By Brian Knowlton
Republicans savaged Joe Biden on Sunday over his handling of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, while Democrats defended the president’s decision to shoot it down after it floated across the United States for days, further straining taut relations with Beijing.
With efforts to retrieve balloon debris continuing off the South Carolina coast one day after a US fighter jet downed the large airship, the incident sparked fiery debate over Biden’s dealing with the matter and how US-Chinese ties might suffer.
“As usual when it comes to national defense and foreign policy, the Biden administration reacted at first too indecisively and then too late,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Twitter.
“We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace.”
Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said on CNN that the president’s delay in alerting the public to the balloon’s presence amounted to “dereliction of duty.”
He described the overflight as a brazen effort by Beijing to embarrass Biden just before his State of the Union address Tuesday, and to disrupt a since-canceled China visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
And Representative Mike Turner, who chairs the US House intelligence committee, used an American football analogy in blasting Biden.
“Clearly the president taking it down over the Atlantic is… sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over,” he told NBC.
“The satellite had completed its mission. It should never have been allowed to enter the United States.”
Democrats quickly pushed back, calling the Republican criticisms “premature and political.”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, insisted the administration had “made the right call.”
“We sent a clear message to China that this is unacceptable,” he said in a statement. “We protected civilians. We gained more intel while protecting our own sensitive information.”
The downing of the balloon by an F-22 fighter jet “wasn’t just the safest option, but it was the one that maximized our intel gain,” Schumer said — because any instrumentation on the airship was more likely to survive a water landing.
He said the full Senate would receive a classified briefing on February 15.
Another balloon, over Colombia?
Pentagon officials on Friday described the airship as a “high-altitude surveillance balloon,” adding, without elaboration, that Washington had taken steps to block it from collecting sensitive information.
General Glen VanHerck, commander of US forces in North America, said in a statement late Sunday that navy personnel were “currently conducting recovery operations, with the US Coast Guard assisting in securing the area and maintaining public safety.”
Democrats have argued that Chinese balloons at least briefly overflew US territory three times during the Trump presidency, without being shot down.
A day after Pentagon officials said another balloon had been spotted somewhere over Latin America, air force officials in Colombia said an object with “characteristics similar to those of a balloon” had been detected Friday and “monitored until it left the national air space.”
China has strongly objected to the downing Saturday off the US coast, but whether it plans any further action remained unclear.
In Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday expressed China’s “strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship.”
It added that China reserved “the right to make further necessary responses.”
Beijing has said the balloon was primarily gathering weather data and that it had been blown off course.
Former US Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Mike Mullen was asked if he thought elements in the Chinese military might have launched the balloon intentionally to disrupt the Blinken visit — the secretary’s first to China since Biden took office.
“Clearly, I think that’s the case,” he replied.
Mullen said the craft was maneuverable and he rejected China’s suggestion it might have blown off course.
“It has propellers on it,” he said. “This was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence.”
Rubio hammered at what he said was an ominous message from Beijing: “We have the ability to do this, and America can’t do anything about it.