Why Trump officials were unaware of Chinese spy balloons
Former Trump administration officials have expressed frustration and confusion in recent days over revelations that Chinese surveillance balloons hovered over U.S. airspace during their time in office.
As more information has emerged about the extent of China’s use of balloons to surveil the U.S. and other countries — another object was shot down over waters near Alaska on Friday afternoon, though it is unclear where it came from — it has fueled questions about why officials from the Trump administration were unaware of previous incursions and spurred frustration among some of those officials.
“I was in the administration for every single day that Trump was in office on the national security team,” said Keith Kellogg, who served on the Trump White House National Security Council before taking over as national security adviser to then-Vice President Mike Pence in 2018.
“During that time this never ever came up,” he added. “So for them to say it happened during the Trump administration, we weren’t aware of it and we would’ve taken immediate action. If it did happen under President Trump and he was not told, that’s more than just egregious, that’s a dereliction of duty.”
A senior Pentagon official told reporters last week that Chinese government surveillance balloons hovered over the continental U.S. “at least three times” during the Trump administration, and one additional time at the beginning of the Biden administration.
Those three incursions were for shorter periods of time than the balloon that caused a major international incident last week after it was spotted over Montana before floating across parts of the country and ultimately being shot down near the South Carolina coast.
Since that disclosure, a slew of former Trump administration officials who worked in the intelligence community have uniformly said they were unaware of Chinese spy balloons hovering over the U.S. at any point during the last administration.
“I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” Mark Esper, who served as Defense secretary from July 2019 through November 2020, said on CNN last week.
Kellogg, who briefly served as acting national security adviser to Trump, said he was unaware of the sightings, as did John Bolton, who spent roughly a year in the role.
Kellogg even suggested there should be congressional hearings on how the sightings could have happened without national security officials in the Trump White House being notified.
John Ratcliffe, who spent the final seven months of the administration as director of national intelligence, said he was not aware of any Chinese balloons hovering over U.S. territory during that time.
“It never happened with us under the Trump administration, and if it did, we would have shot it down immediately,” Trump told Fox News. “It’s disinformation.”
Republicans have lambasted the Biden administration for not being more quick to shoot down the balloon that was first seen over Montana. On Friday, the White House announced a “flying object” had been shot down near Alaska as reporters asked about rumors that another balloon had been spotted.
There appear to be a few possible reasons for why senior Trump administration officials would have been unaware of Chinese balloons over the U.S.
Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the commander of the Pentagon’s Northern Command, told reporters on a conference call on Monday that the balloons went undetected, calling it a “domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”
VanHerck declined to comment further about how the balloons went undetected.
Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to President Biden, on Monday said the Biden administration had improved the government’s capacity to “be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect.”
The balloons from the Trump administration also were not over U.S. airspace for a very long time, officials said in recent days, shortening the window to identify them and take action.
Esper was asked Thursday on Fox News why the U.S. was unable to detect the Chinese surveillance balloons in the past.
“I think that’s a very important question,” Esper said. “Is it a technical question? Is it a reporting question or a decision-making question?
In the case of the balloon shot down last week, Esper questioned if there was a reporting issue between military and civilian leaders that allowed it to float over much of the U.S. before it could be taken down, or if the Biden administration waited to avoid upsetting relations with China before a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Blinken’s visit was ultimately canceled because of the balloon, and Biden and his aides have said the military waited to shoot down the balloon until it was over water. The size of the balloon, which has been likened to the equivalent of roughly three school buses, could have damaged property or injured people upon impact, officials said.
Concerns over China’s use of surveillance balloons have only intensified in recent days as information has circulated that the object shot down last week had antennas to help collect information and was part of a much larger operation run by the Chinese military to spy on more than 40 countries across five continents.
James Andrew Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued balloons are fairly low on the totem pole of potential spying techniques that could be deployed by China or other adversaries.
He said China is unlikely to use a similar tactic in the near future given the focus on the latest balloon.
“The real problem is if we don’t confront Chinese espionage, we will continue to face consequences,” Lewis said.
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