Trump Officials Offer Inconsistent Explanations About Prior Chinese Spy Balloons

Micaela Burrow 

China deployed high-altitude surveillance balloons into the U.S. under the Trump administration, but officials say those balloons went undetected or were not considered threatening, according to media reports.

After a U.S. fighter jet shot down the suspected spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, senior defense and military officials revealed that similar incursions had taken place at least once at the beginning of President Joe Biden’s term and three times under former President Donald Trump. Senior Trump administration officials afterward denied knowledge of the balloons, Politico reported, while the Biden administration officials added that those balloons, seen as national security threats, were not identified until after they had passed through U.S. airspace, The Wall Street Journal reported.

China’s “willingness to put it in the continental United States for an extended period of time” was a key difference between prior incursions and the one first identified on Jan. 28, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Thursday, the first time officials publicly disclosed knowledge of the balloon. In addition, its flight path covered many “sensitive” U.S. sites.

“[People’s Republic of China] government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time,” a senior defense official elaborated on Saturday.

The difference in duration could explain why prior instances evaded detection, officials told Politico and the WSJ.

Information about balloon incursions during Trump’s years in office “was discovered after the prior administration left,” a senior Biden administration official said, according to the outlets. The intelligence community is prepared to brief relevant Trump administration officials on the Chinese surveillance program, the official added.

Five top Trump administration officials denied ever knowing about Chinese balloon activity in the U.S., Politico reported.

“I’m not aware of a single civilian national security leader from the Trump administration who heard of this,” a former national security official told the outlet.

Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served as acting national security adviser for Trump, said that balloons did cross into the U.S. but did not appear to pose a danger on The Vince Coglianese Show Friday.

“Yeah, there were balloons that went out there, but it was the track that we didn’t worry about…. When it gets to a position which is tracking very, very sensitive sites — this one is — then you respond to it,” he said.

Lawmakers expressed shock over the apparent scope of China’s surveillance activity and the lag in the Biden administration’s response, the WSJ reported. Although the balloon entered U.S. airspace over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, President Joe Biden did not ask for military options until it had transited Canada and reentered the U.S. on Jan 31.

“This administration didn’t just fail here. They failed to prepare after the first time this happened during this administration,” Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner said Sunday.

The Pentagon delayed downing the balloon until it could be done without risk of injuring people on the ground, officials said Saturday.

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