Latest downed objects could well be ‘benign,’ US says

WASHINGTON (AP) — The three yet-to-be-identified aerial objects shot down by the U.S. last week likely had only a “benign purpose,” the White House conceded on Tuesday, distinguishing between them and the giant Chinese balloon that was being shot down had previously crossed the US US with the presumed goal of surveillance.

“The intelligence community is considering the main explanation that they could only be balloons associated with a commercial or benign purpose,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

Officials also announced that a missile was fired at one of the three objects over Lake Huron on Sundaymissed its intended target and landed in the water before a second successfully hit.

The new details came as the Biden administration’s actions came under renewed scrutiny in Congress over the past two weeks.

First, US warplanes did not shoot down what officials described as a Chinese spy balloon until it had crossed much of the United States, citing security concerns. Then the military deployed F-22 fighters with heat-seeking missiles to quickly shoot down likely harmless objects.

Taken together, the actions raise both political and security questions about whether the Biden administration overreacted after facing Republican criticism for being too slow to respond to the big balloon.

Even as more information emerges about the three objects, questions remain about what they were, who sent them, and how the US might respond to unidentified flying objects in the future.

Unanswered questions remain about the original balloon, including what spying abilities it had and whether it sent signals as it flew over sensitive military sites in the United States. According to a US official, American intelligence believed it was originally on a lead towards the US territory of Guam.

The US tracked it for several days after it left China, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. It appears to have deviated from its original trajectory and eventually flew over the continental United States, the official said.

Balloons and other unidentified objects were previously sighted over Guam, a strategic US Navy/Air Force hub in the western Pacific.

It’s unclear how much control China retained over the balloon after it deviated from its original trajectory. A second US official said the balloon could have been maneuvered from the outside or directed to hover over a specific target, but it’s unclear if this was done by Chinese forces.

Even less is known about the three objects, which were shot down over three consecutive days Friday through Sunday, in part because debris was difficult to retrieve from remote locations in Canada’s Yukon, off northern Alaska and near Michigan’s upper peninsula on Lake Huron recover . So far, officials have no indication they were part of a larger surveillance operation along with the balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.

“We are not seeing anything at this time that suggests being part of the PRC’s spy balloon program,” Kirby told reporters, referring to the People’s Republic of China. It is also unlikely that the objects were “intelligence collections of any kind against the United States – that’s the clue now”.

No country or private company has come forward to claim any of the objects, Kirby said. They do not appear to have been run by the US government.

Kirby had indicated on Monday that the three objects differ in content from the balloon, also in their size. And his comments Tuesday marked a clear White House effort to draw a line between the balloon, which officials believe was part of a Chinese military program that has operated on five continents, and objects the government believes that they could simply be part of a research or commercial effort.

In Washington, Pentagon officials met with senators for a secret briefing on the shootings. Lawmakers expressed concerns from their constituents about the need to keep them informed, assuring that the objects were not extraterrestrial in nature but wanting many more details.

Still, Sen. Thom Tillis, RN.C., said successful recent interceptions are likely to have a “calming influence” and make future kills less likely.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., told reporters after the briefing that he did not believe the objects posed a threat.

“They’re trying to figure out — you know there’s a pile of junk up there. So you need to figure out what is the threat and what isn’t. If you see something, you shouldn’t always have to shoot it,” Graham said.

Biden has directed national security adviser Jake Sullivan to form an interagency team to investigate the detection, analysis and “disposal of unidentified airborne objects” that could pose either safety or security risks.

The latest objects have also drawn the attention of world leaders, including in Canada, where one was shot down on Saturday, and the UK, where the prime minister has ordered a security clearance.

Japan’s defense ministry said Tuesday that at least three flying objects sighted in Japanese airspace since 2019 are strongly suspected to be Chinese spy balloons.

Meanwhile, US officials confirmed that a first missile aimed at the object over Lake Huron landed in the water instead, but that a second hit the target.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military made “great efforts” to ensure none of the attacks endangered civilians, including determining the likely size of the debris field and the maximum effective range of the missiles deployed.

“We’re being very, very careful to make sure those shots are actually safe,” Milley said. “And that is the guidance of the President. Shoot it, but make sure we minimize collateral damage and keep the American people safe.”

The object shot down on Sunday was the third to be shot from the sky in as many days. The White House said the objects differed in size and maneuverability from the Chinese surveillance balloon that US warplanes were shot down earlier this month but that their altitude was low enough to pose a threat to civilian air travel.

Weather challenges and the remote locations where the three objects were shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron have hampered recovery efforts so far.

Milley was in Brussels with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with members of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on additional arms and defense needs for Kiev ahead of Russia’s expected spring offensive.


Copp reported from Brussels. AP writers Lisa Mascaro and Stephen Groves contributed from Washington.


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