House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday night called for a briefing of the “Gang of Eight” — the group of lawmakers charged with reviewing the nation’s most sensitive intelligence information — following reports of a Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana.
“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy tweeted. “I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing.”
The Pentagon said Thursday it had detected and was tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon flying high over the United States. The balloon is floating at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a threat to people on the ground, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement.
Ryder declined to say where the balloon came from, but a senior Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks, said the Pentagon has “very high confidence” it belongs to China.
The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation and asked for military options, said the senior DoD official. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened senior Pentagon leaders on Wednesday while he was traveling in the Philippines, and discussed the possibility of shooting it down.
Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Glen VanHerck, chief of U.S. Northern Command, strongly recommended against bringing it down due to the risk that falling debris could pose a hazard to people on the ground, the senior DoD official said.
“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana, but we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday,” the official said.
Officials also assessed that the balloon did not pose a threat to the people on the ground or to civilian aviation, the official added.
The Pentagon also determined the balloon has “limited value” over what China is already able to collect through its satellite capabilities, the official said. But it is flying over a number of sensitive sites, including Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to some of the nation’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Still, the department is taking “mitigation steps” to protect against possible foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information, the person said, declining to give details. At the same time, officials are gaining “insights” into the balloon’s capabilities.
“We know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over and we’re taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk,” the person said.
At Billings Logan airport on Wednesday, flights ground to a halt as the U.S. military scrambled F-22 fighter jets in case the decision was made to take down the balloon.
Revelations about the suspected spy balloon sparked angry reactions among lawmakers, beyond McCarthy.
“Biden should shoot down the Chinese spy balloon immediately,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said in a tweet. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted that the balloon highlighted how “intense & brazen” Chinese espionage efforts targeting the U.S. have become.
Montana Sen. Steve Daines demanded a briefing from the Biden administration Thursday night.
“It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised U.S. national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the U.S. that this spy- balloon was utilizing,” he said in a statement. “Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon owes a “full and accurate accounting” of what happened.
“Information strongly suggests the Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon,” the Mississippi senator said. “No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately.”
Not all the criticism came from Republicans. The bipartisan leaders of the newly formed House committee on China issued a joint statement declaring the balloon incursion a “violation of American sovereignty.”
They hinted it had implications for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing next week. “Coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s trip to the PRC … it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy,” Committee Chair Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and ranking member Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill) said in the statement.
That suggests there may be a growing chorus of congressional voices over the next 24 hours calling for Blinken to reconsider his trip to China to protest the spy balloon’s intrusion into U.S. airspace.
“The timing of this provocation is troubling to say the least … it is very difficult to see how Blinken’s trip can proceed as planned,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If he does decide to go, this spying incident will almost certainly overshadow any hopes Blinken may have harbored about stabilizing the fraught U.S.-China relationship.”
This is not the first time DoD has tracked a Chinese spy balloon flying over the continental U.S. This kind of activity has happened “a handful of other times” over the past few years, including before the Biden administration, the senior DoD official said. However, in this instance the balloon loitered for a longer period of time.
The U.S. has engaged its Chinese counterparts “with urgency” through multiple channels, both through their embassy in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Beijing, the senior DoD official said.
“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the person said. “We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.”
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