WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday that the U.S. intelligence community is considering that the three most recent unidentified objects shot down over North America were being used for commercial or benign purposes.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters the evaluation is based on what the U.S. knows from images of the three objects and cautioned that the assessment is preliminary because no debris from any of them has been recovered.
"One thing we have to consider, and we believe the intelligence community is considering as an explanation, is that these could be balloons tied to commercial or research entities and therefore totally benign," Kirby said.
The U.S. has shot down four objects this month, beginning with a suspected Chinese spy balloon on Feb. 4. Since then, three more unidentified objects have been shot down over North America: one Friday over Alaska, one Saturday over Canada and one Sunday over Lake Huron.
Initial assessments indicate there’s no evidence that the three more recent objects were part of the Chinese government’s spying program or intelligence collection against the U.S., Kirby said Tuesday.
He added: "I want to caveat that we haven’t found the debris. We’re still doing the best we can with the observations that were made by the pilots, with the flight profile data that we’ve tried to collect."
Kirby acknowledged at the White House news briefing Monday that "a range of entities — including countries, companies, research and academic organizations — operate objects at these altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious at all, including scientific research."
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, confirmed at a separate news conference Tuesday in Brussels with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that no debris from any of the objects shot down in the last week has been recovered. Milley also revealed that when the object shot down Sunday over Lake Huron was targeted, the first U.S. missile missed. Fox News was the first to report that the first missile aiming for the object over Lake Huron missed.
Milley said the missile that missed the fourth object "landed harmlessly in the water of Lake Huron" and indicated that the U.S. military tracked it on the way down. He emphasized that officials made sure the airspace was clear of commercial or civilian aviation traffic.
Milley said that no debris from those three objects has been recovered because of rocky terrain and other difficult conditions.
"Two, three and four are not yet recovered. They are in very difficult terrain," Milley said. "The second one off the coast of Alaska, that's in some really, really difficult terrain in the Arctic Circle, with very, very low temperatures in the minus 40s. The second one is in the Canadian Rockies and the Yukon — very difficult to get that one — and the third one is in Lake Huron, probably a couple hundred feet depth, so we'll get them eventually, but it's going to take some time to recover those."
Senior officials from the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence gave all senators a classified briefing about the objects Tuesday morning Capitol Hill.
Speaking to reporters after the briefing, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said it was clear the objects “pose no threat to civilian or other population entities.”
He praised the administration’s briefing but suggested that the incidents have exposed a "gap," in that there's a lack of a formal process for balloons used for educational, commercial and other purposes to be flagged to the Federal Aviation Administration or other federal entities. “There is not anywhere near as formal [a] process as there probably should be,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the ranking member on the Intelligence panel, said he believes 99% of the information senators were briefed about could be shared with the public.
The U.S. has had “hundreds and hundreds” of cases of unidentified flying objects over the years, Rubio said, alluding to a January report from the director of national intelligence that detailed more than 500 sightings of “unidentified aerial phenomena” since 2021. "So the question now has to be why are they setting up a new task force?" he asked.
Rubio called on the Biden administration to share details about the latest objects with scientists studying the phenomena. "That’s the only way you’re going to get into answers about what it is or who it belongs to, what it’s doing here. I imagine some of these are going to have explanations that are pretty simplistic; others are going to be more complicated."
Kirby said Tuesday that by the end of the week, the interagency team that President Joe Biden ordered his national security team to coordinate Monday will lay out parameters for how the U.S. will address such objects in the future.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called on Biden to deliver an address to the nation "today," noting that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "gave an explanation to the people of Canada over the weekend."
"As usual, we had another classified briefing in which we learned nothing that I didn’t already know as a member of the Intelligence Committee, Armed Services Committee or, for that matter, that one couldn’t learn from reading your newspapers and watching your news channels," Cotton told reporters. "That’s why I want to stress again, President Biden owes the American people an explanation."
The White House’s explanations are "contradictory," Cotton continued. "On the one hand, the administration is saying we don’t yet know what these last three objects are and we don’t want to characterize until we recover them. But on the other hand, it wasn’t a threat," he said. "Both of those things can’t be true."
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., declined to answer specific questions about what senators were told but said he "felt adequately briefed."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said: “It was very comprehensive and very detailed. I think we have to wait until they’ve done more analysis of the debris. That will give us a lot more questions to ask, and they will have a lot more information as to who was involved.”