The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Friday initially denied any knowledge of the huge surveillance balloon floating through American airspace, then claimed it was a weather research “airship.”
The Pentagon responded to baffled questions about why the incredibly well-funded U.S. military was unable to detect, thwart, or destroy the balloon by claiming that attacking it could jeopardize people on the ground in Montana.
“I have noted relevant reports. We are gathering and verifying the facts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said when asked about the balloon.
“China is a responsible country and we always act in accordance with international law. We have no intention to violate the territory or airspace of any sovereign country,” she insisted.
“As I said, we are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope both sides can handle the matter together in a cool-headed and prudent manner,” she said.
Mao said she had “no comment” about whether the balloon incident would affect U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to China.
Later on Friday morning, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement that claimed the balloon was a “civilian airship” conducting meteorological research that “deviated far from its planned course” due to strong winds.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the Foreign Ministry said, indicating the flight path of the balloon was beyond the control of its operators.
The Pentagon said on Thursday it was “confident” the large white balloon drifting over Montana with a hefty payload of electronics suspended beneath it was a surveillance craft of Chinese origin.
Pentagon officials said they had “urgently” contacted Chinese officials about the balloon and alerted President Joe Biden. On Friday, a U.S. official said the administration was in direct contact with Beijing at “multiple levels,” and the State Department summoned a Chinese official to file a formal complaint.
According to CBS News, President Biden wanted to shoot the balloon down, but advisers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, recommended against “kinetic action” because the balloon seemed to pose no immediate threat, and debris from an interception could endanger people on the ground.
Another senior official told Fox News that the weight of the equipment hanging from beneath the balloon raised concerns that shooting it down would create a large debris field.
CBS’s sources said shooting the balloon down might still be an option when it reaches a safe area. The balloon is apparently capable of maneuvering itself but is largely at the mercy of high-altitude winds. As of Friday morning, it was holding an altitude of about 66,000 feet.
“Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration. We acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” a senior administration official told NBC News, without producing any supporting accounts of American citizens watching giant Chinese spy balloons float over their heads during the Trump administration.
“Currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective over and above what the PRC can do through other means. Nevertheless we are taking all necessary steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information,” the official said. PRC stands for People’s Republic of China, the name preferred by the Chinese Communist regime.
“We are tracking it in minute detail in real time and we will constantly update our assessment. We are in constant surveillance of this thing through a bunch of different means,” the official promised.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) assessed the balloon “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time,” and said it is “currently traveling at altitude well above commercial traffic.”
NORAD said the Canadian Armed Forces and “other partners” are monitoring the flight of the balloon, and Canada is ” taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.”
The potential second incident appears to be a second balloon detected by the Canadians that is on course for U.S. airspace, although that report was tentative as of Friday morning:
President Biden himself refused to answer questions from reporters about the balloon on Thursday afternoon.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said on Thursday the balloon showed “China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty” and was a “destabilizing action that must be addressed.”
“President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy said. “I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing.” The Gang of Eight is a bipartisan group of leaders from the House and Senate who receive classified briefings from the executive branch. As Speaker, McCarthy is one of the members.
An unnamed defense official told Fox News on Friday the Gang of Eight briefing was delivered as McCarthy requested.
“You did see reports yesterday of a ground stop at Billings Airport and the mobilization of a number of assets, including F-22 [sic]. The context for that was that we put some things on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana,” the official told Fox News.
“We wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the airspace around that potential area. But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn’t drive the risk down low enough. So we didn’t take the shot,” the official said.
The new House Select Committee on China also weighed in on Friday, with a statement from leaders Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) declaring “the Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace.”
“Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty, coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s trip to the PRC, but it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy,” the committee leaders said.
“Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores – it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat,” they warned.Leland Wells / LOCAL NEWS X /TMX
Bemused residents of Billings, Montana – a state that happens to contain major Air Force bases and nuclear missile silos – watched a balloon the size of three buses drift overhead, temporarily grounding flights at Billings-Logan International Airport.
Some Montanans wondered why nothing was done to prevent the slow-moving, highly visible craft from penetrating American national airspace, while others shrugged it off as yet another example of the constant surveillance everyone in the world is subjected to.
“Seems invasive. That’s kind of our world today, I mean there are cameras everywhere. Like you can’t go unnoticed anywhere. You talk about what cereal you need to buy at the grocery store in front of your Alexa and all of a sudden your ads are cereal ads, you know,” mused Montana resident Shelby Fossum.