President Joe Biden is set to deliver his most substantial account Thursday of U.S. efforts to track, monitor and potentially shoot down unknown aerial objects, following three weeks of high-stakes aerial drama sparked by the discovery of a suspected Chinese spy balloon transiting much of the country.
The president’s remarks come after he directed National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to lead an “interagency team” to review U.S. procedures after the U.S. shot down the China balloon, as well as three other objects the U.S. now believes are most likely “benign” objects. The downing of the Chinese surveillance craft was the first known peacetime shootdown of an unauthorized object in U.S. airspace — a feat repeated three times a week later.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the team would “look how we track, look how we decide to take action, and see if there’s anything else that needs to be done.” She said there would be “updated protocols” announced this week.
The China balloon has escalated tensions between the U.S. and China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to China last week. Blinken travels Thursday to the Munich Security Conference amid speculation he might use the opportunity to meet top Chinese foreign policy official Wang Yi who will also be attending the conference.
Biden Has Remained Largely Silent
Biden has remained largely silent on the issue of the three objects downed Friday off the coast of Alaska, Saturday over Canada and Sunday over Lake Huron. On Monday, the White House announced earnestly there was no indication of “aliens or extraterrestrial activity.” By Wednesday, U.S. officials said they were still working to locate the wreckage from the objects, but that they expected all three to be unrelated to surveillance efforts.
“The intelligence community is considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby. No country or private company has come forward to claim any of the objects, Kirby said. They do not appear to have been operated by the U.S. government.
Still unaddressed are questions about the original balloon, including what spying capabilities it had and whether it was transmitting signals as it flew over sensitive military sites in the United States. It was believed by American intelligence to have initially been on a track toward the U.S. territory of Guam, according to a U.S. official.
The U.S. tracked it for several days after it left China, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. It appears to have been blown off its initial trajectory and ultimately flew over the continental U.S., the official said.
Balloons and other unidentified objects have been previously spotted over Guam, a strategic hub for the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the western Pacific.
It’s unclear how much control China retained over the balloon once it veered from its original trajectory. A second U.S. official said the balloon could have been externally maneuvered or directed to loiter over a specific target, but it’s unclear whether Chinese forces did so.
After the balloon was shot down, the White House revealed that such balloons had traversed U.S. territory at least three times during President Donald Trump’s administration unknown to Trump or his aides — and that others have flown over dozens of nations across five continents. Kirby emphasized Monday that they were only detected by the Biden administration.