Chinese spy balloons soared above the United States while former President Donald Trump was in office, Biden administration officials said Saturday. However, five senior Trump administration officials told Politico the Department of Defense never informed them of such incidents.
"I don't ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States," Trump's second Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, told CNN on Friday. "I would remember that, for sure. My focus was on implementing the national defense strategy to take on the Chinese as the greatest strategic threat facing our country. So I was keen on everything Chinese. We set up a red cell within the Pentagon to deal with it. We reoriented the military's doctrine in how we train and fight, all those things focused on the Chinese. So I would be curious as to why Chinese surveillance balloons were overflying the United States. So that would have caught my attention for sure. I don't recall it ever happening."
The day after Esper's comment, in just one press briefing, the focus shifted from President Joe Biden's handling of the balloon fiasco to whether the Trump administration mishandled multiple instances of similar Chinese balloons encroaching on American airspace.
On Saturday, during a DOD press conference, a senior defense official anonymously said, "PRC [People's Republic of China] government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time."
But the difference, the Pentagon's brass says, is that these balloons never hung above the soil of the U.S. for a considerable stretch.
"I can confirm that there have been other incidents where balloons did come close to or cross over U.S. territory," Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said on Saturday.
Despite Ryder's comment, when grilled for specifics as to the date, location, and duration of the balloons' stay, senior Biden administration officials declined to provide to answer, pointing instead to the classified nature of such events.
Still, some DOD officials did speak in generalities, saying the Pentagon tracks "hundreds" of balloons daily, but they're not a threat.
As one senior Pentagon official pointed out, senior civilian officials would not be notified of the presence of such nominal objects unless their behavior was "completely out of the ordinary, like this one."
Speaking on such lesser instances, DOD officials reported that they've been tracking balloons over U.S. territories for years. According to two anonymous U.S. officials, a balloon was recorded hovering over Guam during the Trump era. And according to a former senior DOD official, the intelligence community also assessed that smaller balloons detected off the coast of Virginia in 2020 were Chinese radar-jamming devices.
When Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was informed by the office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that "several Chinese balloon incidents have happened in the past few years — including over Florida," he questioned, on Twitter, "Why weren't they shot down? And according to several Trump Admin national security officials — they were never informed of these intrusions by the Pentagon."
As noted by senior Biden administration officials, the previous administration may not have been informed of such instances regarding balloon incursions because they may have gone undetected and could be pieced together with intelligence only in retrospect.
The Biden administration has not indicated that it would disclose the existence of any past Chinese spy balloons above the U.S. from 2017 to 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that all senators would receive a briefing on the recent flight of the downed balloon on Feb. 15.
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