WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials said Monday that improvements ordered by President Joe Biden to bolster defenses against Chinese espionage helped identify last week’s spy balloon — and establish that similar flights have taken place at multiple points during the Trump administration.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday that after Biden took office, the US “increased our surveillance of our territorial airspace, we improved our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration could not detect.”
Speaking at an event hosted by the US Global Leadership Coalition, Sullivan added that as part of those efforts, “we were able to go back and look at historical patterns” and find “multiple instances” during the Trump administration of Chinese balloons passing through to monitor US airspace and territory.
Several Trump administration officials said they had no knowledge of the Chinese surveillance balloons during their tenure.
Before Monday, U.S. officials said at least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s presidency, balloons had flown over U.S. airspace, but not for that long.
Sullivan did not explain what specifically allowed the US to detect and track the latest bubble where the previous administration might not have. Officials said, without elaborating, that China had flown similar balloons over parts of five continents in recent years.
Sullivan defended Biden’s decision to wait until the balloon was near the Carolina coast before shooting it down, saying military advisers judged that shooting it down over water “created a greater opportunity for us to be able to use the wreckage effectively than if it had been shot down over land.” Some GOP lawmakers criticized the president for not taking it down sooner, though Pentagon officials also warned of the potential risk to Americans on the ground.
Sullivan said the U.S. was “still working through” what Chinese officials knew about the balloon when they were in Beijing and would not yet speak publicly about U.S. assessments of China’s intentions to fly it over the U.S.
Separately, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that the US military had begun collecting debris from the balloon.
He also confirmed that the White House has offered to brief key Trump administration officials, but said the briefings have yet to take place.
Kirby strongly rejected Beijing’s claim that the US violated international law by shooting down the balloon.
“The United States, under the authority and orders of President Biden, acted in accordance with international law and in defense of our homeland and our sovereign airspace,” Kirby said. “We had an absolute right to burst that bubble.”
Kirby also rejected China’s claim that the balloon was for meteorological purposes, saying “it stretches credulity… that this is some kind of weather balloon that floated on the winds.”
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, said the U.S. “took maximum precautions” to prevent the balloon from gathering information as it crossed the country. He declined to give any details about how it was done, including the US military’s Strategic Command. The Navy takes protective measures during rescue operations in case there were explosives on the balloon, VanHerck said.
He said some debris could wash ashore, and warned the public not to try to collect it. The US has no plans to return the balloon debris even after its investigation is complete, the White House says
VanHerck said the balloon itself was 200 feet tall, and the sensor payload below was the size of a regional jet. Kirby added that the balloon had propellers and a rudder that allowed it to accelerate, slow and turn, but it relied mostly on winds and was limited in mobility.
The decision to strike the balloon when it was six miles offshore was made after consultation with NASA, which assessed the potential debris field due to the height of the balloon, VanHerck said.
The Navy also uses an underwater unmanned vehicle to photograph and track debris. Monday was the first day it could be used because of rough seas, according to White House and Pentagon officials.
The White House said the bubble was a setback to already strained relations with Beijing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to visit China but the trip was delayed due to the incident.
Still, Kirby said America’s relationship with China is perhaps “most important” to the United States and that communication between the two countries continues.
“No one wants to see a conflict here,” Kirby said.
Associated Press writers Tara Copp and Colleen Long contributed reporting