Lawmakers gear up to grill Biden officials over Chinese spy balloon

Lawmakers are planning to probe the Biden administration for what they are calling a failure to protect national security as a Chinese spy balloon flew over the U.S. for several days before it was shot down Saturday. 

While there has been no official announcement of an investigation yet, House Republicans are itching to grill the Biden administration for allowing a foreign adversary’s surveillance device to breach U.S. airspace, and letting it stay there for days. 

President Biden reportedly decided to shoot down the balloon on Wednesday, but the military waited to carry out those orders until it had floated over the ocean. It’s unclear why the U.S. was confident it did not pose a safety or security threat in those intervening days. 

The incident has inflamed already fraught tensions with China, and GOP lawmakers have said it’s another sign of U.S. weakness in the face of rising threats from Beijing. 

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), said he was “deeply concerned by the Biden administration’s decision to allow the spy balloon to traverse the United States.”

“The White House must provide answers about why they decided to allow a [Chinese Communist Party] spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision,” he said in a Saturday statement . “The United States must project strength to deter China — this failure is another example of weakness by the Biden administration.”

The HASC has already scheduled a hearing on Tuesday morning to hear from non-governmental witnesses on the “pressing threat of the Chinese Communist Party to U.S. national defense.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, also expressed concerns the Biden administration did not “take care” of the balloon before it became a “national security threat.”

“I will be demanding answers and will hold the admin accountable for this embarrassing display of weakness,” McCaul said in a statement.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a member of the HASC, took the issue a step further, calling on Biden and Vice President Harris to resign.

“When the domestic attack occurs, Biden and Harris will not be able to adequately respond,” Wilson tweeted.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) first detected the balloon north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska on Jan. 28. The U.S. military did not shoot it down then, as “it wasn’t time,” NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters Monday. 

The Pentagon informed reporters about the balloon five days later, on Feb. 2, after reports of sightings over Montana, home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile fields, sparking concerns that China may have collected potentially compromising national security information.

While Democrats have largely defended the Pentagon’s response, Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he was “demanding answers” from the Biden administration and announced he would hold a hearing as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. 

“I will be pulling people before my committee to get real answers on how this happened, and how we can prevent it from ever happening again,” Tester said in a Friday statement.

Ian Johnson, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there should be a “cooling off period” before any investigations, arguing the incident is a national security issue that shouldn’t be used for scoring political points.

Johnson added the Biden administration was in a “bind”: either wait, or shoot the balloon down over land and potentially injure people or damage structures on the ground, which would have caused its own scandal.

“I don’t think there are traitors in the Pentagon,” he said. “These allegations of an outrageous breach of our national security doesn’t make sense to me unless you’re accusing the Pentagon of gross incompetence, which I don’t think is the case.”

The Pentagon tracked the balloon, reportedly about 200 pounds and the size of three school buses, as it floated undisturbed all the way toward the Atlantic Ocean, where it was shot down by a fighter jet on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina. Recovery operations to salvage the equipment attached to the balloon are underway.

China is calling the balloon a civilian weather research airship and has expressed anger about the U.S. shooting it out of the sky. 

But the Pentagon is confident that it was a surveillance device, noting they have seen the spy balloons before, including in the Pacific near Hawaii and in other countries. A second spy balloon has been sighted in Latin America.

The Biden administration has said it brought the surveillance device down as as soon as it was safe to do so.

“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a Sunday statement , “while responding effectively to the [People’s Republic of China’s] unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”

A senior defense official also said on Sunday there was value in tracking the balloon and they “took all necessary steps to protect against” the collection of sensitive information.

“We were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable,”  the official said, according to a Pentagon release. 

Several Republican senators have also called for investigations, including Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, on Sunday called Biden’s response a “dereliction of duty” for his delay in acknowledging the spy balloon in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

But the questions now go beyond just the Pentagon’s response to the Chinese spy balloon that made headlines in recent days. 

On Sunday, U.S. officials confirmed the Trump administration was apparently unaware of three previous incidents in which Chinese balloons flew over the continental U.S. under its watch.

Vanherck told reporters on Monday that intelligence analysts learned of those three balloon incursions only after the fact, which he called a “domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”

Johnson, from the Council on Foreign Relations, said the bigger question right now should be why the Chinese are deploying surveillance balloons — and lawmakers should set aside politics to figure it out. 

“There’s so many question marks that need to be answered, there’s so many holes in the story, we just lack a lot of facts,” Johnson said. “In the Cold War, there was more bipartisan effort at solving and treating [threats] as a national security issue, rather than as a way to score points politically. The spirit of bipartisanship is lacking.”

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Biden’s post-midterm honeymoon shows signs of ending

The post-midterm honeymoon President Biden experienced in recent months could be coming to an end. 

Biden experienced a boost following the midterm elections with a better-than-expected outcome that had Democrats holding their Senate majority and losing the House — but keeping their losses down.

The president has also been bolstered by record-high jobs numbers and a slowdown in inflation, boosting his confidence ahead of his reelection year. 

But as he prepares to speak to the nation during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, polls show a shift in public sentiment following a rocky start to the new year.

News of the discovery of classified documents at the president’s former office in Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Del., home dominated the headlines during January. Gas prices have ticked upward again. And last week, Republicans blasted Biden for his handling of a Chinese spy balloon, saying the surveillance device should have been shot down immediately and calling the President “weak.”

As Biden prepares to announce his reelection bid in the coming weeks, a survey out on Monday from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that 37 percent of Democrats say they want Biden to run again for reelection, a significant slip from the fall when 52 percent said they wanted Biden to seek a second term. 

A Washington Post-ABC News poll out this week also showed that 62 percent of Americans say Biden has not achieved much during his first two years in office. 

“President Biden should be gravely concerned about his shaky position in the polls,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. 

Another strategist said Biden has to acknowledge these polls on some level and seek to get on offense before the campaign cycle begins. 

“There are clearly some things that are concerning to Democrats and independents as Biden prepares to run for reelection,” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to discuss the situation facing the president.

“Things have gotten better, inflation continues to slowdown, but I think all these waves of layoffs and talk of recession spooks a lot of voters. The economy seems like it’s on shaky ground and that’s a concern to voters.” 

The Washington Post-ABC poll also indicated that in a hypothetical 2024 matchup, former President Donald Trump leads Biden by a slim margin, 48 percent to 45 percent.  

For the last two years, Biden has told supporters that he’s the only Democrat who can beat Trump, pointing to his victory in 2020 and saying he’ll be able to deliver the same result in 2024.

But on Monday, Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama said that the poll “undermines Biden’s central argument for re-nomination.”

“Two years is forever and it’s just one poll, but if he’s faring this poorly after a string of wins, that should be worrisome,” Castro wrote in a post on Twitter.

Democrats also remain uncertain if Biden —who will turn 81 later this year —will be a formidable candidate against someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, should he choose to enter the race as many expect.

“I think his age remains the biggest factor,” the strategist said. 

Another Democratic strategist said there’s no reason for concern at this point. 

“There’s never been over-the-top enthusiasm for the Biden presidency, outside of the first six months post inauguration,” the strategist said. “And yet, there’s even less enthusiasm for someone else. Part of that is because Biden—and Democrats in general — allow there to be disagreements within the family on policy and will still come home to him.

“It’s hard to be enthusiastic when we just through a pandemic, and people are still skittish about the economy,” the strategist added. “Plus, we have right-wing media telling us every day how terrible things are.”

Biden aides and allies have sought to hammer home the idea that the administration has achieved more during this administration than any modern-day president. 

“The proof is in the pudding,” the first strategist said. “He’s had huge legislative victories and he’s had even bigger economic victories.”

The strategist and other allies said they don’t put much stock in polls. 

“He’s been underestimated since the last campaign and he’s always come out on top,” the strategist said. 

As he prepares to run for reelection, Biden will hit the road in the coming weeks to tout his legislative achievements, seeking to convince voters he’s done more than they realize. He’ll focus on the stimulus plan approved a few months into his term in the midst of the pandemic, as well as the climate, healthcare and tax measure known as the Inflation Reduction Act and legislation to help the nation’s semiconductor industry.

Bannon said the State of the Union address and the subsequent travel will be an opportunity for Biden to “make a compelling case for reelection” and change the narrative around his accomplishments. 

“Starting Tuesday, the president needs to be much more aggressive selling his successes,” he said. “It’s a tragedy that a president who has done much to reboot the economy has failed to impress Americans with his efforts. 

Bannon pointed out that the Washington Post- ABC poll “comes at the same time the economy added a half million new jobs in January.”

“The president, his administration and staff must do a much better job getting the good word out or Biden and his party will pay the price in 2024,” he said.  

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