The president of the United States knew about the presence of the Chinese spy balloon for several days before it was spotted drifting over Montana.
But, the White House wanted to keep it secret fearing news of the surveillance balloon would sabotage Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned diplomatic trip to China, the first such visit in five years, Bloomberg News has reported. Blinken was to go to China on Friday.
That changed Wednesday, when Billings Gazette photographer Larry Mayer, responding to vague reports that the airspace around Billings had been closed, photographed an odd glowing orb high in the sky.
Using a large telephoto lens, Mayer discovered it was high-altitude balloon powered by a large solar array. The balloon also was photographed by Billings videographer and former Gazette online editor Chase Doak.
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The Gazette’s publication of those photos, connecting them to the closed airspace and the fighter jets being scrambled to track the balloon, was quickly picked up by other media around the world — and the White House.
By Thursday evening, China acknowledged the balloon was theirs, but insisted it was a harmless weather balloon that simply blew off course.
The Pentagon wasn’t buying it.
“We know it’s a surveillance balloon, and we know that it has violated U.S. airspace, and violated international law, which is unacceptable,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told a packed news conference Friday morning.
The White House was especially alarmed the balloon was hovering over a part of Montana that houses intercontinental nuclear missile silos.
During that Pentagon news conference, military officials said it wasn’t the first time foreign surveillance balloons had been spotted over the United States. Asked why the Pentagon disclosed the most recent balloon and not the others, the brigadier general cited the publicity generated by the photos being published around the world as playing a role.
“We’re certainly aware of photos of it being posted online,” he said.
Before the news conference ended, Blinken’s trip to Beijing was abandoned.
On Saturday, the Associated Press reported, federal officials confirmed U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft shot down the balloon off the Carolina coast. Federal authorities cleared the airspace and water surrounding the balloon prior to its downing.
The balloon, which traveled most of its distance across the U.S at an altitude as high as 60,000 feet, has been described as being about the size of three school buses. Shooting it down would cause debris that could kill civilians and damage property, the Pentagon said. After passing over Montana, the balloon traveled into the eastern part of the nation, Ryder said.
On Friday, the Pentagon also acknowledged it’s aware of a second balloon flying somewhere over Latin America.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said he will hold a hearing to demand answers from the Biden Administration about the spy balloon.
“I will be pulling people before my committee to get real answers on how this happened, and how we can prevent it from ever happening again,” Tester said.