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When a Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the U.S. and eventually shot down earlier this year, the Biden administration downplayed its ability to gather sensitive information. That is increasingly looking like hot air.
“The Chinese spy balloon that flew across the U.S. was able to gather intelligence from several sensitive American military sites, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to block it from doing so, according to two current senior U.S. officials and one former senior administration official,” NBC News reporters Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee wrote on April 3.
This despite the administration’s repeated public assurances that the balloon’s intelligence collection had “limited additive value” for China compared with what it can glean from satellites. The newest reports stress the importance of Congress continuing to press the administration for answers about this incident and spy balloons generally. And the Biden administration must take care not to emulate the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to control information and control the narrative, and instead provide clear answers to lawmakers and the public.
The situation raises concerning questions, not just about how the Biden administration responded in this specific instance but also about America’s tracking and general preparedness for other incursions from spy balloons or other unauthorized and unidentified objects in our airspace. Congress must keep at it, not to make political hay, but to ensure there is a clear understanding of what happened and how it can be prevented moving forward.
Asking questions about this sensitive topic and pushing to ensure better planning is not counter to national security, it is a critical part of furthering national security. Accountability is a vital part of democracy. Those in power must be responsive to the people who have temporarily given them that power.
As Politico reported in late March, Congress has had some difficulty getting answers from the administration about spy balloons and other foreign objects floating in our airspace. This itself is a problem that must be rectified.
“What is our capability to observe what’s in our airspace? There’s holes in it. We should understand what we can and cannot observe and understand what we need to do to be able to fill those gaps,” Tim Gallaudet, the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under former President Donald Trump, told Politico. “The balloon surprising us — it was a big wake up call.”
As Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said following the balloon incident, it appeared “we didn’t have, at that point, a clear policy on what to do.” Pentagon officials have acknowledged a “domain awareness gap” but many specifics have been hard to come by publicly. That must change.
“We have consistently learned more from press reports about the Chinese surveillance balloon than we have from administration officials,” Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week. The frustration is understandable, and the difficulty getting answers is unacceptable.
In a recent call with reporters, John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, did not inspire much confidence that the administration will improve its information sharing about the balloon’s reported movements and intelligence collection.
“It’s entirely likely that we will not be able to, for understandable reasons, share with you or with the public much of the detail of what we learn,” Kirby said, as reported by the Washington Examiner. “But I don’t want to get ahead of where we are in that process. That analysis is still ongoing.”
We understand that there is a balance here in terms of transparency and safeguarding sensitive national security information from adversaries abroad. But this very public incident requires a more detailed public explanation to provide answers here at home.