US says three mystery objects likely private, with no China spy link

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The Biden administration suspects that three unidentified objects downed since last Friday served commercial purposes and weren’t used for spying, a judgment that may help ease anxiety over a Chinese balloon that traversed the US before being shot down.

The intelligence community believes the objects — unlike the giant balloon shot down on Feb. 4 —“could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.

“We don’t see anything that points right now to these being part of the PRC spy balloon program or in fact, intelligence collection against the United States of any kind, Kirby said, using the abbreviation of China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.

That determination will ease concerns that the US has become subject to an intensive and broad-based surveillance program orchestrated by the Chinese military. Those fears were stoked by the series of shootdowns over Alaska, Canada and Michigan starting Friday and raised pressure on the Biden administration to explain the nature of the high-altitude craft, their origins and whether they posed national-security threats.

Signs are emerging that both the US and China are trying to figure out a way past the balloon dispute. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who canceled a trip to Beijing after the Chinese balloon was identified, is considering a meeting with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Germany this week, people familiar with the matter said.

All along, China has insisted that the balloon shot down off South Carolina was a weather-monitoring device that blew off course, and accused the US of hyping the issue.

The administration has scrambled to keep the uproar around the balloon under control, amid criticism from Republicans that Biden was wrong to let it traverse the US before shooting it down. Officials provided senators a classified briefing to senators on Tuesday to lay out their latest findings.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed frustration with the dearth of concrete information and called on the White House to provide more details.

“The American people need to know more so they’ll have more confidence in our national security, said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “Our adversaries often know what we know.

“The president needs to find the courage to get up in front of the American public and tell him what he knows, said Senator Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican. “The president can get in front of America and tell them firsthand that we’re safe and everybody’s going to be OK, that we’ve got this under control.

Any future determination about the extent of the Chinese surveillance program and the threat posed by it will depend on the recovery of the payload of the balloon that was shot down off South Carolina. On Monday, the US Northern Command said US Navy salvage operations have recovered “significant debris from the balloon.

Crews found “all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure, the command said in a statement late Monday night.

Crews are still trying to recover the three other objects that were shot down. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Brussels Tuesday that two were in extremely remote areas while the third was under about 200 feet (61 meters) of water in Lake Huron.

“We’ll get them eventually, but it’s gonna take some time to recover, he said.

Milley also provided new details of the circumstances under which the last object was shot down over Michigan. He said a first missile fired at it missed and fell “harmlessly into Lake Huron, while a second hit the target.

Milley said the US military assesses the level of risk — kinetic, intelligence, or civil aviation safety — posed by an object in determining whether and how to intervene, while also working to avoid collateral damage.

“We go to great lengths to make sure that the airspace is clear and the backdrop is clear, out to the max effective range of the missile, he said.

One of the big questions faced by the administration is what to do next time an object is deemed to pose a threat, and whether jets will be deployed frequently to down objects spotted above US airspace. Kirby said Biden has set up a group to come up with new criteria by the end of the week for how to respond.

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