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WASHINGTON: Republican US lawmakers on Sunday (Feb 5) criticised President Joe Biden for waiting days to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated over the United States, accusing him of showing weakness toward China and initially trying to keep the breach of US airspace undisclosed.

A US Air Force fighter jet on Saturday shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it first entered US airspace near Alaska, triggering a dramatic spying saga that has further strained American-Chinese relations.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday the US military was able to collect “valuable” intelligence by studying the balloon, and that three other Chinese surveillance balloons had transited the United States during Donald Trump’s administration – a disclosure the Republican former president denied.

“We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States,” said Republican Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the chain of small islands that arc off the coast of mainland Alaska.

Cotton told the Fox News Sunday programme that he believed Biden had waited to disclose the penetration of US airspace because he wanted to salvage Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned diplomatic trip to Beijing, which ultimately was postponed.

“I think part of it is the president’s reluctance to take any action that would be viewed as provocative or confrontational towards the Chinese communists,” Cotton added.

Biden, a Democrat, said on Saturday he issued an order on Wednesday to down the balloon after it crossed into Montana, but the Pentagon recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to protect civilians from debris crashing to Earth from nearly twice the altitude of commercial air traffic.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, on CNN’s State of the Union programme, defended Biden’s handling of the matter, saying his approach safeguarded Americans on the ground.

“The president called for this to be dealt with in a way that balanced all of the different risks. That’s exactly what happened,” Buttigieg said. “The military did a terrific job. From our perspective in the DOT (Department of Transportation), of course, our main concern is the safety of the national airspace.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said of the Republican criticisms: “they are premature and they are political”.

Schumer said downing the balloon into the ocean likely enables US intelligence officials to examine its remnants.

“The bottom line here is that shooting down the balloon over water wasn’t just the safest option, but it was the one that maximised our intel gain,” Schumer told a news conference.

The Pentagon will brief senators on the balloon and Chinese surveillance on Feb 15, Schumer said.


Republican Mike Turner, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the panel would receive a briefing on the balloon sometime this week.

Turner said the balloon travelled unhindered over sensitive US nuclear missile sites, and that he believed China was using it “to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defense systems”.

“The president has allowed this to go across our most sensitive sites and wasn’t even going to tell the American public if you hadn’t broken the story,” Turner told NBC’s Meet the Press programme. “There was no attempt to notify Congress, no attempt to put together the Gang of Eight (bipartisan group of congressional leaders). I think this administration lacks urgency.”

Republican Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the ABC News programme This Week that China was trying to send a message that it could enter US airspace. Rubio said he doubted that the balloon’s debris would be of much intelligence value.

Trump on Sunday disputed Austin’s statement that Chinese government surveillance balloons had transited the continental United States briefly three times during his presidency.

“China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did,” Trump wrote on social media.

Speaking on Fox News Channel’s Sunday Morning Futures show, Trump’s former director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe also denied such balloon incidents.

China on Sunday condemned as an overreaction the US action against what Beijing called an airship used for meteorological and other scientific purposes that had strayed into US airspace “completely accidentally” – claims rejected by US officials.