By Ambassador John Bolton
This article was first published in The NY Post on February 12, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.
The Biden administration dangerously mishandled China’s now-famous, first recent high-flying “object” over America. Confronted Friday, again off Alaska, with a second unidentified object; Saturday with a third, over Canada; and Sunday a fourth, over landlocked Lake Huron, President Joe Biden reacted very differently, perhaps having learned his lesson.
Or maybe the last three shoot-downs merely underline his helter-skelter thinking. Not all the facts of these four incidents are yet available. The administration’s constantly changing excuses and storyline complicate understanding, let alone correcting, its mistakes.
The worst mistake came at the outset, Jan. 28, when NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) detected a balloon near the Aleutian Islands. NORAD’s commander, Gen. Glen VanHerck, said Feb. 6, “It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical or military threat to North America.”The latest balloon was shot off Alaska.
That assessment was wrong and uninformed. Could NORAD say indisputably the balloon’s payload — the size of three buses — contained no nuclear or radiological weapons? Could NORAD say indisputably it carried no biological pathogens or toxins it could release into US water supplies? Did NORAD contact foreign capitals to see who would own up to the balloon?
Two days after first contact, the administration reversed field, concluding the balloon was an intelligence threat. Then, Feb. 9, amid frantic political damage-control efforts, the State Department said the balloon was part of a global Chinese espionage program, covering some 40 countries, capable of intercepting electronic communications and self-steering.
Did the administration so conclude only after first contact Jan. 28, or did it know all this beforehand? And if aware of China’s program in advance, how could anyone conclude the newly sighted balloon, absent clear contrary evidence, was benign?
These questions alone demonstrate that Biden’s approach, following Chinese balloons’ multiple prior intrusions, was palpably inadequate. Was he gulled by Beijing’s claims of researching weather and climate change? Did no one consider the possibility such claims were simply a cover for malign purposes, as is often true in intelligence gathering? Why was Biden himself not briefed until three days after first contact?
In today’s threatening world, any unidentified object nearing US territory should be deemed intrinsically suspicious. NORAD apparently presumed exactly the opposite.
The balloon, moreover, was transmitting signals, assuredly back to China. If the balloon were innocent and merely astray, it is inherently incredible that Beijing, knowing its position in real time, did not immediately alert Washington. Of course, China may well have been lying even then, but by remaining silent, hoping the balloon ultimately traversed the United States without being detected, Beijing showed its true colors.
Days into the controversy, the Pentagon justified not shooting the first balloon down in the waters off Alaska because of the difficulty of recovering the payload for analysis. This rationale is either knowingly false or disingenuous — and constitutes yet another posterior-covering reversal, given Gen. VanHerck’s confession that he initially saw no threat.
Certainly, in intelligence affairs, there is often a tradeoff between acting to stop an adversary’s actions before they become harmful or allowing them to proceed to learn more about them. The Bering Sea is indeed cold and deep, but apparently not so cold and deep that the second “object” could escape being shot down Feb. 10, perhaps closer to Alaska’s shores, with recovery operations now underway.
Finally, the administration has said repeatedly it did not want to destroy the first balloon over land to avoid risks to innocent civilians. Yet it did just that over the weekend, over the Yukon and Lake Huron.
Obviously, no one disagrees with safeguarding civilians. Obviously, the initial balloon itself could have malfunctioned, or been programmed to malfunction, coming down over a densely populated city, causing considerable casualties “accidentally.” But the administration clearly had alternatives to allowing the balloon to transit the entire country, such as downing it over essentially unpopulated regions, as on Saturday.
And were there no other ways of bringing the balloon to ground in a more controlled fashion, thus further minimizing the risks to civilians?
We have barely scratched the surface on the Chinese balloons. The White House offered to brief senior Trump administration national-security officials about this issue — I have a long list of questions.