At least three Chinese spy balloons floated over U.S. air space during the Trump administration, and another previously flew during the Biden administration, but it’s unclear which government agency tracked them or whether the presidents had previously been briefed on them, defense leaders said Monday.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of Northern Command, which is responsible for the area around the continental United States, Canada and Mexico, told reporters Monday that his organization hadn’t been aware of any previous balloons.
“We did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out, but I don’t want to go into further detail,” he said.
He added that intelligence agencies “after the fact... assessed those threats through additional means of collection...and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America, or transited North America.”
Former President Donald Trump denied in a Truth Social post on Saturday that any balloons had been detected during his administration.
“Now they are putting out that a Balloon was put up by China during the Trump Administration, in order to take the ‘heat’ off the slow moving Biden fools,” he wrote. “China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did. JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION!”
Multiple officials have said that while President Biden ultimately opted to wait until the balloon was over water to shoot it down, the government took “protective measures” to make sure either that the balloon could not collect or transmit any information.
“Those are things that I need to go to Congress to talk about,” VanHerck said, declining to offer details on how that was accomplished. “I need to talk about with the department before we move forward. What I will tell you is we took maximum precaution to prevent any intel collection.”
Now, the government’s efforts are focused on learning as much about this spy balloon as possible.
Navy and Coast Guard ships are at the scene in the Atlantic Ocean, VanHerck said, along with Naval Criminal Investigative and FBI representatives, working to map the balloon’s debris field and recover bits and pieces.
“I don’t know where the debris is going to go for a final analysis, but I will tell you that certainly the intel community, along with the law enforcement community that works this under counter-intelligence, will take a good look at it,” VanHerck said.
That includes using unmanned underwater vehicles operated by an explosive disposal team, amid concerns that batteries or even a self-destruct device could be part of the wreckage.
“I did not have any corroboration or confirmation of explosives on this platform,” VanHerck said. “That was an assessment that we wanted to just to make sure for safety purposes.”
Military assets working the recovery include the dock landing ship Carter Hall, the oceanographic survey ship Pathfinder and the Coast Guard cutters Venturous, Nathan Bruckenthal and Richard Snyder.
VanHerck said he expects the debris field to measure about 1500 square meters, in water about 50 feet deep.
The balloon itself, he said, was up to 200 feet tall, carrying sensors and other equipment estimated to be the size of a regional jetliner, “in excess of a couple thousand pounds.”
“I would remind you that due to ocean currents, it’s possible that there may be some debris that does flow to shore,” he said. “And so what we would ask of the public ... is avoid contact, contact local law enforcement immediately to take care of any of that debris.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.