(CNSNews.com) – The head of the U.S. military command responsible for countering airborne threats to North America said on Monday that it had not detected Chinese spy balloons that reportedly flew over the United States prior to last week’s incident.
Instead, those previous incursions had been discovered “after the fact” by the intelligence community using “additional means of [information] collection,” said Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command. He did not elaborate.
According to an official transcript of an off-camera briefing to Pentagon reporters, VanHerck attributed the fact that NORAD had not detected those earlier balloons to “a domain awareness gap.”
A senior defense official asserted at the weekend that, before last week’s incursion, Chinese surveillance balloons had flown briefly over the continental U.S. at least three times during the Trump administration, and at least once at the beginning of the Biden administration.
Asked during the briefing if his Colorado-based command had been involved in tracking those earlier balloon flights, VanHerck replied that as NORAD commander it was his daily “responsibility to detect threats to North America.”
“I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” he added. “But I don’t want to go in further detail.”
President Trump has disputed the claim that Chinese spy balloons flew over the U.S. during his presidency. Senior members of his administration, including two former national security advisors and former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, have denied knowledge of any such incidents, with Ratcliffe declaring unequivocally that “it didn’t happen.”
Amid concerns that the information may have been deliberately withheld from the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers are pressing for answers. VanHerck referred several times during Monday’s briefing to the fact he will be testifying on Capitol Hill when called upon to do so.
A Chinese spy balloon flew across U.S. and Canadian airspace for a week before a U.S. Air Force jet shot it down on Saturday, shortly after it crossed the South Carolina coastline and was over the sea. The remnants landed in U.S. territorial waters, and the U.S. Navy has begun the process of recovering it.
The incident sparked a fresh diplomatic spat with China, which claims the craft was a civilian balloon used for “mainly meteorological” research that had blown off course.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned visit to Beijing, and each side is accusing the other of jeopardizing an initiative to help restore dialogue, set in motion by President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping when they met in Bali in November.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday reiterated that the intelligence community is prepared to offer briefings to “key officials” from the Trump administration on the Chinese surveillance balloon issue.
She said the information about the earlier spy balloon incursions had been discovered after the departure of the Trump administration.
“So this is something that we – they did not, they were not aware of, as we’ve just laid out,” Jean-Pierre said. “But again, we are ready to brief key officials to let them know what, you know, what the intelligence community was able to figure out.”
During his briefing, VanHerck was asked why the U.S. military had not shot down the Chinese balloon when it first approached U.S. airspace near Alaska’s Aleutian islands.
“It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America – this is under my NORAD hat,” he replied.
“And therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent.”
VanHerck said that he had provided information about the status and whereabouts of the balloon to the Department of Defense as well as to the Canadian military leadership, to whom he also reports in his NORAD capacity.
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