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Panic in the Skies—The Chinese Balloon Saga

Saturday Night Live's Bowen Yang as the Chinese spy balloon in an SNL sketch
Saturday Night Live/YouTube

The North America visiting Chinese balloon is down, hooray!

No loss of life, no danger from falling debris, and a lot of potentially valuable equipment and data recoverable.

So why are the Republicans so up in arms?

Here are a few key takeaways from the Chinese Balloon Panic reasonable folks should keep in mind.

A surveillance balloon isn’t super sophisticated.

Perhaps in the days before air flight, a mysterious balloon some 60,000 feet in the sky might have caused reasonable alarm among the inhabitants of America below.

But think about it. If you’re going to spy on things like ICBM silo sites in Montana and North Dakota, why send a large, slow moving balloon to do it? It’s not like the Chinese don’t have sophisticated satellites and unmanned stealth drones.

Why risk having your “spy balloon” spotted, intercepted and taken down, with its payload all there for the taking? The Pentagon itself admitted the balloon “wouldn’t offer much in the way of surveillance that China couldn’t collect through satellites.”

And to those who say China is trying to prove its surveillance capabilities, a bulky drifting balloon doesn’t really do that. If anything, it’s a lower tech vehicle that’s drifting in an unintended path.

The affair became a huge embarrassment for the Chinese government.

The Chinese side of the story, which we of course should never accept at face value, is this was a high altitude weather balloon blown off course. National security and aeronautic experts agreed it appeared to share many of the same characteristics of high altitude balloons used for weather forecasting, telecommunications and scientific research.

At the same time, it’s well known China developed a fleet of balloons to conduct surveillance, and this very well may have been one of them. Now that we have the remains of the payload, we can see whether the Chinese were lying or telling the truth.

And I usually go with lying when it comes to the Chinese government.

The timing of the balloon incursion makes no sense.

China had spent months preparing for a big visit by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. It was the first thawing of relations between the superpowers in years.

Moreover, Blinken was set to meet with President Xi, an opportunity rarely granted. The balloon news hit just hours after this announcement, forcing Blinken to scuttle his trip amidst the ensuing recriminations.

That series of events makes no sense from the point of view of the Chinese if their overall goal is better relations.

The possibility this was actually just a big gaffe should be our working understanding. There’s a possibility, of course, there are some hardliners within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who simply wanted to undermine the trip and floated a trial balloon, so to speak, to see what would happen.

That seems unlikely because the conspiracy could have easily been discovered and its participants jailed or worse.

But if we grant that this could have been an inside sabotage, then why get furious at China over it? It’s not like the CCP wanted the balloon to ruin all their well laid plans.

“Shoot it down!” is easy to shout but hard to implement safely.

For days, the Republicans capitalized on the national panic around the balloon as it drifted across the land.

Newly reinstated House Homeland Security Committee member Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia boasted on Twitter:

"I just spoke with our GREAT America First President Trump."
"He would have never allowed China to fly a spy balloon over our country and our military bases and assets."
"Pres Trump would have shot it down before it entered the US."
"And so would I."

But the history of the U.S. and Chinese balloons is less straightforward than all that.

Defense Department officials confirmed Chinese-made balloons have entered U.S. airspace a number of times in the past, including a few times during the Trump administration, with sightings near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam. However, it appears that whoever spotted those balloons did not escalate the matter to their higher-ups.

And in an even more confusing statement, a Defense Department official clarified the incursions during the Trump term were discovered only after the administration had left office—leaving many wondering how exactly the incursions were pieced together after the fact.

The story of this particular balloon’s brief voyage is straightforward.

President Biden was alerted by the Pentagon on Tuesday that a balloon had entered continental U.S. territory near Idaho. He asked for military options and then gave the order.

He told reporters:

“I told them to shoot it down."
“They said to me, let’s wait until the safest place to do so.”

Military planners were concerned debris from the balloon, coming from 60,000 feet up and comprising three buses of cargo size, could impact populations on the ground. That’s why they waited until it was miles off the coast of the Carolinas, where an F-22 fighter did the deed with an air-to-air missile.

In other words, President Biden gave the order to fire upon the balloon but also listened to his military commanders about the best and safest way to do so.

They took it down with no risk to lives on the ground, and they were able to recover a valuable payload that will tell them more about Chinese surveillance capabilities than the Chinese might have been getting from the balloon.

In the world of spy vs. spy, this is a big win.

Balloon Panic

While the end of the balloon saga was a victory for U.S. intelligence, in the world of politics Republicans are seeking to exploit the story and show that Biden is “weak on China.”

To help stoke the fire, Fox News was busy “reporting" all manner of false scare stories, including the balloon had “already transmitted all of its information, took pictures, sent back all the radio signals” of U.S. missile silos.

There’s no evidence anything of the sort occured, and again China possesses satellites far more capable of providing and transmitting this information.

The new Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Kentucky Republican Representative James Comer even speculated wildly on the network the balloon had bioweapons on it and asked if it had taken off from Wuhan.

I should add here that dropping bioweapons from a height of 60,000 feet over lands mostly populated by cattle and Wal-Marts is hardly an effective plan.

It would not surprise me if Comer and others demanded full hearings over the Chinese balloon and the U.S. response. They are itching to show Biden lacks the backbone to stand up to China, even though Biden ordered it shot down as soon as it was safe to do so.

Republicans will second guess that decision until they have exhausted all political capital they can squeeze from it.

But consider this: Had Biden ordered the balloon be shot down over Idaho or Montana as soon as it had entered U.S. airspace, the GOP probably would have been raising holy hell over the risk the move posed to “innocent Americans on the ground.”

There simply is no winning with that crowd.

In lighter news, enjoy Saturday Night Live's take on the Chinese Spy Balloon featuring Chloe Fineman, Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang.