Angry senators grill Pentagon officials over Chinese spy balloon response

Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims II, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, DC, on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

Anna Rose Layden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate held its first public hearing on the Chinese spy balloon Thursday, at which visibly angry lawmakers grilled four Defense Department officials about when the military learned of the balloon and why they waited a week to shoot it down.

“I don’t want a damn ballon going over the United States when we could’ve taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” said Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee that conducted the hearing.

Officials said the balloon first entered U.S. airspace off Alaska on Jan. 28, where it was immediately detected by NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canadian air defense system.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) questions witnesses during a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill about the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2023. 

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

“As an Alaskan, I am so angry,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “Alaska is the first line of defense for America… It’s like this administration doesn’t think that Alaska is any part of the rest of the country!” she shouted.

The witnesses defended the Pentagon’s decision to let the high-altitude balloon float across the United States, arguing that the balloon’s primary value to the U.S. military lay in what could be learned from its flight course and its debris.

“A key part of the calculus for this operation was the ability to salvage, understand and exploit the capabilities of the high altitude balloon,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense Melissa Dalton.

Shot-down 'spy balloon' complicates U.S.-China relations — and could affect semiconductor rivalry

“If we had taken it down over the state of Alaska … it would have been a very different recovery operation,” she said, noting that the deep, freezing water of the Bering Sea “would make recovery and salvage operations very dangerous.”

The hearing was part of a series of events Thursday morning in Congress, all related to the spy balloon.

In the House, a resolution condemning “the Chinese Communist Party’s use of a high-altitude surveillance balloon” passed unanimously, 419-0.

That vote took place shortly after House members received a classified briefing about the balloon and the recovery efforts from defense and intelligence officials. Shortly before midday, the full Senate was given its own classified briefing on the balloon.

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Separately in the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony from deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, who said the spy balloon “put on full display what we’ve long recognized: that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.”

At times, Sherman’s characterization of the balloon as part of a broader campaign of aggression appeared at odds with the Pentagon’s insistence that the balloon did not pose a sufficient threat to justify shooting it down earlier.

“There was no hostile act or hostile intent” behind the balloon, Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims II, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators on the Appropriations Committee.

Like her fellow senators, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine did not accept this reasoning.

“Why wouldn’t a foreign military surveillance aircraft violating us airspace inherently be considered to have a hostile intent?” she asked.


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