Top general says Trump-era spy balloons flew over the U.S. undetected
The military did not detect previous flights of Chinese spy balloons over the U.S. that took place during the Trump administration, a top general said Monday, due to a “gap” in the Defense Department’s ability to track certain airborne objects.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command, cited the issue as the reason that at least three spy balloon flights were not briefed to senior Trump officials at the time.
“So those balloons, so every day as a NORAD commander it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. But I don’t want to go into further detail.”
He added that the intelligence community later determined the flights had occurred using “additional means of collection.”
The Defense Department first brought up the Trump-era flights on Saturday, not long after an F-22 fighter shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina. Republicans had for several days blamed the Biden administration for its handling of the incident, but a senior DoD official on Saturday noted that flights had also occurred during the previous administration.
The remark caused an uproar in Republican circles, with several former Trump officials denying the incidents on Sunday, saying they never received any briefings from the military.
“We were never briefed, we never heard any of it,” former national security adviser Robert O’Brien told POLITICO.
During his meetings with reporters, VanHerck also addressed why the military didn’t shoot down the balloon last week before it began its seven-day journey over the U.S. and Canada.
“It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America, this is under my NORAD hat,” he said. “And therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent.”
The news from VanHerck comes as members of Congress demand further briefings from the Pentagon, both on the previous balloon incursions and on the current administration’s handling of the newest flight.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said in an interview Monday that the Pentagon told him the military had actually tracked eight such incidents, although the timeframe of those flights was unclear.
“I had a conversation with someone at the Joint Staff that used the number eight,” said Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, in a Monday interview.
Two of the Trump-era incidents occurred over Florida, and one over Texas, Defense Department officials told Waltz separately by phone on Sunday. Officials declined to provide details about the other incidents, he said, including under whose administration they occurred.
Since last week, administration officials have conducted a series of briefings for members of Congress and staff. On Thursday, the staff of the “Gang of Eight” lawmakers received a classified briefing, followed by a briefing for national security committee staffs on Friday.
Before the balloon was shot down on Saturday, the Pentagon notified the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees and the defense panels of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, and followed up with a briefing after the operation, a White House spokesperson said.
During a separate Sunday briefing, representatives from the Office of the Secretary of Defense read an opening statement about the three incidents over Florida and Texas but did not take questions, Waltz said. They also did not disclose details about the nature or size of the balloons, or whether the incidents were reported up the chain of command.
Waltz said he spoke separately with a member of the Joint Staff, who told him similar incidents had occurred eight times.
Senior Biden administration officials have since said the information was discovered after the previous administration had left office, and have offered to brief former officials on the new intelligence.
However, O’Brien said that as of Monday afternoon, he had not been contacted about any potential briefings.
Waltz said he was not satisfied with the briefing he received on Sunday and is asking for additional information from the Pentagon.
“You can’t just put that out there that our airspace was violated multiple times and not give us any details,” he said.
The developments come as the military begins the work of recovering debris from the balloon in the waters off the East Coast.
A Navy dock landing ship, the USS Carter Hall, is near where the balloon splashed down off of South Carolina and is collecting and categorizing debris, VanHerck said. The USNS Pathfinder, an oceanographic survey ship, is also working to produce a map of the balloon’s debris field. He noted that rough seas hampered recovery operations on Sunday.
Meanwhile, forces trained in removing unexploded ordnance went out to the site in a rigid-hull inflatable boat this morning, and will deploy unmanned underwater vehicles equipped with side-scan sonar to locate debris.
The military is concerned the remnants of balloon’s payload could contain explosives or hazardous material, and wants to ensure the safety of the site, VanHerck said. The balloon was as much as 200 feet tall, with a payload the size of a jetliner that weighed “in excess of a couple thousand pounds.”
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