3 Chinese Spy Balloons ‘Transited’ U.S. During Trump Administration, Civilian Officials Never Briefed
The U.S. military never briefed civilian officials about three Chinese spy balloons that crossed into U.S. territory during the Trump administration. At least eight former high-ranking officials in the Trump administration, plus former President Donald Trump himself, denied any knowledge of Chinese spy balloons flying over U.S. territory after reports broke on Saturday.
After the U.S. shot down the Chinese spy balloon that crossed U.S. airspace in Alaska, and then flew from Idaho to South Carolina, an unnamed senior defense official told reporters Saturday afternoon that “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 official added that another PRC surveillance balloon is currently on a flight path across Central and South America. “These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries.”
No sooner had the Biden administration fulfilled one Babylon Bee prediction (“Biden Says He’ll Shoot Down Chinese Spy Balloon As Soon As He’s Done Letting It Spy”) than it created a news cycle worthy of a Bee punchline: at publishing time, intelligence agencies reported three Chinese spy balloons had crossed U.S. territory during the Trump administration.
The bombshell revelation had a long fuse. On Saturday, reporters were too busy covering the balloon shooting story to process this new piece of information. Not one reporter followed up with questions on the call. Yet there were many unanswered questions: where were these incursions? (Apparently, two over Florida and one over Texas during the Trump administration, and one near Hawaii during the Biden administration.) Were there any other close calls? (Possibly as many as eight balloon incidents, some of which involved balloons equipped with radar-jamming devices off the coast of Virginia.) Most importantly, who knew what, and when?
At first, left-wingers took the statement as another opportunity to dunk on former President Trump. Former Biden staffer Victor Shi tweeted, “WOW. The Pentagon just confirmed that THREE Chinese balloons flew over the U.S. during the Trump presidency & not only did he not shoot them down, but he also didn’t say anything about it. Shows you how ridiculous Republicans are right now by only talking about the balloon.” Never-Trump media Meidas Touch piled on, gleefully alleging that Trump “HID THEM from the public and never shot them down.” CNN contributor Garrett Graff complained that Trump “shot down zero.” Trump “did nothing,” added Jezebel editor-in-chief Laura Bassett.
But a major assumption of these leftist volleys is that the Trump administration knew about the Chinese incursions in real time. When, on Sunday, Trump administration officials weighed in, the story took a hard right turn.
“It never happened,” insisted former President Trump, who called reports that Chinese balloons had thrice transited American soil during his administration “disinformation.” And, he added, with more credibility, “if it did, we would have shot it down immediately.”
President Trump’s reflexive combativeness and tendency to oversimplify often outweigh his commitment to the truth, and those factors may be relevant here. But a cross-section of senior officials from his administration have confirmed one basic fact: whatever the Pentagon knew about Chinese balloon incursions during the Trump administration, they didn’t inform the civilian officials in charge of making political decisions.
“Unequivocally, I have never been briefed on the issue,” said Robert O’Brien, who served as national security advisor from 2019-2021, adding that neither were his aides, deputy national security advisor Matt Pottinger and senior advisor to Asia Allison Hooker. John Bolton, who served as national security advisor from 2018-2019, also said he had “never heard of any of that occurring” before, during, or after his tenure.
John Ratcliffe, who served as Director of National Intelligence from 2020-2021, rejected suggestions that President Trump allowed a Chinese spy balloon to cross the country, “It’s not true. I can refute it. … Do you remember during the Trump administration when photographers on the ground and commercial airline pilots were talking about a spy balloon over the United States that people could look up and see, even with the naked eye, and that a media that hated Donald Trump wasn’t reporting? I don’t remember that either because it didn’t happen.” Former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, who preceded Ratcliffe in 2020, agreed, “It never came up. If a balloon had come up, we would have known.”
Chris Miller, acting defense secretary from 2020-2021, said he “never heard of anything like that,” not even “a whisper.” His predecessor from 2019-2020, Mark Esper, said “I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States.”
Heino Klinck, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia from 2019-2021, added, “I can’t rule out that things occurred that I was unaware of, but I do think something like this, I would have been aware of.”
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also weighed in, “I certainly never became aware that there was a three-bus-sized floating device coming across our country for five days, either as CIA director or secretary of state [and] I’ve talked to others who are on my teams — they don’t know anything about it either.”
For those taking notes, that’s two national security advisors, two directors of national intelligence (acting or confirmed), two defense secretaries (acting or confirmed), a secretary of state, and a deputy assistant secretary of defense working specifically on East Asia — eight Trump officials in all — who have publicly said they knew nothing about the Chinese spy balloons crossing into U.S. territory. At least two of them, Bolton and Esper, publicly fell out with Trump and gain nothing by protecting him.
In response, Biden officials offered to brief former Trump officials on the Trump-era balloon incursions. (Isn’t it a bit late for that?)
Generals Mark Milley and James Matthis, who are not political appointees, have not indicated whether they had knowledge of the incidents.
The billion-dollar question (probably literally) is, if Chinese spy balloons flew over U.S. soil during the Trump administration, why did nobody know about it, including senior intelligence and military officials in the Trump administration?
Three explanations have been suggested.
First, some early responses suspected that reports of balloon flights during the Trump administration were fabricated. This solution is growing increasingly less likely as more information trickles out, espoused by more people. The offer by Biden officials to brief former Trump officials on the balloon flights would be a particularly foolish bluff if this theory were true.
Second, the Pentagon’s explanation, as of Monday, is that the Chinese balloon incursions during the Trump administration were not discovered at the time, and only later pieced together by the intelligence community after President Trump left office. General Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command, said in a follow-up briefing on Monday:
I will tell you that 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 in further detail. The intel community, after the fact … assessed those threats … from additional means and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.
Obviously, an explanation omitting “further detail” about classified, military capabilities will not satisfy every possible inquiry. But this explanation is particularly unsatisfactory because of the unexplained contrast between our detailed knowledge of China’s latest balloon and our lack of knowledge about the earlier ones during the Trump administration.
In the same press briefing, VanHerck said of the most recent balloon, “the domain awareness was there as it approached Alaska. It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America.” NORAD monitored the balloon so that, as it continued its trek, VanHerck “provided information on the status of the whereabouts of the balloon” to officials in the U.S. and Canada. He had a “good indication that it was a surveillance balloon from the beginning. I was able to corroborate that with my domain awareness capabilities and provided an assessment as such.” Finally, “my domain awareness tells me that there was one balloon. I don’t have any indications that there was a second. There was some speculation about a second one. … We were not able to corroborate any additional balloon.”
Somehow, NORAD’s “domain awareness” — defined as “operational knowledge of a particular sphere of concern” — enabled them to confirm the existence of China’s latest spy balloon, confirm that there was only one, tell what type of balloon it was, and locate it before it ever reached U.S. territory. Yet for the balloons during the Trump administration, NORAD didn’t know they existed and crossed into U.S. territory until intelligence from other sources told them years later. Commander VanHerck admitted he couldn’t explain this “domain awareness gap.”
This mismatch is so striking that even The Washington Post wanted answers. “You had mentioned that you weren’t aware of them,” queried reported Alex Horton. “So how are you aware of them now?” Yet VanHerck declined to answer that poignant question. “I’d have to defer [to] the intel community,” he said. Ah, yes, the intel community — professional secret-keepers. Good luck getting anything out of them.
The third explanation is that the military knew about the balloon flights during the Trump administration and simply did not inform their superiors. “There is either something wrong in the Pentagon and the military structure to where the generals are out of control or somebody is not telling the truth about this,” suggested Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, FRC’s executive vice president, on “Washington Watch.”
There is some circumstantial evidence to support this theory. According to a 2021 book by Robert Costa and Bob Woodward, General Mark Milley had gone behind the back of civilian leaders and promised China’s top general in 2020 that he would give him a heads up before a potential U.S. attack. It’s possible that Milley or other likeminded military officers convinced themselves that a Trump administration would certainly shoot down Chinese spy balloons encroaching on U.S. airspace, and that they chose to bury the information to try to avert a war.
That would be a silly, alarmist theory — after all, the supposedly more rational Biden administration also chose to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon, and war has not resulted — but no more silly and alarmist than other antics to which active military brass have recently stooped. So it’s hard to call this behavior out of character.
Yet this explanation involves leveling a grave accusation against whichever military officers allegedly made the decision not to inform their civilian superiors. For military personnel to conceal information critical to policy decisions from their civilian superiors is, at best, insubordination and, at worst, effectively a coup. Such actions would undermine American democracy (in the general sense of “rule by the people”) far more than anything done by President Trump, the man they were trying to thwart.
America is supposed to be a nation where the people ultimately determine policy decisions and priorities through their elected representatives. Professional government employees — especially the military — are supposed to take orders from the people’s elected representatives, including the president. By extension, professional government employees should also obey political appointees, who are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Permanent government employees undermining and disregarding their political superiors at will is incompatible with American-style popular rule.
Whatever the correct explanation, the previously unreported encroachment of adversarial spy balloons violating U.S. sovereignty by violating our airspace is a matter of urgent concern. For the security of all Americans, we the people must get to the bottom of it, so our government and military must be transparent.
It’s worth asking every conceivable question that might shed light on how comprehensive and intrusive China’s surveillance of our shores has become. For instance, in an unclassified January 2023 report, the Director of National Intelligence disclosed 366 Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) — essentially, UFO sightings — reported since last summer. The All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office identified 163 as balloons or “balloon-like entities” while 171 “appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities” and remain unexplained. How many of these incidents are Chinese spycraft?
Thus far, it seems that China’s nefarious spying operations have largely prospered in secret, with no negative consequences. That must end now.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.