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Biden says the 3 aerial objects shot down were not Chinese spy balloons

President Biden walks across the South Lawn upon return to the White House on Thursday.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden walks across the South Lawn upon return to the White House on Thursday.

Updated February 16, 2023 at 3:03 PM ET

President Biden will soon speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the surveillance balloon the U.S. military shot down early this month.

"We are going to keep our allies and Congress contemporaneously informed of all we learn and all we know and I expect to be speaking with President Xi, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon," Biden said in remarks at the White House about the recent spate of unidentified aerial objects in U.S. airspace.

The first of four objects was a surveillance balloon deployed by China, which the administration has called a "violation of U.S. airspace" and "irresponsible action." The other objects have not been publicly identified, and recovery efforts are underway, but the White House has ruled out the possibility of aliens.

Echoing other officials, Biden doubled down that there is nothing right now that suggests that the other three objects are related to China's spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country. He said the three aerial objects shot down by U.S. military were most likely tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions.

"We don't have any evidence that there have been a sudden increase of objects in the sky," Biden said. "We are just seeing more of them partially because of the steps we have taken to narrow our radars and we have to keep adapting our approach to dealing with these challenges."

The military has enhanced its radar to pick up slow-moving objects

Moving forward, Biden says the administration will establish an inventory of unmanned aerial objects above the U.S. airspace, implement measures to improve the capacity to detect these objects, update rules and regulations for launching and maintaining objects and the Secretary of State will "help establish common global norms in this largely unregulated space."

Biden said he is not looking for a "new cold war" with China but plans to continue pushing policies to compete with China.

The president said that on Friday, the U.S. put restrictions on six firms that directly support the Chinese army and aerospace program, denying them access to U.S. technology.

The public address comes after lawmakers called on Biden to provide Americans with more information about the four objects shot down this month.

"Our intelligence community is still assessing all three incidences. They're reporting to me daily and will continue the urgent efforts to do so and I will communicate that to the Congress," Biden said.

Lawmakers want more information

Senators on the Hill received a classified briefing on Tuesday following questions about the succession of objects being shot down over one weekend. But even after the briefing, lawmakers from both parties have been asking forBiden to publicly address the objects to reassure the American people that there is no active threat. Others were not impressed with the information they received.

In an interview with All Things Considered, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she did not find the Biden administration's all-Senate classified briefing "very informative."

"I do not believe that the administration has been sufficiently transparent. Now, to be fair to the administration, they are still gathering information. They're still trying to recover debris from the second, third and fourth objects that were ... shot down, and I encourage them to be more forthcoming — once they have recovered and analyzed the debris," Collins said, adding that the administration should have been better at coordinating communication between Congress as the Chinese spy balloon flew over specific states earlier this month.

Crews were able to retrieve parts of the balloon, including the priority sensor, electronic parts and large sections of the object.

What the White House has said so far

The National Security Council said it expects to have new guidance in the coming days on how the U.S. government should treat unidentified aerial objects going forward, spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.

So far, the Federal Aviation Administration and intelligence agencies have reviewed visuals from the fighter pilots who flew past the objects before they were shot down – visuals that were limited because of the high speed of the planes and the relatively small size of the largely stationary objects, Kirby said.

Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan is conducting the interagency review and is likely to have "a set of parameters" for making decisions about how to handle the kinds of objects shot down by U.S. fighter jets in the past several days, Kirby said.

The U.S. intelligence community so far thinks that the three objects shot down over Alaska, the Yukon in Canada and Lake Huron near Michigan could be commercial or research balloons, but the government is hoping to recover debris to forensically examine. That could take some time to fully complete, said Jean-Pierre on Thursday, because of weather conditions.

"We can't definitively say without analyzing the debris what these objects were," she said, noting that so far there is no indication that the balloons were part of China's spy balloon program or foreign external spy programs. They have also ruled out that they were a part of the U.S. government.

Echoing comments from Kirby earlier in the week, Jean-Pierre said the balloons could be tied to commercial or benign purposes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
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