By TARA COPP, ERIC TUCKER, COLLEEN LONG and NOMAAN MERCHANT
WASHINGTON (AP) — The three still-unidentified aerial objects shot down by the U.S. in the past week likely had merely a “benign purpose,” the White House acknowledged Tuesday, drawing a distinction between them and the massive Chinese balloon that earlier traversed the U.S. with a suspected goal of surveillance.
“The intelligence community is considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.
Officials also disclosed that a missile fired at one of the three objects, over Lake Huron on Sunday, missed its intended target and landed in the water before a second one successfully hit.
The new details came as the Biden’s administration’s actions over the past two weeks faced fresh scrutiny in Congress.
First, U.S. fighter jets didn’t shoot down what officials described as a Chinese spy balloon until after had crossed much of the United States, citing safety concerns. Then the military deployed F-22 fighters with heat-seeking missiles to quickly shoot down what likely were harmless objects.
Taken together, the actions raised political as well as security questions, about whether the Biden administration overreacted after facing Republican criticism for reacting too slowly to the big balloon.
Even as more information about the three objects emerges, questions remain about what they were, who sent them and how the U.S. might respond to unidentified airborne objects in the future.
Still unaddressed are questions about the original balloon, including what spying capabilities it had and whether it was transmitting signals as it flew over sensitive military sites in the United States. It was believed by American intelligence to have initially been on a track toward the U.S. territory of Guam, according to a U.S. official.
The U.S. 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 intelligence. It appears to have been blown off its initial trajectory and ultimately flew over the continental U.S., the official said.
Balloons and other unidentified objects have been previously spotted over Guam, a strategic hub for the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the western Pacific.
It’s unclear how much control China retained over the balloon once it veered from its original trajectory. A second U.S. official said the balloon could have been externally maneuvered or directed to loiter over a specific target, but it’s unclear whether Chinese forces did so.
Even less is known about the three objects shot down over three successive days, from Friday to Sunday, in part because it’s been challenging to recover debris from remote locations in the Canadian Yukon, off northern Alaska and near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Lake Huron. So far, officials have no indication they were part of a bigger surveillance operation along with the balloon that that was shot down off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4.
“We don’t see anything that points right now to being part of the PRC spy balloon program,” Kirby told reporters, referring to the People’s Republic of China. It’s also not likely the objects were “intelligence collection against the United States of any kind — that’s the indication now.”
No country or private company has come forward to claim any of the objects, Kirby said. They do not appear to have been operated by the U.S. government.
Kirby had hinted Monday that the three objects were different in substantive ways from the balloon, including in their size. And his comments Tuesday marked a clear effort by the White House to draw a line between the balloon, which officials believe was part of a Chinese military program that has operated over five continents, and objects that the administration thinks could simply be part of some research or commercial effort.
In Washington, Pentagon officials met with senators for a classified briefing on the shootdowns. Lawmakers conveyed concerns from their constituents about a need to keep them informed and came away assured the objects were not extraterrestrial in nature but wanting many more details.
Still, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the successful recent interceptions were likely to have a “calming influence” and make future shootdowns less likely.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters after the briefing that he didn’t think the objects posed a threat.
“They’re trying to figure out — you know there’s a bunch of junk up there. So you got to figure out what’s the threat, what’s not. You see something, you shouldn’t always have to shoot it down,” Graham said.
Biden has ordered National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to form an interagency team to study the detection, analysis and “disposition of unidentified aerial objects” that could pose either safety or security risks.
The recent objects have also drawn the attention of world leaders including in Canada, where one was shot down on Saturday, and in the United Kingdom, where the prime minister has ordered a security review.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that at least three flying objects spotted in Japanese airspace since 2019 are strongly believed to have been Chinese spy balloons.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials confirmed that a first missile aimed at the object over Lake Huron landed instead in the water, but that a second one hit the target.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military went to “great lengths” to make sure none of the strikes put civilians at risk, including identifying what the debris field size was likely to be and the maximum effective range of the missiles used.
“We’re very, very careful to make sure that those shots are in fact safe,” Milley said. “And that’s the guidance from the president. Shoot it down, but make sure we minimize collateral damage and we preserve the safety of the American people.”
The object taken down Sunday was the third in as many days to be shot from the skies. The White House has said the objects differed in size and maneuverability from the Chinese surveillance balloon that U.S. fighter jets shot down earlier this month, but that their altitude was low enough to pose a risk to civilian air traffic.
Weather challenges and the remote locations of where the three objects were shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron have impeded 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 weapons and defense needs for Kyiv in advance of Russia’s anticipated spring offensive.
Copp reported from Brussels. AP writers Lisa Mascaro and Stephen Groves contributed from Washington.
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