Press: Balloonacy floats across United States
One thing’s for sure — we’re not made of the same stuff the people of Ukraine are.
For a whole year, they’ve stoically experienced bombs and missiles raining down on them. Yet we see one unarmed balloon floating 60,000 feet over the United States, and the entire country panics.
Last week’s response to the Chinese spy balloon was so over-the-top it was embarrassing. For five days, the media gave it wall-to-wall coverage, as if the balloon posed an immediate danger to the American people. Which it didn’t. Republicans reacted in true partisan fashion, accusing President Biden of going “weak” on China by allowing what some claimed was the first Chinese balloon to penetrate American air space. Which it wasn’t.
“SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON,” Donald Trump shouted on Truth Social. “POP THIS BALLOON!,” echoed the front page of the New York Post.
Granted, releasing high-altitude espionage balloons around the globe is a blatant violation of international sovereignty, for which China should rightly be condemned — and for which some form of retaliation short of military action is in order. Cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China is a good first step. On that, Democrats and Republicans can agree. Beyond that, America’s best response is not to panic, but to just chill — and consider the facts. What do we know?
We know America’s not the only target of Chinese government surveillance. The Pentagon has also tracked its spy balloons over East Asia, South Asia, Western Europe and, most recently, Latin America. Nor is this the first time one’s been spotted over American territory. The last time was in February of 2022, hovering near Hawaii.
We know, according to the Pentagon, that three surveillance balloons also flew over parts of the United States between 2017 and 2020, when — guess who? — former President Trump was in the White House. Although several Trump officials, including the former president himself, initially denied that report, the Pentagon revealed they were probably not informed because the balloons were not considered a serious threat to national security. Last week’s balloon was treated differently only because it remained over the lower 48 for five days.
We also know, again according to the Pentagon, that at no time did the balloon pose a threat to public safety or to national security, because there was no intelligence it could gain at 60,000 feet that the Chinese government hadn’t already collected from its spy satellites circling the earth and passing overhead a couple of times a day. Just like American satellites do.
We also know, although his critics would never admit it, that Biden did the right thing. His first reaction, the day he found out about it? “I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday, as soon as possible,” Biden told reporters.
When military leaders urged delay in order to avoid the risk of loss of life or property, were the balloon shot down over populated areas, Biden agreed to wait. But he told them to down the balloon as soon as it arrived over the Atlantic — and in shallow waters, so that any surveillance equipment could be retrieved. With a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile, an F-22 shot down the invading balloon at 2:39 p.m. Saturday off the coast of South Carolina. Navy divers promptly began recovery efforts. Mission accomplished.
In the end, Biden had a choice: Go with the Republican hotheads who demanded he shoot down the balloon right away, or go with his Pentagon leaders who urged caution. He made the right decision.
Press is host of “The Bill Press Pod.” He is the author of “From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire.”
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