(WASHINGTON) — The downing of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon by the U.S. military was met by lawmakers with a mix of praise for the safe and successful operation, criticism for it not happening sooner and concern over what intelligence may have been gathered and how to prevent something like this from happening again.
The balloon was shot down by a U.S. fighter aircraft off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday afternoon after traveling across the continental U.S. since Tuesday, according to officials. The Pentagon has said the high-altitude balloon was being used for surveillance, disputing China’s claim that it was a civilian aircraft used for meteorological purposes.
President Joe Biden told reporters on Saturday that he ordered the Pentagon to shoot the balloon down “as soon as possible” on Wednesday. However, the operation was held off until the balloon — carrying a payload described as being the size of three buses — was off the coast, where threats to civilians were limited.
“They decided — without doing damage to anyone on the ground — they decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water within our 12-mile limit,” Biden said. “They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it.”
A senior defense official told reporters there was value in waiting to shoot down the balloon aside from just the safety of people on the ground.
“The surveillance balloon’s overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us,” the official said during a briefing on Saturday. “We were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.”
Lawmakers across the aisle applauded the military for successfully taking down the suspected surveillance balloon, though some said it took too long.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries thanked Biden and the U.S. military for “putting the safety of the American people first.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer commended Biden’s “leadership in taking down the Chinese balloon over water to ensure safety for all Americans.”
Tennessee Republican Rep. Mark Green, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, said he was “pleased” that the “espionage tool” won’t be returning to China.
At the same time, several lawmakers, including Green and fellow members of his party, reiterated criticisms that the balloon should have been brought down sooner — before it crossed the continental U.S. — and that the situation called for a more forceful response.
Green said that “damage to U.S. national security and American sovereignty was already done.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said Biden “refused to stop China,” while Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., called it a “dereliction of Biden’s duty.”
“We still don’t know what information was collected and where it was sent,” Scott tweeted.
On Sunday talk shows, Republicans kept up the questions over the timing of the military’s decision to down the balloon.
“I can assure you that if we fly a balloon over China, they’re going to shoot it down, and probably a lot sooner than we did,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“What began as spy balloon has become trial balloon, testing President Biden’s strength and resolve, and unfortunately the present failed that test,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., added on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that while he commended Biden for ordering the balloon to be shot down, “he didn’t do that until a week aft it entered U.S. airspace.”
Even Biden’s defenders among congressional Democrats said the balloon’s mere presence in the U.S. indicated broader issues in the relationship between Washington and Beijing.
“We should not have had this kind of incursion into the United States and we have a real problem with China on a number of issues, from their human rights violations to their violations of international business law to even the challenges we’ve had with them on overt spying. So I’m grateful that the military took decisive action when they and how they did, but we, obviously, have issues here,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”
Senior administration officials have told ABC News that shooting down the balloon safely sent the message that the U.S. protects American lives while responding “effectively” to the violation of U.S. sovereignty.
Amid the security concerns, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the balloon didn’t pose a physical or military threat and, once it was detected, the U.S. took steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.
A senior military official told reporters Saturday that the balloon was deemed unlikely to provide much more to China from flying over than could already be gained from its satellites.
“Nevertheless, this balloon was clearly crossing over sensitive sites, including sensitive military sites. And so we took additional precautions to make sure that whatever additive intel value would be minimized,” the official said.
The eventual shoot-down then served to “neutralize any intelligence value it could have produced” by preventing it from returning to China, the official said.
In the wake of what he called China’s “inexcusable” and “incompetent” spying, Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said this incident will be a “major focus” of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week.
As the balloon debris retrieval is underway, Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin called for all Congress members to be briefed on the situation in the coming week and as more is learned, while urging stronger steps against China beyond Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing his planned travel in the country this weekend.
“Whether through new sanctions or tighter restrictions on U.S. exports to China, the message needs to be loud and clear,” Slotkin tweeted.
Chinese surveillance balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe, according to a senior defense official. In the U.S., they transited the continental U.S. briefly at least three times during the Trump administration, senior administration officials said Saturday.
Following the resolution of this latest balloon, Missouri Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt said, “We need ensure that this never happens again.”
ABC News’ Justin Gomez, MaryAlice Parks and Matt Seyler contributed to this report.
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