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Spy balloon

Biden says Chinese President Xi doesn't want to damage relations with U.S. after spy balloon, in exclusive interview

The president has come under increasing pressure by members of Congress, including Democrats, to address the situation publicly.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said in an exclusive interview with NBC News on Thursday that he did not think it was an overreaction to shoot down three unidentified objects over North America in the days after taking down a Chinese spy balloon.

"I got a recommendation from the military," Biden said in a phone call, adding that it would have been easier to not shoot the objects down in the face of political pressure.

Biden also said he plans to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping but declined in the interview to say when.

“I think the last thing that Xi wants is to fundamentally rip the relationship with the United States and with me," Biden said.

The interview took place after Biden delivered his first remarks about the Chinese spy balloon and unidentified objects shot down by the U.S. military in the skies above North America.

"I gave the order to take down these three objects due to hazards to civilian commercial air traffic and because we could not rule out the surveillance risk of sensitive facilities," Biden said in his remarks.

He said the U.S. will shoot down any future flying objects that threaten American safety.

"Make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down," Biden said in a brief speech from the White House.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and China have been icy since the shooting down of the balloon, which the Chinese have insisted was not intended for spying, but Biden said he did plan to speak to Xi.

"We're not looking for a new Cold War, but I make no apologies," Biden said. "I make no apologies, and we will compete and we will responsibly manage that competition so that it doesn't veer into conflict."

Biden said that the U.S. still doesn't know what the three unidentified objects over North America were that were shot down by the military over the weekend. But he suggested the intelligence community believes they didn't have nefarious purposes.

"We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program, or they were surveillance vehicles from other any other country," Biden said. "The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions, studying weather or conducting other scientific research."

The U.S. military and Canadian military are trying to recover the debris, Biden said, and the intelligence community is still assessing all three incidents and reporting to him daily.

There has also been no evidence to suggest that there has been a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky, Biden said, and explained the U.S. has spotted more objects recently because of how officials have adjusted radar.

Biden said he has directed his team to develop "sharper rules" on how to address these unidentified objects in the future so that the government can distinguish "between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not."

Biden said the interagency team that he directed his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to coordinate will do four things: establish an inventory of unmanned airborne objects; develop measures to better detect these objects in U.S. airspace; update rules and regulations for launching these into the skies; and have his secretary of state lead an effort to establish global norms in this unregulated space.

Members of Congress, including Democrats, had called on Biden to address the situation publicly. Lawmakers were briefed by top officials from the Department of Defense and the office of the director of national intelligence.

"The American people need to hear more about the nature of these objects or whatever they were,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at an event Thursday that, in addition to the alleged Chinese spy balloon, the U.S. still doesn’t know what the additional three objects shot down over North America were. One was shot down Friday over Alaska, another was shot down Saturday over Canada, and a third was shot down Sunday over Lake Huron.

"It could be commercial, it could have been weather balloons," Kirby said at Georgetown University. "They could be scientific research, we just don’t know."

The U.S. still hasn’t recovered debris from any of the three objects, Kirby said.

“We haven’t found anything just yet because of where they landed and because of the extreme winter weather in these locations,” he said. 

In a statement later Thursday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it was ending its search in the Lake Huron area "due to several factors including deteriorating weather and the low probability of recovery."

"Search and recovery efforts continue in Yukon with the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces," the statement said. "The conditions are extremely challenging with a very large search area, spanning 3,000 square kilometers, and consisting of rugged and mountainous terrain with a high level of snowpack and harsh winter conditions."

The U.S. has been able to retrieve remnants of the alleged Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, more than a week after it first began traversing the country.

Three defense officials tell NBC News that recovery efforts for the Chinese spy balloon are wrapping up. Everything the FBI feels is of value has been recovered, one of the officials said.  

NBC News first reported the existence of China's alleged spy balloon on Feb. 2.

The interagency team will lay out parameters by the end of the week, Kirby said Tuesday, for how the U.S. will address such objects in the future.