A Montana Democrat is joining Republican lawmakers in demanding answers after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was revealed to be flying over the western United States, and are calling into question the Biden administration’s response to the violation of U.S. airspace.
Lawmakers expressed outrage over the balloon — revealed Thursday to be hovering over Montana — and called for briefings from senior Biden administration officials.
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the Senate panel that controls the Pentagon budget, delivered a broadside on the incursion into his state’s airspace and said he’ll receive a classified briefing on the incident when he returns to Washington.
“This provocation is completely unacceptable, and I am in close contact with Department of Defense and Intelligence officials,” Tester said in a statement Friday morning. “We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them.”
Following news of the balloon sighting Thursday, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who is part of the “Gang of Eight” group congressional leaders that reviews the country’s most sensitive intelligence information — called for an intelligence briefing.
“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy tweeted. “I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing.”
The Gang of Eight’s staff received a classified briefing on the incident on Thursday, according to three people familiar with the matter who asked for anonymity in order to disclose sensitive matters.
Diplomatic fallout from the incident was swift. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile trip to Beijing slated for next week, the State Department said Friday morning.
Tester wasn’t alone among Democrats condemning the incursion. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) joined Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) in warning the incident shows Beijing poses risks on the homefront. The two lead a select panel investigating threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
“The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace,” Krishnamoorthi and Gallagher argued in a joint statement Thursday night.
“Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores — it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat,” the pair added.
Beijing on Friday confirmed one of its balloons entered U.S. airspace, but said it’s a civilian airship collective weather data.
Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder on Friday pushed back on the Chinese statement.
“We are aware of the PRC statement. However, the fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon,” Ryder said. “We do know that the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable and so we’ve conveyed this directly to the PRC at multiple levels.”
The maneuverable balloon is moving eastward and is currently over the central United States, Ryder said. It’s flying at an altitude of about 60,000 feet and could stay aloft for a few more days.
The Pentagon is reviewing options for what to do next, he added, declining to say whether the military would shoot it down.
A senior Defense Department official told reporters Thursday that the U.S. prepared fighter jets in case of a decision to shoot down the balloon, but senior Pentagon leaders opted against it due to fears of falling debris hurting people on the ground.
Another DoD official on Friday said the military had estimated the shooting down of the balloon would create a debris field 20 miles by 20 miles.
“Last thing we wanted was for something the size of a school bus to go through the roof of a preschool,” the official said.
The first DoD official said the balloon has “limited value” compared to what intelligence China is able to gather using satellites, although the department is taking “steps” to protect against possible foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information, without elaborating. The officials requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive issues.
Pentagon briefers told congressional staffers on Friday that the balloon entered Alaskan airspace on Saturday, left on Monday and reentered U.S. airspace on Tuesday above northern Idaho, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
“DoD said basically they had plans to shoot it down over sparsely populated areas but they decided it was moving slowly enough that they could just move sensitive things out of the way before it got there,” the person said, such as “move planes inside a hangar before it gets to the hangar.”
Beijing said it “regrets” that one of its balloons violated U.S. sovereign airspace, causing the Air Force to scramble fighter jets.
The Foreign Ministry claimed the balloon had strayed from its original course due to winds that affected its steering capabilities.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the ministry said, using a term for an event beyond the control of a country. “The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”
The ministry earlier said any violation was unintentional as it urged calm in Washington.
“China is a responsible country,” Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a Friday press briefing. “It has always strictly abided by international law and has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country. As I said just now, we are learning about the verification situation and hope that both sides can handle it calmly and cautiously.”
Earlier this week, the balloon was spotted over Montana, including over Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines also demanded a briefing from the Biden administration Thursday night.
“Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana,” the Republican said in a statement.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said on CNN Friday that low-orbit Chinese satellites have flown over the U.S. for years.
“They’re there all the time,” he said. “I don’t want the American people to think this is something new and that all of a sudden we have a concern that we didn’t have before. Those concerns are there. They have to be mitigated, they have to be addressed. We have to confront the Chinese government.”
Marianne LeVine, Jordain Carney, Alexander Ward and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.