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Biden says latest aerial objects likely unrelated to Chinese spying

President orders his team to draw up rules for future incidents

President Biden deliver remarks Thursday on the U.S. response to the recently discovered aerial objects. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President Biden on Thursday sought to reassure Americans that the three aerial objects shot down by the military over the weekend do not so far appear to have connection to any foreign surveillance programs, unlike a Chinese spy balloon that was shot down Feb. 4 over the Atlantic Ocean.

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing, nothing, right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that there were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Biden said in remarks from the White House.

The president added that intelligence officials believe “that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.”

The week Biden had to decide whether to shoot down mysterious objects

A Chinese spy balloon flying above the United States attracted international attention earlier this month as it was spotted moving across U.S. territory, including over Montana, which is home to nuclear missile silos. Military aircraft shot down the Chinese airship on Feb. 4 over the Atlantic Ocean.

Over the weekend, as the Pentagon adjusted its radars to detect slower-moving objects, three more aerial objects were sighted. Military officials told Biden they could not rule out that they had surveillance capabilities, adding that at an altitude of 20,000 to 40,000 feet, they posed a risk to civilian planes. The president ordered them shot down as well.

On Thursday, Biden said those three objects were destroyed “out of an abundance of caution” and because they could be downed safely. Military officials in the United States and Canada are now seeking to recover the debris from those objects, he added.

“I want to be clear — we don’t have any evidence that there has been a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky,” Biden said. “We’re now just seeing more of them, partially because of the steps we’ve taken to increase our radars.”

The appearance of the three mysterious objects in rapid succession led to an unusual period at the White House, as press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has had to publicly reassure Americans that there was no evidence they had extraterrestrial origins.

The decision to shoot down three aerial objects in recent days, after the detection of the Chinese spy balloon, has led to demands for greater transparency from the Biden administration on how it is responding to such incidents. Critics have called for the establishment of guidelines on how to approach similar situations in the future.

Biden has tasked his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, with leading an interagency group to craft parameters on how to respond to such incidents. White House officials said such guidelines, which they expect to be finalized this week, do not currently exist.

Biden also outlined other steps the government would take. It is not clear that U.S. officials have a good sense of everything floating in the airspace above the country — especially smaller and slower items — and the president said was directing the creation of a “better inventory of unmanned airborne objects in space above the United States’ airspace.” The government, he said, would make sure that the inventory is “accessible and up-to-date.”

Biden also said the administration would craft new procedures to improve the nation’s ability to detect these objects and would update the rules that regulate the launch and maintenance of unmanned objects into the skies.

“I’ve directed my team to come back to me with sharper rules for how we will deal with these unidentified objects moving forward,” Biden said. “But make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety or security of the American people, I will take it down.”

Biden said he has asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to lead an effort to create “common global norms” to regulate the use of flying objects as the administration aims to better prepare for the next time an unidentified object appears over U.S. airspace.

“These steps will lead to safer and more secure skies for our air travelers, our military, our scientists and for people on the ground as well,” Biden said.

Some reports on Thursday suggested that at least one of the downed objects could have been a balloon launched by hobbyists. Aviation Week reported that a group called the North Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade last had contact with one of its balloons off the west coast of Alaska on Feb. 10 and anticipated it would be over the Yukon the following day — the same time an F-22 shot down an object there.

The group could not immediately be reached for comment.

Biden also defended his handling of the Chinese spy balloon that set off the initial scramble. Republicans criticized the administration for waiting to shoot down the balloon and allowing it to cross over the United States, though the White House and military said they did not want to risk debris hitting people on the ground.

Some White House allies said the administration was sensitive to criticism that it had not taken action early enough against the initial balloon, and that the government was in a state of heightened alert when the three additional objects were detected.

Top officials said the spy craft was part of a broader Chinese surveillance program and that at least three such balloons had flown over the United States undetected during the Trump administration.

“The military advised against shooting it down over land because of the sheer size of it,” Biden said on Thursday. “Instead, we tracked it closely. We analyzed its capabilities and we learned more about how it operates because we knew its path. We were able to protect sensitive sites against collection.”

Biden officials said the detection of the Chinese surveillance balloon made them realize they had been missing certain slow-moving objects, prompting the military to adjust its radar to better detect such items. That adjustment could explain, at least in part, why the three additional objects were identified in such rapid succession.

The detection of the Chinese surveillance balloon also prompted Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing. Blinken called the presence of the balloon “an irresponsible act” and a violation of international law by Beijing.

On Thursday, Biden said his administration would continue to engage with Beijing officials, and reiterated that the U.S. seeks “competition, not conflict” with China.

“We’re not looking for a new Cold War,” he said. “But I make no apologies for taking down that balloon.”

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.