The US transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, rejected Republican criticism of Joe Biden over the eight-day wait to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon which flew over military sites.
“The president gave instructions to have it shot down in a way that was safe,” Buttigieg told CNN’s State of the Union, of the operation off the Carolina coast on Saturday.
“The debris field that was created by this balloon which was shot down, it’s about seven miles long. And so any time the military is considering an option, they have to consider the safety of the American people.”
Marco Rubio of Florida, the Republican vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, was unmoved, telling the same network: “Why didn’t they take action? At this time, that’s number one. The other thing that we need to know about is why did it take so long for them to disclose this to the American public?”
The incident prompted the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to cancel a Beijing trip.
China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a weather research craft blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that, as well as China’s contention the balloon had limited navigational ability.
China said it reserved the right to “take further actions”, criticising “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice”. On Saturday, Beijing said the head of its weather service had been removed.
US officials said the balloon entered the US air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on 28 January and moved across Alaska into Canadian airspace. It crossed Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Biden was briefed.
The balloon was spotted on Wednesday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos. Two senior defense officials who briefed reporters said the US concluded the balloon didn’t give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could already obtain from satellites, though the US took steps to mitigate what it could gather.
Biden wanted the balloon downed on Wednesday but was advised to wait for when it was over water, the officials said, because bringing it down over land from 60,000ft would pose an undue risk.
The balloon was spotted on Saturday over the Carolinas. The Federal Aviation Administration closed airspace. Buttigieg said the FAA “worked very closely with the Pentagon … and the operation was put in place without pain, damage or injury to any Americans, lives or property”.
At about 2:39pmET, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile about six nautical miles off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Television footage showed a small explosion followed by the deflated balloon descending. Debris landed in 47ft of water. Officials said recovery would be completed swiftly.
“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said.
But Rubio said: “I think it isn’t a coincidence that this happens leading up to the State of the Union address [on Tuesday], leading up to Blinken’s visit to China. The Chinese knew this was going to be spotted. They knew we were going to have to react. They flew it over military installations and sensitive sites, right across the middle [of the country].
“The message embedded to the world is: ‘We can fly a balloon over airspace of the United States of America and they won’t be able to do anything about it … America is not going to come to your aid when we invade Taiwan or take land from India or take islands from the Philippines and Japan”.
Officials said Chinese spy balloons crossed into US airspace at least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president, if not for so long.
On Sunday afternoon Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican on the House armed services committee, told the Washington Post defense officials had described earlier sightings of Chinese balloons over Texas, Florida (twice), Hawaii and Guam.
Other Republicans hinted at a House investigation of the Biden response.
“I will be demanding answers and will hold the admin accountable for this embarrassing display of weakness,” said the Texas representative Michael McCaul, chair of the foreign affairs committee.
Mark Green of Tennessee, chair of the committee on homeland security, said that panel would “continue demanding both action and answers”.
The Pentagon has acknowledged reports of a second balloon over Latin America. Officials said the balloon over the US was part of a fleet and could be maneuvered remotely, carrying equipment not usually associated with meteorological research.
The Chinese foreign ministry sought to play down the cancellation of Blinken’s trip. Blinken said he told a senior Chinese diplomat sending the balloon was “an irresponsible act … detrimental to substantive discussions we were prepared to have”.
Mike Mullen, a retired admiral and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the balloon incident had damaged attempts to strengthen US-China relations.
“There’s no way [Blinken] could have a meaningful visit and we have a host of issues that we need to address,” Mullen told ABC’s This Week. “This puts a big dent in moving that forward in a constructive way, which we really need to do.”
In a statement, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said the administration “reacted at first too indecisively and then too late. We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace … President Biden missed the opportunity to defend our sovereignty, send a message of strength and bolster deterrence.”
The Democratic majority leader, Chuck Schumer, told reporters: “The full Senate … will have a larger and full China briefing next week. And that is something that I think will be very important, serious and hopefully nonpolitical.”
The briefing will cover information regarding surveillance capabilities, research and development, and advanced weapons systems, Schumer said.
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