intelligence-gathering threat, and it would have been unsafe to shoot it down over land.
It is both a domestic political test for Biden and a major challenge to relations with China, which have been at a low point. The new tension came just before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to meet President Xi Jinping in Beijing this week as part of a trip that was called off due to the slow-motion international incident.
China’s suspected surveillance balloon entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28 over Alaska. Its presence was first made public when it was spotted Wednesday over Billings, Montana, which is home to an Air Force base with nuclear missile silos. It continued over the Midwest before it was taken down over the weekend near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The Biden administration’s response prompted a strong reaction from lawmakers. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who chairs the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced Friday that the panel would hold a hearing on the balloon. Collins is the top Republican among that group and said she is working on the matter with Tester.
“The Administration must provide Congress with more information about why it did not shoot down the balloon earlier over remote areas of Alaska or Montana,” Collins said in a statement.
A date has not been set for the hearing, which Collins will also probe the Biden administration’s claim that the U.S. gained intelligence by allowing it to fly across the country. Congressional leaders and some other lawmakers will be briefed on the incident this week, and all senators will meet with administration officials to discuss it on Feb. 15.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats and sits with Collins on the intelligence panel, said in a Monday statement that he was “pleased” the administration took “decisive action” and is waiting to hear more about the episode.
U.S. officials have rejected Chinese claims that the balloon was a weather-monitoring device. They have also said China floated balloons across American airspace during the tenure of former President Donald Trump. Collins said this one appears to be “unprecedented in its nature and duration.”
The military took “maximum protective measures” while it was transiting across the U.S. to glean as much information as possible about its use by the Chinese, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, said at a Monday briefing.
“There was a potential opportunity for us to collect intel where we had gaps on prior balloons,” he said. “You’ll see in the future that that time frame was well worth its value to collect.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the subcommittee holding the hearing. It is a panel within the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.