KANSAS CITY, Mo. After several days of silence, President Biden finally addressed a series of high-flying objects that he ordered shot down over US and Canadian airspace last weekend.
A week after a Chinese surveillance balloon crossed the continental United States, Biden ordered three unidentified objects shot down in three days, one each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
In a press conference on Thursday, Biden’s first public comments on the incidents, he said last week’s three objects were not Chinese surveillance balloons.
He said US officials now believe the objects shot down last weekend are “benign” objects thrown by private companies or research institutes.
Biden said he has ordered National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to lead a task force that reviews US procedures and develops “stricter rules” for tracking, monitoring and potentially shooting down such high-flying objects.
Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri and a renowned Chinese hawk, has been critical of the Biden administration’s response.
“This is the perfect encapsulation of the Biden administration — where he’s not going to shoot down an actual Chinese spy ship, but he’s out there shooting down balloons from hobbyist clubs,” Hawley said Thursday in an exclusive interview with KSHB 41.
Biden eventually ordered down the suspected Chinese spy balloon, originally spotted over the United States in early February, but waited until it was no longer on land out of an abundance of caution.
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When it was shot down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Carolina coast, the balloon had already flown across the country.
“The fact that he’s been out to lunch, slept behind the wheel — use any metaphor you like, probably out for ice cream at his home,” Hawley said. “I don’t know, but he didn’t run the country and he didn’t do his job here. As a result, we are vulnerable here in Missouri. This thing flew right over us and photographed our military bases. This is a problem.
Hawley said the US has existing programs to track high-flying objects that have tracked at least 500 sightings in recent years
“We already know this stuff is out there,” he said. “The question is where do they come from and what are we going to do about them? This is what Biden needs to have a handle on and it is clear that Biden does not have a handle on it.
The Chinese initially expressed regret over the spy balloon incident, but have aggressively escalated rhetoric critical of the US and its response in recent weeks.
“I expect to talk to President Xi (Jinping) and hope we can get to the bottom of it,” Biden said, “…but I make no apologies for knocking down that balloon.”
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has canceled a trip to China over the balloon dispute, which has escalated tensions between the two world powers.
“The message to China should be ‘don’t fly spy balloons over our country,'” said Hawley, who suggested the United States sanction the Chinese government. “… China wants to invade Taiwan, wants to cheat trade, wants to steal our secrets. They are doing all of these things and Biden is not stopping them. The message to Xi should be: ‘We will stop you. We will not allow you to enter here and threaten the United States of America.’”
Biden had remained largely silent about objects shot down off the Alaska coast Friday, over Canada on Saturday, and over Lake Huron on Sunday.
On Monday, the White House earnestly announced that there was no indication of “aliens or extraterrestrial activity.”
On Wednesday, US officials said they were still working on locating the wreckage of the objects, but that they expected all three to be unrelated to surveillance efforts.
“The intelligence community is holding as the primary explanation that these may just be balloons related to commercial or benign purposes,” said White House Homeland Security spokesman John Kirby.
No country or private company has come forward to claim any of the items, Kirby said. They do not appear to have been operated by the US government.
Still unanswered are questions about the original balloon, including what espionage capabilities it had and whether it was transmitting signals as it flew over sensitive military sites in the United States. According to a US official, US intelligence believed it initially headed for the US territory of Guam.
The United States followed him for several days after he left China, said the official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. It appears he was blown off his initial trajectory and eventually flew over the continental United States, the official said.
Hot air balloons and other unidentified objects have previously been spotted over Guam, a strategic hub for the US Navy and Air Force in the western Pacific.
It is unclear how much control China retained over the balloon once it deviated from its original trajectory. A second US official said the balloon could have been externally maneuvered or directed to loiter over a specific target, but it was unclear whether Chinese forces did so.
After the balloon was shot down, the White House revealed that such balloons had crossed U.S. territory at least three times during President Donald Trump’s administration without the knowledge of Trump or his aides, and that others have flown over dozens of nations on five continents. Kirby stressed on Monday that they have only been taken over by the Biden administration.
AP authors Zeke Miller, Chris Megerian, Nomaan Merchant, and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report.