Murkowski, other senators press Defense Department on military response to Chinese spy balloon in Alaska

WASHINGTON — As Defense Department officials disclosed additional details about the Chinese surveillance balloon Thursday, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski pressed for answers about the Biden administration’s handling of the balloon in Alaska.

At a hearing of the Appropriations Armed Services Subcommittee, senators questioned why the balloon was able to traverse the state from Jan. 28 to Jan. 30 — crossing from north of the Aleutian Islands over to Canada’s Northwest Territories — without being shot down by the U.S. military. Murkowski raised concerns about the message that allowing the balloon to travel across Alaska sends to China, and called out a lack of transparency from the Biden administration about the ordeal.

At the Senate hearing, a visibly frustrated Murkowski told four Department of Defense officials, “as an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words, but I’m not going to.

“The fact of the matter is, Alaska is the first line of defense for America, right?” she said. “If you’re gonna have Russia coming at you, if you’re going to have China coming at you, we know exactly how they come.”

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, a hearing witness, said that as the balloon approached Alaska, the head of North American Aerospace Defense Command assessed that the balloon was not a threat to U.S. citizens or aviation traffic and that there was no “hostile act or intent.”

Sims also said that a factor in the decision not to down the balloon over Alaska was that there was “no suspected impact to critical intelligence-gathering ability in terms of infrastructure.”

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Throughout the balloon’s path in Alaska, “they were tracking exactly where it was in relation to that sensitive, critical infrastructure and intelligence-gathering capabilities, it was not near those locations,” Sims said. “And as we reconstruct the path, we are not concerned with intelligence gathering in Alaska.”

Sims said that as the balloon later approached the U.S. border in Canada, the risk assessment for the balloon collecting intelligence increased.

Murkowski said she thinks the balloon always presented a threat from China.

“At what point do we say, a surveillance balloon, a spy balloon coming from China, is a threat to our sovereignty?” Murkowski said. “It should be the minute, the minute it crosses the line, and that line is Alaska.”

The Defense Department witnesses outlined other Pentagon concerns about taking the balloon down over Alaska’s waters, citing deep, freezing waters that would have made recovery efforts to collect intelligence about the balloon dangerous. They also said that had the balloon been shot down over Alaska’s land, modeling showed debris could have spread across a 20-by-20-foot area.

“Without being able to clear that, we wouldn’t do that in combat,” Sims said. “And we certainly didn’t want to take that chance with Alaskans or any other Americans throughout the flight path.”

Senators on the Appropriations Armed Services Subcommittee, including Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, also questioned why President Joe Biden was briefed on the balloon Jan. 31 — after the aircraft left Alaska and approached the Lower 48.

“It’s like this administration doesn’t think that Alaska is any part of the rest of the country here,” Murkowski said. “To get to the United States, you’ve got to come through Alaska.”

Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, said that the Pentagon was monitoring the balloon from the start and that NORAD was in communication with the White House to keep them abreast of the situation.

Thursday’s hearing came amid a flurry of congressional activity around the balloon. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives unanimously voted to condemn China’s use of the spy balloon. On Thursday, both chambers received a classified briefing about the incursion.

After Murkowski received a classified briefing later in the day, a spokesperson said Murkowski still had unanswered questions.

The Biden administration released other new details about the balloon Thursday. The State Department revealed that the balloon was capable of collecting electronic communication signals and was a part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons.

Dalton said the Biden administration’s approach to the situation, including shooting the balloon over the coast of South Carolina, sent a “clear message to the PRC (People’s Republic of China) that activities such as this is unacceptable.” However, Murkowski said that by not downing the balloon before it passed through Alaska, the administration projected a different, troubling signal to China.

“Seems to me the clear message to China is, ‘We got free range in Alaska,’ ” Murkowski said.

Murkowski also urged more communication from the Biden administration with the public about the incident.

“I think that the American public deserve more than they have seen in terms of transparency about why this spy balloon was allowed to spend two days over our waters and over the state of Alaska,” Murkowski said.

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Riley Rogerson

Riley Rogerson is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C., and is a fellow with Report for America. Contact her at rrogerson@adn.com.