Biden's response to China's spy balloon doesn't add up

There was a logic to each step in the U.S. response to the Chinese spy balloon that floated across the country and that a U.S. fighter jet shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday. But the logic of each step did not add up to a coherent strategy as a whole, and there are serious questions about whether it was the right response to a brazen provocation by the Chinese government.

The Trial of the Balloon

That Chinese spy balloon floated over U.S. and Canadian airspace for eight days. The U.S. government tracked it for five days, and it said nothing until a Montana newspaper published pictures of it.

According to the released transcript of a press briefing led by an unnamed “senior defense official,” the Chinese spy balloon “entered the Alaska Joint Operating Area on January 28th, having entered the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone north of the Aleutian Islands, and therefore passing into sovereign U.S. airspace. It then entered into Canadian airspace on January 30th, and re-entered U.S. airspace over northern Idaho on January 31st.”

If you’re the U.S., you might want to shoot the balloon down immediately; that would minimize the Chinese ability to gather any intelligence at all. Or the U.S. military might want to see where the balloon goes and learn which sites the Chinese wanted to get a better look at for intelligence-gathering. The Pentagon and intelligence community also might prefer to capture the balloon as intact as possible, to get a good look at what technology China is using, and if possible, see what the Chinese were able to learn. (The Chinese might have built the balloon with a self-destruct mechanism or something that erases its sensitive data or software remotely.) Shooting the balloon down over the Aleutian Islands or Alaskan wilderness might make it much more difficult to recover.

Keep in mind, the Chinese balloon was likely not only taking pictures but attempting to intercept communications. If you know how the opposition is trying to spy on you and capture your signals, you can develop better countermeasures and cryptography.

That senior defense official said during the briefing, “We were also looking at the intel value of the balloon.” He said the assessment was that the balloon “was not likely to provide significant added — additive value over and above other PRC intel capabilities such as, you know, satellites in Low Earth Orbit, for example.”

The technology used in this balloon may not be particularly advanced. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared on CNN’s State of the Union program Sunday and contended that, “I don’t think the technology or the existence of these things is a great mystery.”

Rubio said the balloon represented a deliberate message of antagonism from the Chinese government:

I think what’s embedded here is a clear message. It’s not a coincidence that this happens leading up to the State of the Union address, leading up to [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken’s visit to China.

The Chinese knew that this was going to be spotted. They knew that we were going to have to react to it. They flew it over military installations and sensitive sites across — right across the middle. I mean, look at the flight path of this thing. It’s a diagonal shot right through the middle of the continental United States.

And the message embedded in this to the world is, we can fly a balloon over airspace of the United States of America, and you won’t be able to do anything about it to stop us. They calculated this carefully with a message embedded in it. And I think that’s the part we can’t forget here. It’s not just the balloon. It’s the message to try to send the world that America — we can do whatever we want, and America can’t stop us.

That senior defense official said that similar surveillance balloons flew over the continental U.S. “briefly at least three times during the prior administration, and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time. We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.” The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that the previous incursions were brief and the balloons were undetected until after leaving American airspace, citing Biden administration officials.

Curiously, Trump administration officials such as former national-security advisers Robert O’Brien, John Bolton, and H. R. McMaster all issued statements Sunday declaring that they were never briefed on any balloon incursions.

This past week, the U.S. government’s plan may well have been to quietly track and watch the balloon, with plans to knock it down and capture it within a few days, with an intention to never tell the public, or to not disclose anything about it for a long time.

It’s fair to ask whether that was a realistic strategy in a country full of stargazers, amateur astronomers, airline and private aircraft pilots, etc. A former photographer for the Billings Gazette was in the right place at the right time, got some good pictures, and the cat was out of the bag.

As Bloomberg reported:

For now, the White House opted not to inform the American public. Events, however, soon forced Biden’s hand.

On Thursday afternoon, the Billings Gazette, a local Montana paper, published a photo of the balloon — meaning it was only a matter of time until national media would pick up on the report and the Biden administration would have to face questions.

The pace of discussions in the White House quickened.

In a call starting at 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, the administration finally went public. That spurred a rush to brief lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The Biden administration will hold a briefing next week for the “Gang of Eight,” a group of lawmakers including the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Once the public knew about the balloon, there was no advantage in the U.S. government playing down the significance of the incursion. Once you’ve caught your opponent’s hand in the cookie jar, you might as well make the biggest deal as possible about it. A common Chinese negotiating tactic is to play the victim, insist that their negotiation partner has wronged them, and demand that the opponent make concessions in order to make amends. With a Chinese spy balloon caught over U.S. airspace and near military bases, the Biden administration no doubt believed it could put the shoe on the other foot and act as the unfairly wronged party.

Alas, there’s little sign that the Chinese government feels chastened or embarrassed. The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement Sunday declaring a protest “against the U.S. attack on a civilian unmanned airship by force. The Chinese side has, after verification, repeatedly informed the U.S. side of the civilian nature of the airship and conveyed that its entry into the U.S. due to force majeure [uncontrollable circumstances] was totally unexpected. The Chinese side has clearly asked the U.S. side to properly handle the matter in a calm, professional and restrained manner. The spokesperson of the U.S. Department of Defense also noted that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Under such circumstances, the US use of force is a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice. China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned and reserves the right to make further responses if necessary.”

The problem is that the first half and the second half of the U.S. government’s response contradict each other. From Saturday, January 28, to the afternoon of Thursday, February 2, the U.S. government response was minimal — tracking it but making no public comment. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing was still on schedule.

But the moment the Biden administration no longer had the option of ignoring the spy balloon, the U.S. government response turned on a dime. Thursday evening, the Pentagon issued its official statement, held its background briefing that mentioned “the mobilization of a number of assets including F-22s,” and Friday morning Blinken canceled his trip. Blinken called up Wang Yi, the director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Office, and declared that, “This is an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip.”

That’s all true, but the balloon was a violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law the moment it went over Alaska. It was a violation that the Biden administration was apparently willing to pretend not to notice or downplay right up until the moment it appeared in the press. Then, when it became clear that a Chinese spy aircraft was floating, unimpeded, over U.S. military bases and the rest of the country, the Biden administration rolled into action; apparently, Blinken’s ability to meet with the Chinese was dependent upon the American people not knowing that there was a spy balloon over their heads. Then, once the balloon was over the Atlantic Ocean, it was time to let Maverick and Rooster ride into the Danger Zone.

The administration’s course of action was apparently dependent upon the photo department of the Billings Gazette.

On Meet the Press yesterday, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner of Ohio, asked tough questions about what the administration thinks it accomplished in all this.

“Clearly the president taking it down over the Atlantic is sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over,” Turner said. “The satellite had completed its mission. This should never have been allowed to enter the United States, and it never should’ve been allowed to complete its mission. If you ask somebody to draw an X at every place where our sensitive missile defense sites, our nuclear weapons infrastructure, our nuclear weapon sites are, you would put them all along this path.”

Turner also echoed Rubio in pointing out that Beijing didn’t seem all that worried about getting caught: “What they were trying to accomplish obviously was important enough to China to take the risk of something that was overt. This was not covert, this wasn’t secret. They did it in such a grand scale. They knew that the United States would know, and they did it anyway.”

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