Balloon shoot-down story shifting from Top Gun tale to 'whoops'

Balloon shoot-down story shifting from Top Gun tale to 'whoops'

Balloon shoot-down story shifting from Top Gun tale to 'whoops'

The U.S. government says it is examining the China-owned spy balloon that was shot down and retrieved from the Atlantic, which could shed light on China’s motives and its surveillance capabilities, but looming in the background is a drip-drip confession fighter jets may have blasted other innocent targets from the air on orders from the White House.

In a statement Monday, the U.S. military said Navy and Coast Guard crews tasked with recovering the aircraft now possess “significant debris” including all of its sensor and electronic components. A 30-foot section of the airship was retrieved by a crane ship.

That official statement, which came from the military’s Northern Command, was followed by a White House statement Tuesday hinting that three more objects shot down by U.S. fighter jets last week were innocent targets, NBC News reported in a breaking news story.

The intelligence community is “considering” that the three objects were being used for “commercial or benign purposes,” that story said.

That tepid admittance matches a Fox News story, also published Tuesday, in which an unnamed U.S. official called the purpose of the three downed objects an “open question.” The objects could be “sky trash” or “weather experiments,” that official said.

All three of the downed objects have “similarities,” the official also said, but did not elaborate.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) used Twitter to update the public after he and other lawmakers were briefed by military officials. The three objects, he wrote, were in FAA commercial zones with no signals or navigation lights. The military is calling them UAPs or "unidentified aerial phenomenon."

"The first two UAPs were smaller, the size of an ATV, and harder to detect," the Congressman, citing the briefing, wrote. "The third resembled a balloon, and was easier for the radar to pick up."

All moved with wind currents, Crenshaw said, and they were shot down because they passed by Department of Defense facilities and posed a danger to commercial aircraft. 

Top military officials have said collecting debris from all three shoot-downs is difficult because of weather and terrain, and it’s unclear if the military is in a hurry to do so in light of leaks to the media. 

At the White House, spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday collecting the debris “would certainly be of immense value” in identifying the objects, The Hill reported.

In a statement mirroring the NBC News and Fox News stories, Kirby called it a “leading explanation” that the three objects were balloons that were not military in nature.

Back at the White House, on Tuesday afternoon, a White House reporter asked Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre if President Biden would be "embarrassed" if it turns out fighter jets were sent to "blow weather balloons out of the sky." 

"I'm not going to get ahead of any final decision yet," she replied "We just don't know. We just don't know."

Pressed by the reporter about Biden being embarrassed, Jean Pierre said President Biden "took action to make sure that our air space, civilian air space, was safe."

Regarding the first downed balloon, China has admitted that aircraft belonged to it but described it as a weather research balloon. If it was a spy balloon, and China attached high-tech gear to it, then the Chinese Communist Party cannot be happy the U.S. is poring over its equipment right now.

“Last week provided the United States with a unique opportunity,” a Pentagon official boasted to Time, “to learn a lot more about the Chinese surveillance balloon program…”

A week later, that boasting was nowhere to be found at the Pentagon and the White House. 

While it's too soon to "definitively" say what the three objects are without examining the debris, Kirby told reporters Tuesday, "we haven’t seen any indication, or anything that points specifically, to the idea that these three objects were part of the [China’s] spy balloon program, or that they were definitively involved in external intelligence collection efforts." 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with comments made by Karine Jean Pierre, the White House press secretary, Tuesday.