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A senior US defense official said Saturday there were three instances during the Trump administration when China briefly flew a surveillance balloon over the continental United States.
The “PRC (People's Republic of China) government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time,” the defense official said.
Mark Esper, the former Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump, told 'CNN This Morning’ on Friday that he was “surprised” by the Pentagon’s statement that similar incidents had happened during the Trump administration.
“I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” Esper said, adding that “I would remember that for sure."
Esper served as Secretary of Defense under Trump from July 23, 2019, through November 9, 2020. He served as Acting Secretary of Defense from June 24, 2019, to July 15, 2019.
The Colombian Air Force has confirmed that an object with "characteristics similar to a balloon" was detected in its airspace on February 3.
The air force said in a statement Friday it is coordinating with other "countries and institutions" to establish the origin of the balloon, which has already left Colombia's airspace after being tracked by its National Defense System.
The object "did not represent a threat to national security and defense, (or) to air safety," it said.
The object was detected in the early hours of February 3 at above 55,000 feet, "in the northern sector of the country, moving at an average speed of 25 knots," the statement said.
When US President Joe Biden learned a suspected Chinese spy balloon was drifting through the stratosphere 60,000 feet above Montana, his first inclination was to take it down.
By then, however, it was both too early and too late. After flying over swaths of sparsely populated land, it was now projected to keep drifting over American cities and towns. The debris from the balloon could endanger lives on the ground, his top military brass told him.
The massive white orb, carrying aloft a payload the size of three coach buses, had already been floating in and out of American airspace for three days by the time Biden was briefed by his top general, according to two US officials.
Its arrival had gone unnoticed by the public as it floated eastward over Alaska – where it was first detected by North American Aerospace Defense Command on January 28 – toward Canada. NORAD continued to track and assess the balloon’s path and activities, but military officials assigned little importance to the intrusion into American airspace, having often witnessed Chinese spy balloons slip into the skies above the United States. At the time, the balloon was not assessed to be an intelligence risk or physical threat, officials say.
This time, however, the balloon kept going: high over Alaska, into Canada and back toward the US, attracting little attention from anyone looking up from the ground.
“We’ve seen them and monitored them, briefed Congress on the capabilities they can bring to the table,” another US official told CNN. “But we’ve never seen something as brazen as this.”
It would take seven days from when the balloon first entered US airspace before an F-22 fighter jet fired a heat-seeking missile into the balloon on the opposite end of the country, sending its equipment and machinery tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean.
The balloon’s week-long American journey, from the remote Aleutian Islands to the Carolina coast, left a wake of shattered diplomacy, furious reprisals from Biden’s political rivals and a preview of a new era of escalating military strain between the world’s two largest economies.
It’s also raised questions about why it wasn’t shot down sooner and what information, if any, it scooped up along its path.
A White House official said Saturday that President Joe Biden and his military advisers took “responsible action” by waiting to shoot down the Chinese balloon until it was over water, minimizing the risk it could have posed to people on the ground had it been shot over the continental US.
Biden told reporters Saturday that he initially told the Pentagon to shoot down the suspected spy balloon on Wednesday, but he ultimately agreed with the military’s assessment that doing it over land could put American lives at risk and should be done over open water.
“The president agreed and directed them to take it down as soon as they could safely over water,” the White House official told CNN on Saturday. “As a result, they developed a plan to down the balloon once it was over water, in US territorial airspace.”
“This is the responsible action for the Commander in Chief to take,” the official added. “He prioritized the safety of the American people. He ensured that the military take steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating any intelligence value to the PRC. And, we were able to track the balloon (and) get information on it.”
This comes after Republicans criticized the president for not taking steps to shoot down the balloon sooner. The top Republicans on the Armed Services Committees in both the House and Senate called the incident a display of “weakness” and vowed to seek answers from the administration.
Costa Rica on Saturday evening confirmed there had been sightings earlier this week of a large white observation balloon flying over the capital, San Jose.
The balloon was similar in appearance to the Chinese balloon shot down by the United States.
The director general of Costa Rica's Civil Aviation, Fernando Naranjo Elizondo, told CNN that the airship spotted above San Jose on Thursday was "not a balloon that originated from Costa Rica."
Noting that the balloon did not come down on Costa Rican territory he said there were no plans for further investigations "because the balloon has disappeared."
A senior US administration official has pushed back on China’s repeated claims that the downed balloon was simply for “civilian use” and had made its way into American airspace by “accident.”
“This was a PRC (People's Republic of China) surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” the official said.
“Its route over the United States near many potentially sensitive sites contradicts the PRC government explanation that it is a weather balloon.”
The official said a second balloon, spotted over Central and South America, was “another PRC surveillance balloon” and bore similar technical characteristics to the one that flew over the US.
“Both balloons also carry surveillance equipment not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research,” the official said. “Collection pod equipment and solar panels located on the metal truss suspended below the balloon are a prominent feature of both balloons.”
The official said China is able to “actively maneuver the balloons to overfly specific locations,” pointing to the balloons’ flight patterns and the small motors and propellers seen in videos as evidence.
The official said China had used these types of surveillance balloons for years and the devices had been spotted over five continents.
The pushback comes after China’s Foreign Ministry expressed “dissatisfaction and protest” with the US decision to shoot down the balloon as it reached the Atlantic Ocean today. China once again claimed the balloon was “for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident."
The Chinese balloon incident has fueled a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States.
But it isn't an isolated incident.
Taiwan said Sunday that the Chinese balloon incident "should not be tolerated by the civilized international community."
"Such actions by the Chinese Communist Party government contravene international law, breach the airspace of other countries, and violate their sovereignty," Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It called on China's government to "immediately cease conduct of this kind that encroaches on other countries and causes regional instability."
China – which insists the balloon was a civilian research vessel – has expressed its "strong dissatisfaction and protest" against Washington's decision to shoot down the balloon, saying it was "overreacting" and "seriously violating international practice."
Taiwan has experience of balloons from China overflying its territory. In September 2021 and in February 2022, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said balloons that were believed to be used for “meteorological observations” flew over the self-ruled island. It is unclear if those balloons were the same type as the one shot down by US fighter jets on Saturday.