Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanded answers Monday from an out-of-sight President Biden about the unprecedented U.S. takedowns of four objects in North American airspace, including three in the past four days.
Despite growing pressure on the president to address the public, explanations remained elusive. Mr. Biden had no public events Monday. The Pentagon and NORAD did release additional information, but officials had few details about the nature of unidentified objects.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the president “owes the American people some answers.”
“The administration has still not been able to divulge any meaningful information about what was shot down. What is going on?” the Kentucky Republican said Monday on the Senate floor. “What are we shooting down and where did they come from? Whether they are hostile or not, is there coherent guidance about when to shoot them down?”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said one reason for the lack of information is that recovery efforts are underway in four separate locations to collect and analyze the debris. Until those efforts yield answers, he said, the White House doesn’t want to speak without all the facts.
Mr. Kirby said the three most recent objects were not consistent with a fleet of Chinese surveillance balloons that have targeted the U.S. and 40 other countries dating to the Trump administration.
He said there is nothing nefarious about the objects and that officials have not ruled out a connection to a private company or research institution.
In an effort to get more answers, the administration announced Monday that it will form an interagency team to address the unusual flying objects in the skies above North America.
The team will study “the broader policy implications for detection analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks,” Mr. Kirby said.
“Every element of the government will redouble their efforts to understand and mitigate these events,” he said.
The White House gave no indication that Mr. Biden plans to reassure an anxious nation about the incidents. The only time Mr. Biden directly discussed any of the objects was on Friday, when he hailed a military operation to shoot down an object over Alaska as “a success.”
Since Mr. Biden last spoke on the issue, the White House shot down two more high-altitude, low-speed objects.
The U.S. military on Sunday took down an unidentified object over Lake Huron in Michigan. It was the third time in as many days and the fourth time this month that an “unidentified object” was shot down in North America.
The shoot-down Sunday was the latest in a string of high-profile, bizarre incidents between the U.S. military and unknown objects. U.S. officials said an object was also shot down Friday over Alaska and another one was downed Saturday over Canada.
A high-altitude object, suspected to be a Chinese surveillance balloon, was shot down with a missile over the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
While Mr. Biden remained tight-lipped, his Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, traveled to the Yukon on Monday and discussed the object that was shot down there on Saturday.
“Obviously, there is some sort of pattern in there. The fact we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention,” said Mr. Trudeau, fielding questions from reporters, unlike his counterpart in Washington.
On his first day in office, Mr. Biden pledged to “bring transparency and truth back to government,” but his silence on what the objects were and where they came from has raised questions about that pledge.
Mr. Biden was widely criticized last month for dodging questions, stonewalling Congress and imposing an information blackout in response to the discovery of Obama-era classified documents that were found unsecured at various locations he used.
He faces similar questions about transparency regarding the unidentified objects, even from lawmakers within his party. Senators are expected to receive a classified briefing Tuesday.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet, Colorado Democrat and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said lawmakers and the public deserve to know more.
“The American people deserve timely answers about the objects that were shot down over Lake Huron, Alaska and Canada [over the] weekend,” Mr. Bennet said in a statement. “We need to understand the nature of the threat to our national security. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I expect to be briefed on these incidents early this week.”
Another Democrat, Rep. James Himes of Connecticut, said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he has “real concerns” about the administration’s commitment to transparency and that the “absence of information” will make people anxious.
Republicans accused Mr. Biden of hiding and demanded that he explain to the public exactly what the U.S. military shot down in recent days.
“The president owes the American people an explanation, direct and on camera, of what we know about these ‘objects’ and what steps he’s taking to protect America’s sovereign airspace,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said in a statement. “No commander-in-chief should hide behind press secretaries and anonymous sources in a time of crisis.”
Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, called the lack of transparency from the administration “unacceptable.”
“The top priority of the administration should be the safety and security of the people of the United States and keeping the American people informed is a key part of fulfilling that duty,” Mr. Daines said in a statement. “President Biden owes Montanans and the country an immediate and full explanation. Without information, the public and media are left to rely on leaks, speculation and worst of all disinformation from foreign governments.”
The White House and Pentagon have faced questions about why they refused to act publicly against a Chinese balloon until it was spotted and publicized by civilians as it floated in the airspace above Montana, which houses several sensitive military sites. Military personnel found an unidentified object in the skies over the state late Saturday evening but lost track of it. They picked up what they believed to be the same object over Wisconsin on Sunday morning, said U.S. Northern Command and NORAD chief Gen. Glen VanHerck. That object was shot down later Sunday over Lake Huron.
Mr. Kirby, who has been the face of the administration’s response, defended that response.
“We have been, I think, as transparent as we can be. I won’t speak for the president’s personal speaking schedule, but he has been deeply engaged in every one of these decisions,” Mr. Kirby said. “He has been kept informed, including as of this morning, on what’s going on with recovery efforts, and he’s very much staying on top of the issue.”
The White House said the only detail it can say with certainty is that the objects did not come from outer space.
“I just wanted to make sure we address this from the White House: I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no – again, no – indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
U.S. officials said the most recent objects were smaller, appeared different and flew at lower altitudes than the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina.