Bipartisan frustrations on Capitol Hill over President Biden’s response to the Chinese spy balloon that traversed the continental U.S. last week hit a tipping point on Thursday as senators faced off with administration officials in an all-hands classified briefing on the incursion and the decision to finally shoot it down off the coast of South Carolina over the weekend.
Lawmakers went into the closed-door talks demanding answers as to why the administration chose not to shoot the spy craft down immediately after it was detected in U.S. airspace and whether the Pentagon has a plan to deal with future incursions.
“This administration owes Americans not only on what happened this past week but on what steps they’re going to take to ensure this never happens again,” Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester told Pentagon officials in an open hearing ahead of the classified briefing, signaling the widespread frustration among his colleagues. The balloon was first noted publicly when local residents filmed it hovering high above Mr. Tester’s home state.
“The truth is, we think we know what [the Chinese] going to collect, but we don’t know,” said Mr. Tester, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees defense spending. “That scares the hell out of me.”
Several senators said they remained frustrated even after the closed-door meeting.
“I’m not persuaded,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, when asked if Mr. Biden made the right call in allowing the Chinese craft — which Beijing claims was a civilian weather balloon — to travel for five days over the U.S. mainland before being downed.
Mr. Rubio said that while he doesn’t dismiss the Pentagon’s concerns about the threat to those on the ground from a shootdown, but he said the administration had ample time to act before the helium-filled craft entered U.S. airspace.
The Pentagon, which first disclosed the balloon’s presence a week ago, said it had considered immediately deploying F-22s to shoot down the balloon but held off until the craft was no longer over land.
U.S. officials first became aware of the balloon on Jan. 28 when it was spotted over Alaska before entering Canadian airspace. The president was briefed days after the balloon first penetrated Alaskan airspace, days before it returned to U.S. skies over northern Idaho last Tuesday according to the White House.
Mr. Rubio said the administration’s hesitation gave Beijing a propaganda victory.
“You can imagine them going to the world and saying, ‘We can fly a balloon over the continental United States and nothing happens. What makes you think the U.S. isn’t gonna be able to come to help you if will come after you?’”
“It’s a powerful message to send because, generally, the Communist Party of China believes the U.S. is a hollowed, declining superpower,” he said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre again tried to defend Mr. Biden’s handling of the incident Thursday during a back-and-forth with reporters on Air Force One.
“We were able to protect any national security, sensitive information that was on the ground as it was moving on its path,” she said.
When the Pentagon felt it was safe, she said, “the president ordered to shoot it down.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, blasted the administration for not treating the balloon’s initial flight through her home state’s airspace as a serious threat.
“When it comes to national security and national defense, no state should feel like they are more vulnerable than the rest,” she said. “I think we need to recognize that the airspace over the state of Alaska, over our territorial waters, is U.S. airspace. And so if it’s appropriate to take it down off of the East Coast in U.S. airspace, it is also equally appropriate to take it down off the coast of Alaska.”
Biden administration officials kept quiet for nearly a week after the spy balloon first entered U.S. airspace, fearing the matter would derail Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing, according to a Bloomberg report citing several officials familiar with the matter. The administration was forced to go public last Thursday, however, after the Billings Gazette published a photo of the balloon over Montana, where a U.S. Air Force base housing nuclear arms is located.
Mr. Blinken’s planned fence-mending visit to Beijing was postponed indefinitely.
Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, said he was not persuaded that the administration would not have disclosed the balloon if it had not been reported in the press, raising further questions about the administration’s transparency.
“The administration says it’s OK to leave it there for a while because the balloon is not relaying information back to China,” the Louisiana Republican told reporters after the briefing. “We don’t have any basis for believing or not believing that. I’m not saying the president is lying, but he needs to explain what he is asserting is actually the case.”
“Based on what I was told today and the evasive answers,” he added, “I wouldn’t trust these people to guard my lunch.”