Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, the director for Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, arrives as lawmakers and intelligence advisers hold a closed briefing on the Chinese surveillance balloon that flew over the United States recently, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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The communist government in China heavily surveils its own citizens. It has detained members of a religious and ethnic minority group in de-facto forced labor camps as part of what some in the international community have described as genocide. It has repeatedly been deemed the top threat by U.S. military officials.

So the idea that the Chinese Communist Party would seek to spy on the U.S. and our infrastructure should not really be a surprise. An outrage and an aggressive violation of our sovereignty, yes, but sadly not a surprise. The idea of a slow-moving surveillance balloon drifting across the U.S. might seem like dystopian fiction but it is no great stretch of the imagination that China would explore all sorts of options to spy on this and other countries.

The U.S. government and military, therefore, should not have been surprised by such a scenario. Thus far, it remains unclear whether defense and civil leaders had a sufficient plan in place for this or future events like it. That needs to get cleared up, and fast.

Some of the gut reaction outrage over this incident has been over the top and unproductive, but there is a long list of questions that must be answered more fully.

We of course won’t pretend that the U.S. is without its own espionage apparatus, but once more, we must all avoid false equivalencies. For all the social media bluster, this was a serious act. It requires serious oversight from Congress and continued explanation and action from the White House and Pentagon — not to become a plaything of domestic politics but to bolster national security.

That oversight kicked off publicly on Thursday with a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing with several defense officials. The subcommittee dealing with defense spending is led by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, where the public  first became aware of the balloon’s presence here in the country. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is the top Republican on the panel.

“Last week was a sober reminder of just how petty and divided our politics have become. Make no mistake about it, what China did last week was completely unacceptable and a real threat to American sovereignty. It deserves a real response from a united America,” Tester said. “I was very discouraged by some of the responses from elected officials, in the House and the Senate, [who] decided this was a great opportunity to score some cheap political points and get attention on social media. China is a real threat and one we need to take seriously, which is exactly why we are here today.”

He did not hesitate to press the witnesses for answers, however. And he highlighted how he and Collins communicated amid the balloon news as it broke last week and committed to taking action.

“This incident highlights the ongoing and increasingly blatant threat to the United States posed by the People’s Republic of China, which is the pacing threat not just for today, but for the foreseeable future,” Collins said Thursday. “Ultimately, our subcommittee is responsible for making sure that the Department of Defense has the resources needed to keep America safe.”

The senators’ questions during the Thursday hearing were more compelling than the answers provided by the witnesses. That speaks to the work remaining for the Joe Biden administration and the Department of Defense to clear things up, and demonstrate a clear plan moving forward for future incidents like this.

More information was released separately by the State Department on Thursday, and senators were set to get more details in a classified briefing later that day. We of course understand the need to have some of these discussions behind closed doors to protect certain information from finding its way to the Chinese government. They certainly are watching and assessing how the U.S. continues to respond to this airspace incursion, as well. We need to be careful about accidentally rewarding them with more information. But don’t forget, the free exchange of information and ability to question the government are things that distinguish us from authoritarian countries like China.

“I respect the need to keep some of this classified,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said at the hearing. “But we all understand that some of the desire to keep things classified has to do with not wanting to disclose to the public things that might be inconvenient politically for the department.”

Congress must respond to the spy balloon incident, not with trolling, but with thoughtful and forceful oversight. Not because it gets headlines or makes a political opponent look weak, but because it makes America stronger.  

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...