(WASHINGTON) — As the U.S. military shoots unidentified objects out the sky at a surprisingly fast clip, President Joe Biden has remained largely silent about the most recent takedowns, balancing political headwinds with concerns over public safety and America’s relationship with China.
U.S. fighter jets took down three objects flying over Alaska, Canada and the waters off Michigan over three successive days starting Friday. Even just one shootdown would be considered unusual, let alone three.
While the Biden administration insists it is acting out of an abundance of caution — to protect national security, as well as civilian aircraft — the president is also facing criticism from Republicans and some Democrats about why it took so long to take down a Chinese balloon a week before.
“They do appear somewhat trigger-happy,” Rep. Mike Turner, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday in an interview with CNN. “Although this is certainly preferable to the permissive environment that they showed when the Chinese spy balloon was coming over some of our most sensitive sites.”
While officials from the White House and Pentagon have briefed reporters about the most recent shootdowns, Biden himself has said just one word publicly.
“Success,” he said Friday, in response to reporters’ shouted questions about the object the U.S. shot down in waters off Alaska.
He had no scheduled public events Monday.
The administration official who’s been the face of the response so far has been White House spokesman John Kirby, who made the dramatic announcement about Friday’s shootdown of an unidentified “high-altitude object” and who will appear at Monday’s press briefing.
In contrast with the shootdown of the Chinese balloon, which the Biden administration said had been spying on the United States, officials said they did not know the owner or purpose of the three other, much smaller objects shot down over the last few days.
Instead, U.S. officials said, the president had been concerned about the risk to civil aviation, considering they were all flying at altitudes where commercial planes fly. The Chinese balloon, officials said, had been spotted much higher.
Even Democrats have pushed for more information from the administration, including about why the U.S. had not known about the Chinese’s balloon surveillance program earlier.
“How did we miss them is a great question,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday during an interview on ABC’s The View, adding he supports a bipartisan investigation to be led by Sen. Jon Tester, Democrat of Michigan. “It’s a good question we need an answer to.”
In interviews last week with PBS Newshour and Noticias Telemundo, Biden defended the fact the U.S. had waited until the balloon was over water to shoot it down, saying he had ordered it taken out but that his military advisers said it was too dangerous to act over land.
Administration officials said that while the U.S. military had spotted the Chinese balloon when it first entered U.S. airspace over Alaska, Biden was only informed of its presence once it had traversed Canada and entered airspace over Montana. At that point, the White House said, he ordered it shot down.
“I just think that the idea that there was a dereliction of duty is I think is a – is a bizarre notion,” he told PBS Newshour. “China knows exactly that– what the deal is with us.”
Part of Biden’s reluctance to express more criticism could be rooted in the fact that the Chinese balloon appeared at an inopportune time for him.
Biden has made lower tensions with China and its leader, President Xi Jinping, a hallmark of his foreign policy.
Biden and Xi met in person for the first time as presidents three months ago, and they pledged to work together to better manage the competitive relationship between their two nations.
But the Chinese balloon saga led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel an upcoming visit to China, and communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries has dropped off, too.
“I’m committed to work with China where we can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said last week during his State of the Union address. “But make no mistake about it: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
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