(The Hill) – After a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spent several days flying across the U.S. this week, the U.S. military shot down the aircraft off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
President Joe Biden said on Saturday that he had ordered the military to down the balloon “as soon as possible” after he was briefed on the matter on Wednesday.
The decision raised questions on timing, as lawmakers and industry pundits had pushed the Biden administration to take care of it much sooner.
National security officials warned Biden that “the best time to do that was when it got over water” due to safety concerns associated with shooting it down over land, the president told reporters on Saturday.
The balloon was traveling about 60,000 feet above the ground and was estimated to be the size of three buses. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin echoed Biden’s claims after news broke that the U.S. military shot it down.
“U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” Austin said in a statement on Saturday.
“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first,” he added.
Still, Republican lawmakers criticized Biden for not acting sooner as tensions rise between the U.S. and China.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the Biden administration’s response to the balloon an “embarrassing display of weakness.”
“The [administration] should have taken care of this before it became a national security threat,” McCaul said in a statement posted to Twitter on Saturday.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he is “deeply concerned” about the decision to allow the balloon to traverse the U.S. this week.
Rogers also accused the Biden administration of attempting to “hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people.”
The Chinese surveillance balloon reportedly first entered U.S. airspace in Alaska on Jan. 28, according to Reuters. It then traveled into Canadian airspace on Jan. 30 before returning to U.S. airspace via Idaho on Jan. 31.
Reports of the balloon emerged one day later, as it passed through Montana, leading U.S. defense officials to confirm the presence of the balloon on Thursday.
“It is clear that standard protocol for defense of U.S. airspace was ignored,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, adding, “The White House owes Congress and the American people answers about this failure.”
However, several Democratic lawmakers accused their Republican colleagues of “playing politics” with the issue.
“All of us who serve here spend time and care on national security,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said on Twitter. “It is possible to express concerns about surveillance and other issues with the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] without trying to create unnecessary panic for political gain.”
While most Democrats defended Biden’s decision to wait to shoot down the spy balloon over safety concerns, some expressed interest in receiving a briefing from the Biden administration to learn what went wrong.
“Glad that [the president] shot down the Chinese balloon but these aerial threats are not new,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said in a tweet. “We need to take them seriously and implement new measures to prevent surveillance in our airspace.”
“I commend our great military for successfully and safely downing the spy balloon,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted. “Now it’s time for the CCP to explain their violation of our airspace and for the US to ensure this is the last balloon that flies over our country.”
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“I look forward to receiving a briefing from the [administration] on the balloon’s capabilities, what if any assets have been surveilled, and our plan to stop this from happening in the future,” he added.
China acknowledged on Friday that the balloon was one of its own but claimed that it was primarily used for meteorological research and had been blown off course.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
However, the Biden administration and lawmakers have maintained that the balloon was surveilling “strategic sites” in the U.S. and even postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing over the “unacceptable” presence of the balloon in U.S. airspace.
“We have noted the [People’s Republic of China] statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law,” a senior State Department official said on Friday.