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U.S. downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris

Fighter jets shot down the giant white balloon off the Carolina coast. President Biden said he ordered the operation since Wednesday

Update:
1:38 p.m. with additional reaction from Texas elected officials. The story was updated at 1:53 p.m. and at 2:10 to add details.

WASHINGTON— The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.

President Joe Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier, on Wednesday. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water, U.S. officials said. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.

China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the U.S. for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”

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In its statement Sunday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.”

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The presence of the balloon in the skies above the U.S. this week dealt a severe blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.

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“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.

The giant white orb was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. About 3:39 p.m., an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defense officials said.

The F-22 aircraft, from the Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, shot a “single missile” to destroy the balloon.

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Fort Worth-based Lockheed-Martin’s aeronautics division is the prime contractor that developed and manufactured the F-22, which had its final assembly plant in Marietta, Ga. It is no longer being built and the Pentagon wants to retire and high-tech, stealth warplane due to high costs and other factors.

All eyes on the sky

The spectacle had Americans looking to the skies all week, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.

“They successfully took it down and I want to complement our aviators who did it,” Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.

Fighter jets shot down the giant white balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that Biden approved the shootdown on Wednesday, saying it should be done “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”

Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. U.S. military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.

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Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that any debris field would be substantial.

The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the coast. In preparation for the operation, the FAA Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.

The Coast Guard advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of U.S. military operations “that present a significant hazard.”

Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.

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The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancellation of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing U.S.-China tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.

“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.

China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.

The balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

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The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.

Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”

Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the U.S. was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at U.S. defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the U.S.

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China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. not to “smear” it based on the balloon.

The Pentagon also has confirmed to ABC News that a second balloon is being tracked over South America.

The balloon over America, first revealed over Montana and confirmed by China to be a research aircraft from there, has created a buzz down below am residents who initially wondered what it was — and now wonder what its arrival means amid a chorus of alarm raised by elected officials.

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The balloon roiled diplomatic tensions as it continued to move over the central U.S. on Friday at 60,000 feet. Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled an upcoming trip to China.

FILE - President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the...
FILE - President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 15, 2021, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, listens. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, a U.S. official said Friday.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)(Susan Walsh / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Size of 3 school buses

Curiosity about the bobbling sky orb that’s the size of three school buses swept the nation and the internet, with search terms like “where is the spy balloon now?” and “spy balloon tracker” surging on Google. There was no such tracker, but a couple St. Louis TV stations offered grainy live feeds of the balloon.

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Internet users posted wobbly videos and photos of white splotches in comments sections and speculative feeds. And online storm chasers, more accustomed to tracking raging systems and funnel clouds, offered updates on the balloon’s path through cloudless skies.

It crossed into U.S. airspace over Alaska early this week, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

In Montana — home to Malmstrom Air Force base and dozens of nuclear missile silos — people doubted Beijing's claim that it was a weather balloon gone off course. And the governor and members of Congress pressed the Biden administration over why the military did not immediately bring it down from the sky.

“I question whether or not we would even found out about this if people hadn't spotted it in Billings,” said Chase Doak, a resident of the southern Montana city who appears to have captured some of the first known video footage and photographs of the balloon.

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Chinese spy balloon spotted in the sky over NC
Chinese spy balloon spotted in the sky over NC (The Associated Press)

Initial speculation over its origins ranged from the foreign to the extra-terrestrial.

When Todd Hewett's 10-year-old son saw it over Billings he thought it was a comet. Hewett got some shaky footage, using a cellphone to take video through a telescope, and was skeptical of the Chinese claim it was a civilian balloon.

“Shoot it down,” he said. "If we could somehow pierce the bottom of it to allow some of the gas to escape to allow for a more controlled descent (that) would be nice .. but if we can’t do that ... blow it up.”

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Montana has some experience with balloons launched by adversaries: Japan in World War II targeted the western U.S. with incendiary “balloon bombs” that were floated over North America with plans to harm people and start forest fires. More than 30 of the bombs made of rice paper landed in Montana, according to the Montana Historical Society.

In Oregon, five children and a pregnant woman on a church picnic were killed in 1945 when they found one of the bombs and it exploded.

Chinese balloon is over central U.S., headed east, straining U.S.-China relations
The Pentagon said Friday that a Chinese spy balloon had moved eastward and was now over the central United States. (Chase Doak / The Associated Press)

On Friday in Kansas City, Missouri, the National Weather Service said it received reports of a large balloon in the Kansas City metro area and posted two images of white orbs taken from the weather station office in Pleasant Hill, Missouri. The service confirmed it was not a National Weather Service balloon.

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A graphic generated by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration online tool was eagerly shared on Facebook, showing the balloon's trajectory sweep into the U.S. South. Local National Weather Service offices were asked on Twitter whether the balloon was theirs. No, was their answer.

Texas congressional delegation reacts

Texans in Congress are among the many local, state and federal elected officials that sounded off with concerns about the balloon and how it had been handled by the Biden administration.

Rep. Roger Williams R-Austin, Tweeted Saturday the administration’s decision to down the balloon was long overdue.

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“Biden owes the American people answers. We need a Commander in Chief that will protect our sovereignty, not let the Chinese government endanger it.”

On Thursday, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal that the balloon is a violation of Americans privacy and that it was “imperative [Blinken] tells Chairman Xi and his government that their military adventurism will no longer be tolerated.”

In a statement on Friday, McCaul said the balloon could’ve been shot down already when crossing over water, and requested a briefing from the Biden administration.

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“This balloon should have never been allowed to enter U.S. airspace. Instead, the Biden administration allowed it to continue so that it now poses a direct and ongoing national security threat to the U.S. homeland, while at the same time threatening the privacy of every American,” McCaul said in the statement. “I am calling on the Biden administration to quickly take steps to remove the Chinese spy balloon from U.S. airspace.”

“Everything about the Biden admin’s response to the Chinese spy balloon reeks of indecision and weakness. They can’t decide whether to shoot it down or not. They can’t decide whether to go to China or not,” Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted. “China has been spying on us pervasively. They also commit genocide, use slave labor, and threaten us and our allies. Staggering to think a balloon changes everything for Team Biden.”

As seriously as he’s taking the matter, Cruz on Saturday also posted a humorous tweet about the ongoing tensions, saying his daughter has figured out what’s in the balloon — hamsters.

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Cruz’s comments come two days after he introduced a resolution calling for the release of Houston resident Mark Swidan, who has been detained by China since 2012.

“The Biden Administration’s failure to protect the U.S. mainland from Chinese spy balloons is an example of how his foreign policy weaknesses threaten our national security. Put an end to Chinese spying on Americans–whether in our airspace or through our phones,” Rep. August Pfluger, R-San Angelo, tweeted.

“I promise you Xi Jinping does not have our best interest at heart — it’s time for Joe Biden to start acting like it,” Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Sherman, wrote on Twitter, in response to a tweet from Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan.

Fallon on Friday tweeted his view concisely: “Shoot the balloon down.”

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“What is so hard to understand...CHINA IS NOT OUR FRIEND,” Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, tweeted. “Shoot down the Chinese spy balloon NOW.”

Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Richmond also has been tweeting his concerns about the administration’s handling of what many in Congress consider a dangerous incursion by China over the U.S. mainland. “Will the Chinese spy balloon still be flying over the United States during the State of the Union?” he asked on social media Friday, referring to the upcoming Tuesday prime time address to the nation from Biden.

Most recently, on Saturday, he tweeted concerns about Biden not informing Americans about the Chinese balloon sooner, saying, “What happened to transparency?”

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The outrage over the balloon was bipartisan as some Democrats from Texas and elsewhere also condemned the discovery, including Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen who tweeted “This is unacceptable! The American people deserve answers to why this was allowed to happen,” in response to the balloon’s identification as a surveillance tool.

Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said he would hold a hearing to get answers from the Biden administration. He called China’s actions “a clear threat.”

Rep. Ryan Zinke sent a poll to constituents early Friday saying the balloon was still over the state and asking if should be shot down. When the Pentagon said the balloon had since drifted over the central U.S., Zinke raised the possibility China had more than one balloon over the U.S..

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“I don't know if that's the only balloon. We've asked for those answers,” he told The Associated Press. He said the balloon should have been shot down. “The message that it gives to our allies is, we’re not capable of dealing with a balloon," he said.

The Pentagon late Friday acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America but officials did not specify where it was spotted.

Republicans in Montana have grown increasingly outspoken in recent years about China posing a threat to U.S. national security.

A bill pending before the state Legislature would ban “foreign adversaries” from owning, leasing or renting critical infrastructure or farmland. The measure's sponsor singled out China as being interested in acquiring U.S. lands and resources to “help them with spying efforts."

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FILE - An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome...
FILE - An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, a U.S. official said Friday.(AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)(Andy Wong / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The heavy anti-China sentiment marks a shift from a just a few years ago, when Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines visited China, hosted the Chinese ambassador on a visit to a Montana ranch and helped secure a deal to export more beef to China.

The beef deal later fell through, and the Republican has transformed into a strong critic of China.

Daines on Friday rejected the Pentagon's contention that it was too dangerous to bring the balloon down over Montana. He told reporters there would have been “no better place” than his sparsely populated home state.

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“You've got higher odds of hitting a cow or a prairie dog or an antelope than you would of hitting any kind of a structure or a person,” he said.

Assistant politics editor John Gravois and Washington correspondent Rebekah Alvey contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press, CNN and ABC News.