Military Officials Were Aware of Chinese Spy Balloon Before It Entered U.S., Did Not Flag as Threat

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Military officials tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon before it entered U.S. airspace late last month were not initially alarmed by it and did not flag it in internal channels as an urgent or immediate threat, according to a new report.

Rather, as the balloon was approaching Alaska, they saw it as an opportunity to observe it and to collect intelligence.

In late January, the day before the balloon entered Alaskan airspace, the Defense Intelligence Agency sent an internal report about it through classified channels accessible across the U.S. government. But it wasn’t flagged as urgent, and top defense and intelligence officials who saw it weren’t alarmed, CNN reported Wednesday night.

U.S. officials tracking the balloon recognized it as being part of a Chinese surveillance operation that operates around the world. The balloon entered Alaskan airspace on January 28. Officials believed it would sail over Alaska and continue north. Instead, it made a sharp turn south.

“We immediately started talking about shooting it down, then,” a senior U.S. official told CNN.

On January 31, President Joe Biden was briefed about the balloon as it crossed out of Canadian airspace and floated into the continental U.S. According to CNN, Biden “immediately” asked military leaders for options about shooting the 200-foot balloon down.

At one point, the balloon hovered over sensitive military facilities in Montana. Several Republican lawmakers called for the Biden administration to immediately shoot it down, but they didn’t out of concern that falling debris could injure people. Instead, the military waited to take down the balloon until it was over water off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.

Republicans have continued to criticize the Biden administration’s handling of the situation, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Our government knew a Chinese military spy balloon was going to enter the airspace over the continental U.S. at least TWO DAYS BEFORE it happened Yet they failed to act to stop it,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

Biden did not directly mention the balloon during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. “Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” Biden said during the speech.

Rubio tweeted that the U.S.’s competition and relationship with China is “THE central challenge of our time & at the core of virtually every major issue we face. Yet Biden barely mentioned it last night & only made a passing & vague reference to the spy balloon incident.”

House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Turner (R., Ohio) on Sunday said waiting until Saturday to shoot down the balloon was like “tackling the quarterback after the game is over.”

“The satellite had completed its mission,” Turner said. “It should never have been allowed to enter the United States and it never should have been allowed to complete its mission.”

Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) similarly said the balloon should have been taken down sooner.

“I want to start by doing something that I don’t do very often, which is commending Joe Biden for actually having the guts to shoot this down,” Cruz said during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. “That was the right thing to do. That is absolutely what the president should have done. Unfortunately, he didn’t do that until a week after it entered U.S. airspace.”

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