WASHINGTON – With few confirmed details from President Joe Biden’s White House, the downing of three unknown aerial objects in as many days by U.S. fighter jets has prompted wild speculation about what they were and where they came from. It even fell to his press secretary on Monday to announce earnestly there was no indication of “aliens or extraterrestrial activity.”
The president had no public events Monday and has offered little reassurance or explanation of what to make of it all, following the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon crossing the country and the unprecedented peacetime shootdowns that have followed.
U.S. officials said they still know little about the three objects downed Friday off the coast of Alaska, Saturday over Canada and Sunday over Lake Huron. But those shootdowns have been part of a more assertive response to aerial phenomena following the balloon episode blamed on an ongoing Beijing espionage program.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did have at least one definitive statement to try to tamp down unrestrained theories: “I know there's been questions and concerns about this, but there is no — again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity.”
The U.S. government insists the three objects did not pose a threat to American security and that even the massive spy balloon provided “limited additive capabilities” to China's other surveillance programs. Still, they were shot out of the sky “out of an abundance of caution,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Biden’s unparalleled decision to shoot down four objects over North America in eight days — when combined with U.S. officials’ efforts to publicly downplay the foreign threat — has furthered the dissonant messages being sent about sensitive efforts to protect the homeland.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, acknowledge the confusion, saying the administration wants to keep the American public from becoming unnecessarily worried while also trying to maintain a tough posture toward China.
Kirby said that while the U.S. has no specific reasons to suspect the aerial objects were spying, "we couldn’t rule that out.” He added that the most recent objects, flying between 20,000 and 40,000 feet, could have posed a remote risk to civilian planes.
That legal justification for the downings — that the objects might imperil civilian flight — is viewed by some officials as such a remote possibility that it raises questions about whether it was a mere pretext for acting tough.
Biden “wants to appear tough on China, and this is a good example of where actions speak louder than words,” said Brian Ott, co-author of “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.”
“If we find ourselves next year in a presidential debate between the two of them, Trump will try to cast Biden as weak on national security, and Biden will be able turn to Trump and say, ‘How many of these Chinese balloons and unidentified objects did you shoot out of the sky?’”
Ott, a professor of communications at Missouri State University, said Biden’s relative silence on the takedown of the Chinese balloon and other objects could be guided, at least in part, by his 2024 reelection considerations. Republicans, from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to right-wing firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, criticized Biden in the days after the Chinese balloon was spotted in U.S. airspace for being slow to act.
When pressed on whether the decision to shoot the objects down came in response to such criticism, Kirby insisted, “These were decisions based purely and simply on what was in the best interests of the American people.”
With little information to go on, senators in both parties demanded answers as they returned to Washington on Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that senators would receive a classified briefing Tuesday morning and that Congress would work in coming weeks to get the “full story of what happened.” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat behind Schumer, said Biden “owes the country some answers.”
Republican McConnell said Biden “needs to communicate and level with the American people." He questioned what the administration knew about China’s surveillance efforts before the first balloon crossed the country.
After the balloon was shot down, the White House revealed that such balloons had traversed U.S. territory at least three times during Trump’s administration unbeknownst to the former president or his aides — and that others have flown over dozens of nations across five continents. Kirby emphasized Monday that they were only detected by the Biden administration.
Jim Ludes, a former national defense analyst who now leads the Pell Center for International Affairs and Public Policy at Salve Regina University, said political parrying is inevitable.
“It doesn’t matter what the administration says. People are going to play politics with it and try to score points," he said. “Either they acted too slowly, or too hastily.”
There’s good reason for the Biden administration to be cautious, Ludes added, noting that the blow-up over the aerial devices comes amid heightened tensions between China and Taiwan. The wrong statement from Biden could destabilize an already fraught situation.
“Next time we fly a B-52 down the straits, what does China do?” Ludes said. “There are opportunities for this to become very complex very quickly.”
Kirby on Monday sought to draw a distinction between the latest objects and the confirmed surveillance balloon, emphasizing their far smaller size, lack of maneuverability and the lack of any indication they were communicating before they were shot down. They were only detected, he said, because the U.S. had adjusted the sensitivity on air defense radars to detect high-flying, slow-moving objects like the surveillance balloon.
Officials have yet to retrieve any parts of the three unidentified objects, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, citing the treacherous terrain, water and weather where they were brought down. U.S. officials could not even say whether they were balloons or some other type of aerial vehicle, and have thus far declined to share imagery taken before they were shot down.
All that is clear, it seems, is that it wasn't ET.
Kirby echoed Jean-Pierre on that: “I don’t think the American people need to be worried about aliens with respect to these craft."
___ AP writers David Klepper and Tara Copp contributed.