U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and colleagues grilled national security officials Thursday on their handling of the suspected Chinese spy balloon that traversed the country before it was shot down over the weekend off the South Carolina coast.
The balloon entered U.S. airspace over Alaska late last month and its presence was made public when it was spotted last week over Montana. It is part of a fleet of balloons under the direction of the Chinese army that is used for spying, outfitted with equipment designed to collect sensitive information from global targets, American officials have said.
Senators got their first chance to press the administration of President Joe Biden on the incident at a Thursday hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Collins is the top Republican on the panel at large and the smaller one focused on defense.
She has joined other members of her party in sharply criticizing the Democratic president’s response, initially saying that the balloon should have been taken down over remote portions of Alaska or Montana. At the Thursday hearing, she amplified that message and said China represents an “ongoing and increasingly blatant threat” to the U.S.
“In my judgment, U.S. deterrence was weakened when this spy balloon was permitted to traverse Alaska and several other states, including hovering over sensitive military bases and assets,” she said.
The military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligence China was seeking, Jedidiah Royal, the U.S. assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific, told the panel. More information was provided to senators in a classified meeting following the public session.
Defense and military officials defended how they handled the balloon, saying it was not initially clear what its aims were as it crossed into U.S. airspace but became clearer as it continued into the lower 48 states. At that point, the risk was deemed to be higher, Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims II, the director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators.
“We also knew we had the ability to mitigate that risk, and we’ll be able to talk to that further in the session following,” Sims said.
Collins told reporters that she did not hear a “satisfactory explanation” in either the public or private sessions about why the balloon was not shot down over Alaska. In the public session, a top defense official said doing so in the frigid Bering Sea would have made recovery difficult.
The full Senate was given a midday briefing on the incident. After the balloon was shot down, Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, praised the Biden administration for taking “decisive action” through a spokesperson who said the senator’s thinking had not changed after Thursday’s briefing. Not all senators were assuaged.
“Quite frankly, I’ll just tell you, I don’t want a damn balloon going across the United States when we potentially could have taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who chairs the subcommittee holding the Thursday hearing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.