The president had been discussing military options with the Pentagon since Tuesday, when he was alerted by the Pentagon that a spy balloon had entered the continental American airspace near Idaho. By Wednesday, the balloon was hovering over Montana, and a full-blown diplomatic crisis was underway.
The arrival — and extended stay — of the balloon over American territory prompted furious calls from senior U.S. officials to their Chinese counterparts, and the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s planned visit to China.
Here’s a day-by-day timeline of the balloon’s flight and decision-making in Washington:
Saturday, Jan. 28
The spy balloon starts a controlled drift into American territory, entering Alaskan airspace near the Aleutian Islands. At first it appears to trackers at United States Northern Command to be just another one of China’s light probes around the edges of America’s defensive borders.
Monday, Jan. 30
By the end of the day, it has exited American territory and is over Canada, officials say, carrying its solar panels that power its propulsion and its cameras and surveillance equipment.
Tuesday, Jan. 31
The balloon re-enters the United States over Idaho, to the surprise of officials at Northern Command as well as at the Pentagon.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alerts President Biden. The president asks for military options, including the immediate destruction of the aircraft. Mr. Biden also orders that no activities or sensitive unencrypted communications would be conducted in the path of the balloon.
Wednesday, Feb. 1
The balloon makes its way to the skies above Billings, Mont., which alarmed Pentagon officials because the state is home to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three U.S. Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles. One Pentagon official calls the balloon a blatant, and poorly concealed, effort at spying.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, in the Philippines at the time, calls a meeting of senior military and defense officials to review options, per Mr. Biden’s order. General Milley and Mr. Austin advise against shooting down the balloon, which has an undercarriage roughly the size of three buses, while it is over land because of the possibility of debris harming civilians and infrastructure.
U.S. officials convey to Chinese officials several times that the U.S. military might shoot down the spy balloon. Mr. Blinken tells a Chinese diplomat in Washington in the evening that the American government has the right to take any actions to protect its interests.
Thursday, Feb. 2
Republican lawmakers and politicians begin criticizing Mr. Biden, after news of the balloon became widespread, for not taking harder action against the balloon and against China, and some demand that Mr. Blinken cancel his trip.
There are reports of a second Chinese balloon traveling across Central America that is headed toward South America.
Friday, Feb. 3
The Chinese Foreign Ministry says that the machine was a civilian weather balloon that had strayed far — very far — off course and entered U.S. airspace by accident. But Mr. Blinken calls it a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law.”
Mr. Blinken reiterates his message to Chinese officials in a call to the top Chinese foreign policy official, Wang Yi.
Later that evening, Mr. Biden is briefed about how the Air Force plans to destroy the balloon on Saturday.
Saturday, Feb. 4
The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily pauses departures and arrivals at airports in Wilmington, N.C., and in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina, which the agency said was meant to “support the Department of Defense in a national security effort.”
One of two F-22 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base fires a Sidewinder air-to-air missile, downing the balloon, which was flying at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000 feet. The military then starts recovery efforts.
By the time it was shot down on Saturday off the shore Myrtle Beach, S.C., the Chinese spy balloon had traversed the country, bringing Americans out into their yards to squint at the sky, causing a diplomatic visit to be canceled and opening a political debate.
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