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Pentagon reports past spy balloons near Florida, Texas

The flag of the People’s Republic of China flies in the wind above the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco on July 23, 2020.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Dan Lamothe and Azi Paybarah Washington Post

The Defense Department has notified Congress of several previous incursions of U.S. airspace by Chinese surveillance balloons, with earlier sightings near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam, U.S. officials said Sunday, as Republicans criticized the Biden administration for allowing a suspected surveillance balloon to track across much of the United States over the last week.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that defense officials identified the locations in a discussion with lawmakers and staff on Saturday, disclosing for the first time that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace near the continental United States before. The existence of such balloons near Hawaii and Guam has been reported previously.

Two such incidents were reported near Florida, while there was at least one each in the other three locations, Waltz said.

The defense officials said that several of those events occurred during the Trump administration, Waltz said. Officials had also said that during a news briefing with reporters on Saturday.

The Defense Department was not specific about where in each state the previous incursions occurred, or whether they made it into U.S. airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from the shore, or over U.S. territory, too, Waltz said. Fox News first reported the additional locations.

The account, verified by two U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, adds to an issue that has become vexing for the U.S. government.

One of the other officials, a congressional aide, said that the disclosure came during a phone briefing with congressional leaders and national security committees. The administration official briefing them said the other incidents had mostly been along or off the coast of the United States.

Several former Trump administration officials, including former defense secretary Mark T. Esper, said they do not recall reports of such balloons reaching their level, raising questions about how they were handled at the time.

Pentagon officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. They have previously declined to specify where the previous incursions occurred.

The disclosure came as U.S. Navy and Coast Guard crews worked off the Atlantic coast to recover debris from the shoot-down, including sensors. A senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Pentagon, said the work could continue for days but will be aided by the debris landing in relatively shallow 47-foot water.

Top Republicans on Sunday criticized the Biden administration for waiting to shoot down the latest suspected surveillance balloon until it was over the Atlantic Ocean, arguing a more aggressive response was needed in the face of obvious Chinese provocation.

“It’s not just the balloon,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on CNN. “It’s the message they are trying to send the world: ‘We can do whatever we want and America can’t stop us.’”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told CBS, “I think this entire episode telegraphed weakness to (President) Xi (Jinping) and the Chinese government.”

House Republicans are also reportedly considering passing a resolution criticizing President Biden’s response on Tuesday, the day Biden delivers his annual State of the Union address. Resolutions are nonbinding, primarily symbolic statements, often delivering a message from one party to another. This resolution could pass the House, where Republicans have a slim majority. An email seeking comment from House Republicans was not immediately returned Sunday afternoon.

The balloon – whose equipment was about the size of three large buses, according to U.S. officials – was shot down Saturday by a missile launched from an F-22 Raptor, once it moved off the coast of South Carolina, ending its multiday journey.

Rubio dismissed comparisons to previous episodes of Chinese aircraft illegally entering U.S. airspace. “What is unprecedented,” he told the network, “is a balloon flight that entered over Idaho, over Montana, all these sensitive military installations: air force bases, ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) fields, right across the middle of the country. That has never happened before.”

A device that “flew briefly over part of the U.S., or continental U.S., that’s one thing. But what we saw this week, it’s unprecedented.” He also called the response a “dereliction of duty.”

A U.S. defense official has said the balloon’s capabilities did not appear to be “over and above” those of Chinese satellites and other tools.

Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted the balloon was detected in late January and said that he wanted to know, among other things, “why didn’t they take action at that time?”

Democrats defended Biden’s handling of the matter, noting the balloon was brought down without injury to Americans.

“The president called for this to be dealt with in a way that balanced all of the different risks,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That’s exactly what happened. The military did a terrific job.”

Buttigieg also said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that precautions were taken to protect the safety of American life and property.

Top Republicans said the balloon was an unprecedented test of American leadership amid a series of increasingly difficult economic and diplomatic debates between the two nations.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who has said he is considering a presidential run in 2024, said on ABC’s “This Week” that the balloon was “China poking at us.”

“This is all about China testing the American resolve – whether it’s the TikTok, or the balloon or whatever the thing is going to be next month – they know that tensions are escalating and they want to see what kind of leadership we have,” he said.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Cruz drew attention another point of tension between the countries: the case of Texas businessman Mark Swidan, who has been held in China for more than a decade and was convicted of involvement in a drug-trafficking conspiracy. Cruz said U.S. officials have pushed for China to release Swidan from custody.

“They’ve sentenced him to death on charges for which they have little to no evidence,” said Cruz, who introduced a resolution recently calling for Swidan’s release. He also told the network that he had raised Swidan’s case with Secretary of State Antony Blinken before a planned trip to China, which was canceled in response to the balloon’s discovery.

Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called the Biden administration’s decision to wait to shoot down the balloon “sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over.”

Turner said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the U.S. military should have shot down the balloon days earlier when it was over sparsely populated parts of Alaska. He accused the Biden administration of lacking sufficient urgency. And he called China’s decision to fly a balloon over the country “a crisis.”

“I believe that they were trying to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defense systems,” Turner said.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the balloon incursion was just one example of how China is “not playing by the rules of the world order.” But, Booker said, Biden’s handling of the balloon situation was “very just and very defensible.”

And retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC’s “This Week,” that shooting down the balloon while it was over the continental U.S. posed potential risks to civilian life that was not warranted.

“It’s very clear to me that the intelligence value of this from the standpoint of what it was getting, was not worth the risk of killing an American on the ground,” Mullen said. He added, “I know that’s why we waited to this point to take it down.”

Mullen said while it is important to learn more about this episode, “More importantly, we need to make sure we can get this relationship moving in the right direction.”

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Todd C. Frankel, Shane Harris, John Hudson and Akilah Johnson contributed to this report.