When President Joe Biden learned a likely Chinese spy balloon was drifting through the stratosphere 60,000 feet above Montana, his first inclination was to take it down.
By then, however, it was both too early and too late. After flying over swaths of sparsely populated land, it was now projected to keep drifting over American cities and towns. The debris from the balloon could endanger lives on the ground, his top military brass told him.
The massive white orb, carrying aloft a payload the size of three coach buses, had already been floating in and out of American airspace for three days before it created enough concern for Biden’s top general to brief him, according to two US officials.
Its arrival had gone unnoticed by the public as it floated eastward over Alaska – where it was first detected by North American Aerospace Defense Command on January 28 – toward Canada. NORAD continued to track and assess the balloon’s path and activities, but military officials assigned little importance to the intrusion into American airspace, having often witnessed Chinese spy balloons slip into the skies above the United States. At the time, the balloon was not assessed to be an intelligence risk or physical threat, officials say.
This time, however, the balloon kept going: high over Alaska, into Canada and back toward the US, attracting little attention from anyone looking up from the ground.
“We’ve seen them and monitored them, briefed Congress on the capabilities they can bring to the table,” another US official told CNN. “But we’ve never seen something as brazen as this.”
It would take seven days from when the balloon first entered US airspace before an F-22 fighter jet fired a heat-seeking missile into the balloon on the opposite end of the country, sending its equipment and machinery tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean.
The balloon’s week-long American journey, from the remote Aleutian Islands to the Carolina coast, left a wake of shattered diplomacy, furious reprisals from Biden’s political rivals and a preview of a new era of escalating military strain between the world’s two largest economies.
It’s also raised questions about why it wasn’t shot down sooner and what information, if any, it scooped up along its path.
What was meant to be a high-profile moment of statesmanship -as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepared to travel to China instead transformed into a televised standoff, testing Biden’s resolve at a new moment of reckoning with China. As Navy divers and FBI investigators sort through the tangle of equipment and technology that tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, Biden and his team must also piece together what the episode means for the broader relationship with Beijing.
Minutes after the balloon was shot down at his order, a reporter asked Biden what message his decision sent to China. He looked on silently before stepping into his SUV.
Drifting toward the US
On Tuesday, as Biden darted from Washington to New York City for an infrastructure event and a fundraiser, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed him there was a Chinese balloon floating over Montana.
The location was unnerving: As officials watched the balloon’s path, there was alarm at what appeared to be deliberate effort to sit over an Air Force base that maintains one of the largest silos of US intercontinental ballistic missiles.
For some administration officials, the timing also appeared intentional. The balloon floated over the US the same week Blinken was due to depart for China, a high-stakes visit viewed as the culmination of intensive diplomatic efforts launched late last year by Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a summit in Bali.
In his Tuesday briefing with the President, Milley informed Biden the balloon appeared to be on a clear path into the continental United States, differentiating it from previous Chinese surveillance craft. The President appeared inclined at that point to take the balloon down, and asked Milley and other military officials to draw up options and contingencies.
At the same time, Biden asked his national security team to take steps to prevent the balloon from being able to gather any intelligence – essentially, by making sure no sensitive military activity or unencrypted communications would be conducted in its vicinity, officials said.
That evening, Pentagon officials met to review their military options. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, traveling abroad in Asia, participated virtually. NASA was also brought in to analyze and assess the potential debris field, based on the trajectory of the balloon, weather, and estimated payload. When options were presented to Biden on Wednesday, he directed his military leadership to shoot down the balloon as soon as they viewed it as a viable option, given concerns about risks to people and property on the ground.
“Shoot it down,” Biden told his military advisers, he would later recount to reporters.
But Austin and Milley told Biden the risks of shooting the balloon down were too high while it was moving over the US, given the chance debris could endanger lives or property on the ground below.
“They said to me, ‘Let’s wait till the safest place to do it,’” Biden told reporters on Saturday
Biden had another key request, though: he wanted the military to shoot down the balloon in such a way that it would maximize their ability to recover its payload, allowing the US intelligence community to sift through its components and gain insights into its capabilities, officials said. Shooting it down over water also increased the chances of being able to recover the payload intact, the officials said.
While Beijing insisted on Friday that the balloon was simply a meteorological device that had strayed off course, the US government was confident that the balloons were being used for surveillance. Both the balloon discovered over the US and another spotted transiting Latin America carried surveillance equipment not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research, officials said – specifically, both featured collection pod equipment and solar panels located on the metal truss suspended below the balloon itself. The US also observed small motors and propellers on the balloons, leading officials to believe Beijing had some control over its path.
US officials said the balloons were part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons that have been spotted across five continents over the last several years.
A public standoff
For the bulk of its journey across the US, the scramble to assess, monitor and eventually debilitate the balloon was kept to a close circle of Biden’s top national security advisers.
But by the middle of the week, however, the mysterious white object floating above more populated areas of Montana was difficult to conceal. The balloon caused an hours-long grounding of commercial flights around Billings on Wednesday as the military worked to respond.
And people starting looking up.
Michael Alverson was working at the mines in Billings when he looked up and noticed a glowing orb in the sky. Realizing it couldn’t be the moon, he brought out his binoculars to take a closer look.
“Me and my coworkers were shocked,” Alverson said. “It appeared to be a weather balloon – or so we thought.”
Ashley McGowan told CNN she received a call from her neighbor wondering if she had heard jets flying about their neighborhood in Reed Point, Montana, on Wednesday. McGowan said she went outside with her dogs and saw a bright white dot in the sky.
“What’s happening?” she recalled wondering. “Is this a UFO or is it like trash or is it the star? I had somebody try to tell me it was the green comet, I’m like that’s way too close to be the comet.”
“This isn’t normal,” she remembered thinking. “There’s jets flying everywhere.”
Officials attributed the decision to publicize the balloon’s existence to several factors, including the fact “that people were just going to see the damn thing,” one official acknowledged.
As the military was fine tuning its options, a parallel effort was underway with the Chinese to assess the feasibility of Blinken making his highly anticipated visit to Beijing at a moment of fresh tension.
Heading into the visit, White House officials had been cheered by more robust communications with China following Biden’s meeting with Xi late last year. After shutting down virtually all talks following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summit, the Chinese were finally back at the table – a critical step, in the eyes of Biden’s advisers, to maintaining stability in the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
The balloon would dash all of it.
On Wednesday evening, China’s top official in Washington was summoned to the State Department, where Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman delivered “a very clear and stark message” about the discovery of the surveillance balloon, officials told CNN.
Biden himself relayed to his top national security officials that he no longer believed the time was right for Blinken to visit Beijing, in part because the balloon would likely end up dominating his talks there.
The trip was postponed hours before Blinken was due to board his plane.
“In this current environment, I think it would have significantly narrowed the agenda that we would have been able to address,” a senior State Department official said.
Republicans immediately moved to attack Biden for not shooting the balloon down immediately. The attacks, which came as Biden ignored questions on the issue throughout the day on Friday, served as an annoyance “that evolved into frustration,” inside the White House, one person familiar with the dynamic said.
“This was a decision that was made at the recommendation of the Pentagon, for public safety reasons,” the person said in describing the rationale.
Still, administration officials moved to brief key lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill. That included briefings for the staff of the top Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence panels, as well as the top four congressional leaders – a group known as the Gang of 8.
A formal briefing for the lawmakers in the Gang of 8 is scheduled to take place next week.
Still, coming just ahead of Blinken’s travel to China, it was a move that officials across the administration said made little sense on its face and required a public and private response.
US officials spoke to their Chinese counterparts throughout the week, making clear the balloon was likely to be shot down, an official said.
Biden himself would be updated regularly over the course of the week, with his national security team providing updates on their conversations with Chinese counterparts and military officials presenting updated military options.
US military and intelligence officials moved quickly to identify and close off any risks that may have extended from the balloon, though one official described them as “rather small to begin with,” given ongoing US efforts to mitigate spying threats from more sophisticated satellites.
Another official also said US assets were immediately put into motion to monitor and collect any intelligence from the balloon as it followed its path through the US – including the scrambling of military aircraft as the balloon floated high above the central part of the country.
Still, even without a direct threat to the American public, the widely held view inside the administration was that the balloon would need to be shot down, likely after it moved over open water.
Waiting to carry out the operation allowed the US to “study and scrutinize” the balloon and its equipment, a senior Defense official said.
“We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. And I suspect, if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more,” the official added.
Officials also suggested that collecting debris from the balloon could be easier if it landed in water as opposed to on land.
Government agencies worked throughout week to find the right place and right time to intercept the Chinese spy balloon, according to a government source familiar with the shoot-down plans. Earlier in the week, the Federal Aviation Administration had been told by the Pentagon to prepare options for shutting down airspace.
A plan to shoot down the balloon was once again presented to Biden on Friday night while he was in Wilmington, where he approved the execution plan for Saturday.
“We’re gonna take care of it,” Biden said later on the frigid tarmac Saturday in Syracuse, New York, where he was paying a brief visit to visit family.
Government officials were told Friday night “decisions would be made (Saturday) morning” on when to close down airspace, and FAA officials were told to “be by the phone” early Saturday morning and “ready to roll.”
Austin gave his final approval for the strike shortly after noon on Saturday from the tarmac in New York, according to a defense official. Austin had traveled north on Saturday for a funeral, but remained very engaged throughout the planning process and the operation, the official said.
At about 1:30 p.m. ET, the FAA instituted one of the largest areas of restricted airspace in US history, more than five times the size of the restricted zone over Washington, DC, and roughly twice the size of the state of Massachusetts.
The Temporary Flight Restriction – put in place at the request of the Pentagon, the FAA said – included about 150 miles of Atlantic coastline that effectively paralyzed three commercial airports: Wilmington in North Carolina and Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina.
Biden had just taken off from Syracuse when fighter jets that had taken off from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fired a single missile into the balloon.
As its wreckage tumbled toward the Atlantic Ocean, Biden was on the phone with his national security team on Air Force One.