Purported Chinese spy balloon prompts hot air from pundits and politicians

Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder Screenshot / DOD Twitter

A specter is haunting America — the specter of communism. Or, perhaps more specifically, the specter of a purported "high-altitude surveillance balloon" Pentagon officials believe originated in China, which has been floating slowly eastward across the continental United States. Speaking at a Defense Department press conference on Friday, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder confirmed the military is tracking the object at approximately 60,000 feet, but wouldn't confirm whether it planned to shoot the balloon down, as some in Washington have suggested. The Pentagon has rejected Chinese government assertions that the balloon is simply an errant research airship blown inconveniently off course, saying during a Thursday briefing that unlike other Chinese spy balloons observed in the past, "it is appearing to hang out for a long period of time this time around, more persistent than in previous instances."

While the prospect of a foreign object unhurriedly surveilling wide swaths of the country is an alarming one, Pentagon officials don't seem particularly worried about the balloon itself, downplaying both its intelligence-gathering capacity, and general threat to the public. While cautioning that the balloon and its payload are large enough to cause damage if downed over a populated area, its actual spying ability does "not create significant value" compared to other Chinese spy satellites, a Pentagon official stressed during a background briefing.

Those assurances, however, were not enough to assuage a number of lawmakers, including former President Donald Trump, who have advocated a forceful response to the balloon's presence.

Several Republicans, however, have publicly mused that a violent reaction to the balloon would be playing directly into China's hands. Speaking with Steve Bannon on Friday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wondered whether shooting the object down would give Chinese military officials a sense of American anti-surveillance capabilities. China might even be trying to "bait the United States into disputes over appropriate rights in the air" he added. On Twitter, former GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force pilot himself, raised similar concerns.

Others, including former Clinton administration official and international relations expert David Rothkopf, have cautioned that any hysteria over the balloon's presence is "pretty darn dumb," even if it turns out to be a top-secret spy system after all. "It is certainly not news that the Chinese are spying on us," Rothkopf pointed out. "And we are definitely in no position to condemn them for spying." In 2001, for instance, a U.S. spy plane was downed after colliding with a Chinese jet interceptor in the South China Sea, touching off a weeks-long international incident.

Rothkopf's warnings notwithstanding, the Biden administration quickly responded to the balloon's presence by scuttling a scheduled weekend meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart in Beijing on Friday, just hours before Blinken was to depart.

There are, however, those who maintain that China's explanation that this is simply a rogue weather balloon is not only "absolutely possible," but even "likely," as University of Washington Atmospheric Chemistry professor Dan Jaffe told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, although the Pentagon won't divulge the exact location of the balloon, Brig. Gen. Ryder did remind the public on Friday that they could simply "look up in the sky."

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