WASHINGTON – Members of Congress from Montana and the Inland Northwest expressed concern and outrage Friday after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted over Montana and toward the southeastern United States.
A Pentagon official, briefing reporters anonymously on Thursday, said the balloon was “clearly” intended for surveillance, and its flight path carried it over “a number of sensitive sites” in Montana, home to U.S. nuclear missile silos. China’s government said Friday the balloon was intended for weather research and had drifted off course accidentally.
“This provocation is completely unacceptable, and I am in close contact with Department of Defense and Intelligence officials,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement Friday, adding that he would receive a classified briefing when he returned to Washington, D.C.
“We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them. I will always defend Montana and our national security from hostile adversaries like China.”
Chase Doak, who works as a data analyst in Billings, said in an interview he looked up from his desk Wednesday afternoon and spotted the balloon through a window after learning airspace had been closed around the central Montana city.
“All I knew was that it was not a typical aircraft,” Doak said. “I’ve got to be honest. I thought it might be a UFO when I first saw it, because it just looked like a circular disc in the sky.”
Doak, a former editor at the Billings Gazette with a degree in photojournalism, raced home to get a telephoto lens for his camera and contacted the local newspaper’s photo editor, Larry Mayer, who also snapped images of the balloon. Even after shooting a photo he later posted online, Doak said, he didn’t realize what he had seen until Mayer called him the next day when the Pentagon confirmed it was a spy balloon.
“Even if it didn’t end up being extraterrestrial or anything really out of the ordinary, other than a big balloon, it was noteworthy in that it was hovering over our airport and had stopped flights from coming in and going out,” he said. “I knew that it was something that needed to be captured, but I had no idea that it was going to be this big, international thing. It’s been really surreal.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., wrote on Twitter, “It’s unacceptable to allow communist China to invade our airspace – this is another clear example of Chinese aggression. President Biden must start putting the American people first and recognize that China is a threat to our freedom, values, and way of life.”
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was first briefed on the balloon on Tuesday and has since continued to receive “regular briefings and updates” on the situation.
Three KC-135 Stratotankers took off from Fairchild Air Force Base on Thursday, online flight trackers showed, and circled Montana before heading back to Spokane County in the afternoon. A Fairchild Air Force Base spokesperson referred questions to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and U.S. Northern Command, where a spokesperson provided a general statement and declined to provide information specific to Fairchild.
The statement, released Thursday night by NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, confirmed that the U.S. government was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States, and that NORAD would continue to track and monitor. Gen. Glen VanHerck, NORAD’s commander, assessed that the balloon “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time,” and was traveling at an altitude “well above commercial air traffic.”
A spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, called the situation “worrying” in a statement Friday.
“The congresswoman believes that under no circumstances should an aircraft operated by the Chinese government be flying in American airspace conducting surveillance,” spokesman Kyle VonEnde said. “She continues to monitor the situation closely and is grateful to the servicemen and women of Fairchild Air Force Base, whose swift response once again demonstrates just how vital their strategic mission is to keeping our skies safe from adversaries in the Pacific arena.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday postponed a planned trip to China, a State Department official told reporters, as the balloon incident complicated a diplomatic relationship between the two nations that was already at a low point.
In a statement Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “regret” for the incident and said the balloon was a civilian “airship” used for meteorological research that had accidentally been blown off course.
“Chinese officials have confirmed they deployed the high altitude balloon traversing America,” Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said in a statement. “Regardless of its purpose, it should have immediately been removed from American airspace. Allowing it to remain unobstructed sends the signal to China and the rest of the world that America is tolerant of potential threats to our homeland, and indecisive in our willingness to act.”
On Friday, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters the balloon had not been shot down because the military determined it was big enough that debris could cause civilian casualties on the ground.
The incident came as members of Congress in both parties are focusing greater scrutiny on the Chinese government, including a bipartisan vote on Jan. 10 to form the House Select Committee on China.
“As more reports come in, it is becoming apparent the Chinese Communist Party is deliberately testing how the United States will respond to their provocative actions,” Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside who sits on that new panel, said in a statement. “This is yet another example of their alarming aggression. President Biden must act swiftly to confront this situation.”