Administration scrambles to quell Congress’s frustration over balloon, UFOs

Senior administration officials scrambled Tuesday to quell frustrations expressed by lawmakers about a lack of timely information concerning several flying objects and a Chinese spy balloon shot down over the past two weeks. 

In a classified briefing on Tuesday, the officials offered an update on the three aerial objects shot down Friday afternoon and last weekend. Separately, officials said they believed the objects were not threats to national security and were benign balloons. 

It’s unclear just how much the briefing calmed lawmakers, as senators say they didn’t get answers to several questions, including who launched the objects that were shot down in recent days, whether they were military or commercial vehicles and what they were doing in the sky.   

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after the briefing that Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) will lead an investigation into why the balloons weren’t detected earlier.  

“We still have questions about why they didn’t discover these balloons sooner, these objects sooner,” Schumer told reporters after the weekly Democratic caucus meeting. “Sen. Tester is going to lead our caucus in investigating this. It’s a good question. We need to answer it.” 

Republicans on Tuesday ramped up their criticism of Biden’s response to the Chinese spy balloon, framing it as part of a broader inattention to national security issues.  

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) cited the balloon, along with the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021, Biden’s modest request for defense spending in last year’s White House budget proposal and the president’s failure to discuss Iran or North Korea in his State of the Union address.  

“I think it is deeply disturbing that the president put all of his emphasis on things that were unrelated to the very serious threat that we’re all confronting here, not only in Ukraine, not only in Asia but even with balloons flying right over our skies,” McConnell said at a press conference.

“I think the American people deserve to hear more from the president on all of these issues and hopefully we will in the coming days,” he added. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said administration officials are trying to improve their response time to inquiries from Capitol Hill, but that many of her colleagues on both sides of the aisle still feel frustrated about the slow pace of information.   

“I think they know that people are frustrated because we’re not getting much additional information, if any,” she said. “We’re getting questions from people that we’re representing. It’s alarming, in some sense.”  

Senators heard from Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command; Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Morgan Muir, deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration; Melissa Dalton, the assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs; and Sean Kirkpatrick, the director of the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office.  

Senate Democrats also want to know why at least three balloons that entered the nation’s airspace during the Trump administration weren’t detected until years later.  

“We want to find out why it took until now” to detect the balloons, Schumer told reporters. “Now, they’re upgrading their radars, they’re upgrading everything, but we still should know that answer.”   

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said the administration immediately shot down three unidentified “objects” over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron in recent days to make up for its slow response to the Chinese spy balloon that floated over a broad swath of the country earlier this month before getting shot down over the Atlantic.  

“He took a lot of criticism from that, including criticism from senators in his own party, and therefore I think he didn’t want to suffer that criticism again,” he said.   

The U.S. military has yet to recover the vehicles shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron, leaving much unknown about them. 

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said the objects “could be commercial” but asked “if it is commercial, why wouldn’t whoever launched it resolve the issue” by “claiming responsibility for it.”   

He said senior administration and military officials “have done a good job of getting our situational awareness to where it is today, and we had no situational awareness a month ago.”   

Capito said lawmakers still have questions about which administration officials knew about the first Chinese balloon that floated over Alaska, Montana and other parts of the country.   

“Who knew about it when? That’s still not clear. How long did they really know about this? Why didn’t they know about it sooner? Why didn’t do something sooner? So there’s still a lot of lingering questions about that,” she added.   

Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), a senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the administration can still be more transparent and forthcoming about its handling of balloons and other aerial objects entering U.S. airspace.

“I think it can be done without compromising, in intelligence lingo, ‘sources and methods,’” he said. 

Tester, whose home state was under the flight path of the Chinese spy balloon, said he wasn’t happy with the president’s handling of that incident and that it should have been shot down before reaching the continental United States.   

“I think they could have done better on the first incident, and I think they’ve, from my perspective, picked up their game a lot,” he said. 

Tester, however, noted Biden was briefed by the military before making the decision to shoot down the balloon off the Atlantic coast and had to take into consideration a variety of factors, such as potential collateral damage caused by a shoot-down and different recovery scenarios. 

Senators say they didn’t receive a lot of new information at Tuesday morning’s briefing.   

Tillis said there’s little information on the latest objects because “they have not been able to recover anything as they have off the coast of the Carolinas.”   

Defense and intelligence officials also are still not classifying the downed UFOs other than to say they are “objects” and that there are no signs of “aliens or extraterrestrial activity.” 

“They’re not at a stage where they’re going to categorically identify them. They’re balloons, blimps, a number of other things. They’re not from outer space,” Tillis said.   

Partisan lines are beginning to emerge in the debate over how to respond to foreign balloons in U.S. airspace, as some Republicans say that Biden’s decision to let the first Chinese spy balloon float over sensitive military installations may have compromised national security.   

Some Republicans are still upset about what they describe as the president’s evasive response to questions about why he waited so long.   

“President Biden owes the American people an explanation. President Biden should speak on camera directly to the American people today,” Cotton said.   

“On the one hand, the administration is saying we don’t yet know what these last three objects are and we don’t want to characterize them until we recover them, but on the other hand it wasn’t a threat,” he added. “Both of those things can’t be true.”

Schumer said the Republican criticism of the president is “premature.”  

“We’re learning more about these objects and our ability to detect them hour by hour,” he said. “Our defense and intelligence agencies are focused like a laser on first gathering the information, assessing the information and coming up with a comprehensive view to what is going on.” 

“I think the Biden administration is being very careful and very thoughtful,” he added. “I think some of our Republican colleagues are being at the very minimum premature and often just very political,” Schumer added. 

Updated at 5:16 p.m.

Tags aerial objects Charles Schumer Chinese surveillance balloon Joe Biden Jon Tester Jon Tester Ron Wyden Ron Wyden Shelley Moore Capito Shelley Moore Capito thom tillis Thom Tillis Tom Cotton Tom Cotton unidentified flying object

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