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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