Buttigieg said U.S. had to balance risks in deciding when to shoot down balloon


President Joe Biden balanced risks including debris falling over U.S. airspace when his administration delayed shooting down a Chinese balloon until Saturday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“The president gave instructions to have it handled, have it shot down in a way that was safe,” Buttigieg said, noting that the field of debris was seven miles long and fell through national airspace when the balloon was downed Saturday.

“The president called for this to be dealt with in a way that balanced all of the different risks,” he added.

An F-22 stealth fighter shot the balloon down off the coast of the Carolinas a week after the U.S. first started tracking it Jan. 28, POLITICO previously reported. The balloon crossed the continent in the succeeding days, from Alaska to Canadian airspace, then over Idaho and Montana to the Atlantic. The U.S. military is now attempting to recover the debris for intelligence purposes.

Even as Republicans continued to pile on criticism about the way the Biden administration handled the situation, Buttigieg pointed out that the mission was completed without any loss of American life or property. The Transportation secretary repeatedly characterized the balloon’s intrusion as unacceptable behavior from the Chinese government.

Pressed by host Jake Tapper about whether it could be assumed that the balloon gathered intelligence, Buttigieg said that was out of his purview.

“I’m sure there’s a similar presumption about what spy satellites do,” he said, pointing to China’s space program. He also declined to confirm exactly when the Biden administration first became aware of the balloon.

Republicans on Sunday continued to use Biden’s reaction to the balloon as evidence of the administration’s perceived weakness; they were happy to see the balloon shot down but argued it should have been done days earlier.

“What began as a spy balloon has become a trial balloon, testing President Biden’s strength and resolve, and unfortunately the President failed that test,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a frequent China hawk, said Sunday on Fox’s “Fox News Sunday.” “And that’s dangerous for the American people.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” repeatedly called the deployment of the balloon a “deliberate” act from China, an attempt to show the U.S. was a declining superpower that can’t be counted on by its allies in the Pacific and elsewhere.

“I can assure you that if we fly a balloon over China, they’d shoot it down,” Rubio said. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Rubio added that the U.S. had to consider the risks to civilians in shooting the balloon down, but that there should have been earlier opportunities to down it.

Some of the criticism took the form of colorful language.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, compared the takedown of the balloon over the Atlantic to “tackling the quarterback after the game is over.”

“They didn’t go and look at the Grand Canyon. They went and looked at our nuclear weapons sites,” Turner alleged.

Speaking on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures With Maria Bartiromo,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) was similarly descriptive.

“Letting a Chinese surveillance balloon lazily drift over America is like seeing a robber on your front porch and inviting him in, showing him where you keep your safe, where you keep your guns, where your children sleep at night, and then politely asking him to leave. It makes no sense,” said Gallagher, who is chair of the House Select Committee on China.

A senior defense official noted this week that it’s not the first time a Chinese spy balloon has entered U.S. air space, POLITICO previously reported. Such incidents occurred at least three times during President Donald Trump’s administration and once at the beginning of the Biden administration, but the flights were never for this duration.

While he was grateful for the military’s action taking down the balloon, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” the U.S. has challenges with China beyond this single incident.

“We have a real problem with China on a number of issues, from their human rights violations to their violations of international business law, to even the challenges we’ve had with them on overt spying,” he said.

Biden told the Pentagon earlier in the week to shoot down the balloon, but military advisers recommended they wait until it was over water, Biden told reporters this week.

China, which has denied the balloon was used for spying, has threatened repercussions over its downing.

One former CIA counterterrorism official said he thought the whole controversy had been absurdly overinflated.

Speaking on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Philip Mudd judged the crisis a “2” on a scale of 1 to 10 when it comes to national security issues.

“This says a lot more about the inability of Washington and Congress and the White House to talk about relatively insignificant national security issues than it does about intelligence,” he said. “Look, if the Chinese want to collect photos of America, you could get to Google Earth; you could get a Chinese secret satellite if they want to intercept communications. They could do it with satellites.”

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