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U.S. military failed to detect prior balloon threats, top defense official says

Once officials concluded that previously unidentified sightings were Chinese spy balloons, they kept that secret to conceal from Beijing how they’d unmasked the flights, said a U.S. official.
A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Feb. 1, 2023.
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday. Larry Mayer / The Billings Gazette via AP file

The commander overseeing U.S. forces in North America said Monday that Chinese balloon threats have gone undetected by the United States in the past, highlighting an “awareness gap” that needs to be resolved.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, and U.S. Northern Command, was asked at a briefing whether his command had been involved in tracking previous balloons and whether he could identify differences between the most recent case and other balloons dating to the Trump administration.

"I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out," VanHerck said.

VanHerck, who made the remark after he provided an update on the recovery operations following the takedown of the Chinese high-altitude balloon Saturday, declined to provide more details.

He later said that, in tracking the balloon across U.S. territory, the United States “utilized multiple capabilities to ensure we collected and utilized the opportunity to close intel gaps.”

A senior Biden administration official said Sunday that Chinese surveillance balloons had flown over the continental U.S. before — once in the Biden administration and at least three times during former President Donald Trump’s term, a discovery that was made after he left office.

Military leaders and administration officials have not provided a precise timeline about previous balloon flights or details about exactly where the airships flew. And it remains unclear why the U.S. failed to detect some of the balloon flights until after the fact.

Once officials concluded that the previously unidentified sightings were Chinese spy balloons, they chose to keep that determination secret to conceal from China how they had unmasked the balloon flights, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the matter.

VanHerck said the U.S. military does not have authority to collect intelligence inside the U.S. but an exception was granted to monitor the Chinese airship.

“In this case, specific authorities were granted to collect intelligence against the balloon specifically and we utilized specific capabilities to do that,” he said.

VanHerck said the most recent balloon, which was similar in height to a 20-story building or over twice that of the 2022 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, carried a payload that was similar in size to a regional jetliner.

He said the sheer size of the balloon and the payload played a role in the “decision-making process” to delay shooting it down until it was clear of land and over the Atlantic Ocean.

The debris field, off South Carolina, was about 1,500 square meters, or about 15 football fields by 15 football fields, VanHerck said.

During an assessment before the balloon’s takedown, VanHerck said, officials had to consider “even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon.” He said he couldn’t confirm whether the balloon was carrying explosives.

“We did not associate the potential of having explosives with a threat to dropping weapons, those kinds of things, but out of a precaution, abundance of safety for not only our military people and the public, we have to make assumptions such as that,” VanHerck said.

President Joe Biden has faced criticism from Republicans and some Democrats over the balloon, with numerous GOP lawmakers arguing he should have shot it down sooner. Some congressional Republicans have also accused the Biden administration of failing to be prepared, given that officials were aware of earlier balloons traveling over the U.S.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said Sunday on NBC News' "Meet the Press" that the administration "didn’t just fail here; they failed to prepare after the first time this happened during this administration.”

A classified briefing for all senators is scheduled for Thursday, said a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday that the Biden administration had reached out to Trump officials about the previous balloons.

“I can’t speak to the information flow in the previous administration. I can tell you that we have reached out to key officials from the previous administration and offered them briefings on the forensics that we did,” Kirby said. “And we expressed our willingness to walk them through what we learned.”