A suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down on Feb. 4 off the coast in Surfside Beach, S.C. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Regarding the Feb. 7 news article “U.S. failed to detect prior Chinese incursions”:

As former senior civilian policy officials at the Defense Department, we wish to comment on statements by Biden administration officials that at least three Chinese surveillance balloons traversed U.S. territory during the Trump administration. These initial statements implied that Trump administration officials had prior knowledge of these Chinese surveillance flights but did nothing about them. This is false.

In fact, neither of us received a briefing on such Chinese surveillance flights during our time in office. Though we support shooting down the Chinese surveillance balloon, we find it difficult to understand why it was allowed to overfly sensitive American military and civilian sites. This deliberate and conspicuous provocation by the Chinese government constituted a violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law. We also reject the Biden administration’s apparent attempt to use this latest act of Chinese aggression to cast aspersions on the Trump administration.

Had we known of Chinese surveillance platforms violating U.S. territorial sovereignty, we would have recommended strong action be taken before the intruding airship could loiter over and gather intelligence on some of the most sensitive U.S. military assets critical to the nation’s defense. Recent Defense Department statements that prior Chinese surveillance balloon incursions went undetected are worrisome. If true, such serious shortcomings in the U.S. homeland defense capability should be of concern to all Americans. If they were detected but senior policy and intelligence officials of the Defense Department were not notified, this raises questions about the willingness of military and intelligence community officials to share information with the senior civilian leadership of the department and the very principle of civilian oversight of the military, which is central to the health of our republic.

We appreciate the administration’s stated desire to avoid risking injury to people or damage to property on the ground by downing the balloon over U.S. soil, even though it has yet to credibly explain why it couldn’t take action over sparsely populated areas of the country. In addition to intelligence collection, the balloon was also likely capable of carrying payloads that could have resulted in significant disruption of critical national infrastructures over a wide area, affecting communications, transportation, emergency services and other systems on which our society depends.

Given China’s increasingly belligerent actions, massive military buildup, growing threats against Taiwan and expansive nuclear weapons program, the Biden administration’s handling of this situation likely reinforces the belief of China and other U.S. adversaries that the United States is not prepared to act forcefully in its own self-defense when its territory is violated. The signal this sends to friends and foes alike is troubling. We call for a full investigation by Congress of this incident. The American people deserve to know that their nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will be defended at all costs.

James H. Anderson, Clifton

David J. Trachtenberg, Burke

The writers are former deputy undersecretaries of defense for policy in the Trump administration.