From China to big sky: the balloon that unnerved The White House
Star gazing is nothing unusual in Montana, where skies go on forever. But as Chase Doak left work on a Wednesday and looked up on a cold winter day he saw a mysterious round white object that was clearly neither the moon or a star.
He began to film something that could come straight out of a movie where science fiction meets the Wild West. Within 48 hours the strange thing that went on to confound the residents of Billings was revealed to be a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon.
"Not gonna lie," tweeted Doak as his video went viral. "First, I thought this was a #ufo. Then, I thought it was @elonmusk in a Wizard of Oz cosplay scenario. But it was just a run-of-the mill Chinese spy balloon!"
Its journey across the ocean has gripped the world's attention and forced the top US diplomat to cancel his trip to Beijing. Its fate, as it wafts 10 miles above ground, remains uncertain — as do the delicate relations between two superpowers grasping for ways to deescalate tensions and get talks back on track.
This account of how a balloon burst diplomacy just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to travel to China and meet with President Xi Jinping is based on conversations with several officials briefed on the matter who asked to stay anonymous to discuss intelligence matters.
As it turns out, US authorities were well aware of the unidentified object that had entered American airspace on 28 Jan, that had then left and re-entered over North Idaho on Tuesday. But with such a high-profile trip at stake, keeping it on the down-low was key.
By the time the thing became visible in Montana, President Joe Biden had already been briefed and the White House was scrambling to decide whether to blast it from the sky.
The gravity of the situation was only exacerbated by Montana being home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses a large portion of the US's Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Biden administration knew it had to exercise extreme caution especially in what was a heated political environment ahead of 2024 elections, with Republicans agitating on which party could strike a harder or tougher line on China.
As the balloon continued to hover over the Big Sky state on Wednesday, Biden huddled with his national security team to receive a detailed briefing on the balloon. The president argued for shooting the object down, but was urged against doing so by his most senior military advisors.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley insisted that such a move would put civilians at risk.
The president ultimately decided to let the balloon continue on its way as the US sought answers from the Chinese embassy in Washington, but they struggled to obtain satisfactory responses. US officials said they were baffled by China, which itself appeared to be caught off-guard by the bizarre incident.
For now, the White House opted not to inform the American public. Events, however, soon forced Biden's hand.
On Thursday afternoon, the Billings Gazette, a local Montana paper, published a photo of the balloon – meaning it was only a matter of time until national media would pick up on the report and the Biden administration would have to face questions.
The pace of discussions in the White House quickened.
In a call starting at 5:15pm on Thursday, the administration finally went public. That spurred a rush to brief lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The Biden administration will hold a briefing next week for the "Gang of Eight," a group of lawmakers including the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
In an effort to keep things calm, administration officials stressed this was not the first such incident and that similar activities had been observed over the past several years, including during the prior administration.
The Pentagon's announcement prompted an outcry from Republicans. Former President Donald Trump posted on his Truth Social website to "shoot down the balloon." Others, from former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, framed the decision not to shoot down the balloon as a sign of weakness by Biden.
The biggest question was how would China respond to all the furore that was unfolding at a rapid pace as Asia was asleep.
After earlier calling on the US to refrain from "hyping" the incident, China finally commented on the balloon directly in a statement Friday morning Washington time, attributing it to a "force majeure" for which it was not responsible.
China said the balloon blew off course and entered US airspace by accident, adding that it is "regretful" over the incident and that the balloon's purpose was climate research.
Administration officials are privately dismissive of Beijing's explanation, as are former American intelligence analysts. The official Chinese explanation mirrored a well-worn excuse for aerial espionage.
"I do not know of anyone who constructs a meteorological balloon the size of three school buses," said Dennis Wilder, the Central Intelligence Agency's former deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific.
US officials, who had spent hours debating whether Blinken should scrap a long-planned trip to Beijing, finally felt they had no choice but to postpone the first high-level US visit to China in five years. A delay was not a cancellation. It sent a signal that the US had no desire to escalate matters.
The sentiment among those in the room was that the trip wasn't worth the potential domestic political costs of going, given that Blinken's talks in China were not expected to yield much in the first place.
Biden's team worried that the incident would serve as more fodder for Republicans who believed the administration is weak on China, especially if the balloon crashed and hurt someone while Blinken was in Beijing.
"A split screen of a spy satellite over the United States when Secretary Blinken lands in Beijing would not have been tenable," said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the National Security Council.
Meanwhile, the balloon continued its voyage eastward across the continental US, heading toward Washington. "The balloon is not going away," said Wilder, the former CIA officer.
The problem, he said, is that "China has no way to take it back so it will drift over the continental US for an unknown time frame before coming down."
Until then, Americans will keep taking pictures of it and Biden will have to keep defending the decision not to just shoot it down.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.