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24 Dec, 2023 08:57

White House planned to censor Chinese ‘spy balloon’ story – NBC

Officials have reportedly said that the damage caused by the scandal outweighed the security threat
White House planned to censor Chinese ‘spy balloon’ story – NBC

Officials from the administration of US President Joe Biden initially hoped to conceal the Chinese balloon incident earlier this year from the public and even the Congress, a new report by NBC News has claimed. Officials feared that the story could spark public outcry and damage relations with China.

In early February, the US shot down what it described as a suspected Chinese ‘spy balloon’ off the coast of South Carolina, claiming that Beijing was using it to “surveil strategic sites” in the country. Later, however, the Pentagon admitted that the vessel had not been collecting intelligence.

China described the balloon as a “civilian airship” that strayed into US airspace due to force majeure circumstances. At the time, while US media emphasized potential Chinese aggression, the incident led to a significant strain in relations between Beijing and Washington.

According to an NBC article published on Friday, the Air Force commander in charge of American airspace, General Glen VanHerck, told Biden’s top military adviser, General Mark Milley, on January 27 that for around ten days, they had been tracking a mysterious object flying over the Asia-Pacific. In a previously unreported phone call, VanHerck said the Pentagon planned to send US military jets to assess the object.

According to NBC, Biden was not briefed on the balloon until January 31. He then asked the military to develop a plan for how to deal with it.

On February 1, as the balloon was flying over the US, NBC News asked the White House for comments, and only then did officials organize a briefing for lawmakers, with the public learning of the incident a day later.

“Before it was spotted publicly, there was the intention to study it and let it pass over and not ever tell anyone about it,” a former senior US official briefed on the incident told NBC.

The outlet also said that White House officials privately complained that the political reaction over the balloon was disproportionate to the threat it posed to national security, arguing that the subsequent damage the scandal caused to relations with Beijing was a far greater threat than the balloon itself.

The recent publication sparked an outcry from both the public and lawmakers, raising questions over US intelligence capabilities and the way the incident was handled.

“As if it wasn’t enough that the Chinese spy balloon flew over Montana’s nuclear missile fields unabated, now we find out that the admin intended to hide it from Congress & the American people. The Biden administration must be held accountable,” Senator Steve Daines said in an X (formerly Twitter) post on Saturday.

A senior Biden administration official denied the allegation that there was an attempt to keep the balloon a secret.

“To the extent any of this was kept quiet at all, that was in large part to protect intel equities related to finding and tracking” the official said, referring to intelligence gathering on the balloon. “There was no intention to keep this from Congress at any point.”