There are many theories but precious few answers after the U.S. downed three unidentified airborne objects in as many days over the weekend.
Now the White House — under fire for a lack of transparency about the incursions — must contend with frustrated lawmakers and a mystified public amid the Biden administration’s failure to launch a coherent communications strategy about the shootdowns.
With fighter jets downing unknown objects over U.S. territory, the White House has revealed little about what precisely is happening and whether the country is under threat. Are the objects harmless weather balloons or spy craft sent by foreign powers bent on doing Americans harm? President Joe Biden hasn’t said. In the absence of hard facts, uninformed speculation is filling the information vacuum, including whether the objects are visiting space aliens.
“The administration still has not been able to divulge any meaningful information about what was shot down. What in the world is going on?” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Monday.
McConnell questioned whether the objects were benign “or something more nefarious that we’ve somehow been missing all this time,” adding, “President Biden owes the American people some answers.”
At one point, an Air Force general refused to even rule out that far-fetched possibility, although White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre clarified the question Monday.
"There is no, again, no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns," she said.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said at Monday's White House briefing that the three most recent objects did not pose threats to people on the ground, did not send any communication signals and did not have any maneuverability or propulsion capabilities.
The objects did, however, fly at altitudes that could "pose a threat to civilian commercial air traffic," which led Biden to give the order to shoot them down, he said.
"Efforts are actively underway right now at all sites to find what is left of those objects so that we can better understand and communicate with the American people what they are," Kirby told reporters, emphasizing the challenge to recover the objects from the rural terrain in Alaska and Canada and the bottom of Lake Huron.
On a trip to Brussels on Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters crews had yet to recover any debris from the three most recent incidents.
Kirby also announced a new interagency team dedicated to studying the objects and future related policy. He did not offer specifics about the objects themselves as confusion and frustration over the communication about the U.S. military’s firing multiple missiles in U.S. and Canadian airspace over the weekend lingers.
With a U.S. military pilot’s having shot down a fourth object Sunday afternoon, the White House has not seemed set on its message about what was shot down, who from the government should communicate about it, why there appear to be more unidentified objects, whom they might belong to, what threat they pose or whether decision-making over shooting down such items has changed.
Kirby noted Monday what two U.S. defense officials previously told NBC News: The military is using a wider range of radar data to monitor North American airspace since the Chinese spy balloon was spotted, and it is taking deeper looks at more objects it might have filtered out in the past.
Officials spoke Monday arrived after a weekend filled with news about additional objects’ being shot down in North American airspace and few details.
After an unidentified object was shot down off northeastern Alaska on Friday, Biden gave a one-word answer to a question from the media — “Success." Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made Saturday’s shootdown over the Yukon public, although it was a U.S. F-22 that destroyed the object.
Jean-Pierre said Sunday morning the public should understand that the administration intends to “detect and we’re always going to defend our airspace,” but she gave little insight into new standards or processes to do that — nor did she identify what the objects were.
The absence of information grew even more apparent when the fourth object was shot down over Lake Huron hours before the Super Bowl began Sunday. Despite inquiries, White House communications remained largely quiet, a posture that has allowed conspiracy theories to fester.
“In times of uncertainty, leaders need to be as transparent as possible with the public,” Larry Hogan, a Republican former governor of Maryland, tweeted Monday. “After shooting down three airborne objects, President Biden needs to communicate directly with the nation about what we know and what we don’t.”
National security officials have declined to identify the three most recent objects as balloons or identify their owners or their functions, whether they be weather monitoring or surveillance by foreign actors. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” however, that intelligence officials believe the second and third items were also balloons.
A Canadian official appeared to confirm that assessment Monday, at least with regard to the object shot down Sunday.
Maj.-Gen. Paul Prévost, the director of staff for the Strategic Joint Staff, which provides military analysis to the Canadian Armed Forces, referred to that object as a "suspected balloon" and said locating the objects would offer more insight into what they are and how they moved around.
Many of the questions directed to the White House have been redirected to the Defense Department, as the Biden administration takes a guarded approach when it comes to inconvenient or untimely developments that distract from its larger message that the nation is making steady progress under a seasoned president. The White House used much the same playbook when it came to the classified documents found in Biden’s home and private office. Only when it was confronted with news reports that documents had been found did the White House acknowledge that Biden had retained classified material that should have been turned over to federal archivists.
Robert Gibbs, who was White House press secretary during the Obama administration, said in an interview that Biden’s administration should be over-communicating about the shootdowns, particularly as a lack of information can allow disinformation and misinformation to grow.
“They’re the ones that have to drive the narrative on this, and I don’t think it’s helpful having different parts of the governmental apparatus knowing different levels of things and reporting that publicly,” he said. “That hurts their case that they’re the ones that have the information and are communicating it with the public.”
In the meantime, the White House faces criticism from both sides of the aisle as lawmakers try to work out what exactly happened.
“What’s gone on in the last two weeks or so, 10 days, has been nothing short of craziness,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” mere hours before the fourth object was shot down over Lake Huron.
His Republican colleague from Montana, Sen. Steve Daines, agreed in a tweet Sunday, calling the “lack of communication” from the White House “unacceptable.” In the face of White House reticence, the public is forced to rely “on leaks, speculation and worst of all disinformation from foreign governments.”
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., shared his own concerns about insufficient transparency from the Biden White House in an interview Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”
While he said it might be difficult to have immediate answers because the areas where some of the objects were shot down are so remote, as they required grueling retrieval missions, Himes said it is troubling to see “massive speculation about alien invasions and additional Chinese or Russian action” bubbling up in the information vacuum.
“Maybe it’s because I’m in politics, and so I spend a lot of time talking to folks in grocery stores and town hall meetings,” he said. “You know, in an absence of information, people will fill that gap with anxiety and other stuff. So I wish the administration was a little quicker to tell us everything that they do know.”
It is even unclear whether more objects are in the air than previously known or whether entirely new items are appearing in U.S. airspace. Has that information changed the requirements for shooting objects from American skies? That also remains unknown.
Biden made only the barest mention of the Chinese spy balloon in his State of the Union address last week: a two-sentence aside that left unanswered any number of questions about escalating U.S.-Chinese tensions.
John Bolton, who was a national security adviser in the Trump White House, said: “The problem is it [the spy balloon] is illustrative of what China is doing. It’s a wake-up call. We have a serious problem with China. We’re not causing the problem; they’re causing it.
“I think the mistake here is not adequately characterizing what happens when an unknown vehicle heads toward American territory,” Bolton added. “You should assume if it’s unidentified and doesn’t respond to communications that you assume it’s potentially dangerous.”
What is known for certain is that, with missiles firing over the U.S. and Canada, the significance of the moment is difficult to ignore.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who heads North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. North Command, noted his belief that “this is the first time within United States or American airspace that NORAD or United States Northern Command has taken kinetic action against an airborne object.”
Officials have tried to scuttle the view that the objects were a severe threat to Americans. The most recent object shot down over Lake Huron was not considered a military threat, but a Pentagon statement said it could have had surveillance capabilities.
The only thing that was strictly emphasized about the three unidentified objects, a defense official said, was that there was “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”