WASHINGTON — Top Republicans in Congress are demanding answers from the Biden administration over the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the northern U.S. over the past few days.
They lashed out directly at President Joe Biden, arguing that the incident demonstrates that U.S. posture and policies toward China are not deterring the communist nation.
After the news of the balloon was confirmed by U.S. officials, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said late Thursday that he’s requesting a briefing for the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate and the heads of the intelligence committees.
“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent. I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing,” McCarthy tweeted.
The high-altitude balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday after having flown over the Aleutian Islands and through Canada. A senior defense official said Thursday the balloon was still over the U.S. but declined to reveal its location.
One of Montana’s senators, Republican Steve Daines, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday “requesting a full security briefing from the administration on this situation.”
A classified briefing for all senators focused on China was scheduled for Feb. 15 before the reports of the suspected spy balloon.
China said Friday that the suspected high-altitude surveillance balloon hovering over the U.S. was a “civilian airship” used for weather research that had been blown off course.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” Beijing’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure” — strong winds and a lack of steering capability that caused the object to deviate “far from its planned course.”
The ministry added that China would keep communicating with the U.S. to “properly handle this unexpected situation.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Thursday, “Information strongly suggests the department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon. No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately.”
In a series of tweets, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called on the U.S. government to bring down the balloon. Military and defense leaders have discussed shooting it out of the sky.
“President Biden should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Bring the balloon down now and exploit its tech package, which could be an intelligence bonanza,” said Cotton. “And President Biden and Secretary Austin need to answer if this [balloon] was detected over Alaskan airspace. If so, why didn’t we bring it down there? If not, why not? As usual, the Chinese Communists’ provocations have been met with weakness and hand-wringing.”
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said China’s president is spying on America, which he said should be a wake-up call for Biden.
“Xi is blatantly spying on America because he does not fear or respect @JoeBiden. Communist China is our enemy, and Biden needs to wake up and start acting like it,” he tweeted.
Several lawmakers, including Reps. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., and Young Kim, R-Calif., said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken must confront President Xi Jinping and hold him accountable during Blinken’s upcoming trip to China.
Both the State Department and Chinese Foreign Ministry said they had no information on whether the discovery of the balloon would affect Blinken’s trip, which has not been officially announced but is expected to take place this weekend.
The top Democrat and Republican on the House select committee focusing on competition between the U.S. and China released a joint statement about the situation, saying that China has become a threat domestically.
“The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace,” said. Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said. “Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty, coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s trip to the PRC, but it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy. Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores — it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat.”
Liz Brown-Kaiser, Frank Thorp V and Haley Talbot contributed.