No aliens, but no answers

BALLOON BOY — White House officials said this afternoon that the three unidentified flying objects shot down this weekend over the United States and Canada posed a “very real” threat to civilian air traffic but there is “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby acknowledged that the U.S. has not determined the source of the objects or whether they present the same national security risks as the Chinese spy balloon shot down earlier this month. President Joe Biden directed the military to shoot the objects down “out of an abundance of caution,” Kirby said.

He added that U.S. military officials were aware of a “high-altitude balloon program for intelligence collection” that has ties with China’s military. Such a program “was operating during the previous administration, but they did not detect it. We detected it. We tracked it. And we have been carefully studying it to learn as much as we can.”

Kirby said American and Canadian intelligence are now scrutinizing airspace more closely.

Efforts are underway to collect debris from where the balloons fell, but he noted that the remote locations in Alaska and Canada where the objects were shot down could make recovery difficult, with one of the objects thought to be submerged somewhere in Lake Huron.

On Sunday, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, declined to rule out aliens or extraterrestrial involvement on Sunday.

But White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking prior to Kirby, addressed the question head on — could the unidentified objects be aliens?

“I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no — again, no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns … I love E.T. the movie, but I’m just going to leave it there.”

Nightly spoke with Emily Harding, a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to get a better understanding of the national security implications of the objects downed over the weekend. This interview has been edited.

At today’s White House press briefing, John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said the president has directed an interagency team “to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis, and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks.” How significant are these developments? 

An interagency team is a first step towards both answers and a policy for handling these objects. Each agency involved will bring different strengths and capabilities, and the group can examine intelligence, information collected by the pilots, and anything recovered from crash sites. Further, this group can start to create rules of engagement, or at least risk evaluations, for any future objects, helping to decide under what circumstances they should be shot down.

Lawmakers are understandably impatient for information. They want to be able to communicate effectively with their constituents, and they cannot do that until they know more. The all-members [of Congress] briefing on Wednesday is an opportunity to share what information the executive branch has and, perhaps more importantly, plans for recovering debris and evaluating intelligence. Meanwhile, as they look to markups of bills like the NDAA, IAA, and Appropriations, Congress should evaluate the current funding levels for intel collection on these objects and for NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command].

What should we make of the U.S. and Canadian military response? 

What most likely happened in the U.S. — and what is almost certainly happening in other countries like Canada — is that when national security experts located the Chinese balloon, which was blatantly flying over the middle of the country, officials from organizations like NORAD, took a step back and recalibrated how American intelligence would better track these types of objects. Certain filters, like only examining objects flying at a certain speed, appear to have been removed, for instance, and as a result, we are seeing this surge in sightings.

Capturing information from political adversaries is a common tactic. What makes these recent incidents stand out? Why are lawmakers and the media giving these surveillance techniques and unidentified flying objects so much attention?  

There’s a lot of speculation about why China would use balloons. Why would China not just use its satellites? And while we know that satellites are very effective, and that China continues to utilize their capacities, there are some things that are easier to get from inside the atmosphere. What makes the Chinese surveillance balloon stand out was just how blatant it was — this was flying out there in the middle of the country. There was no way that American surveillance was not going to see it.

I think there are also major implications in terms of how the U.S. will react that could impact China’s relationship with Western nations, which has already been strained. And I would love to see the administration say more about what’s going on, especially relative to timelines on when they expect to be able to exploit some of the debris. I would hope that the administration and media make it clear what is known and what is speculation.

What is the most important piece of this whole balloon discussion as it relates to Western relations with China?

The Chinese balloon — that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month — was pretty clearly an attempt by China’s government to gather information. That was spotted by U.S. and Canadian intelligence, which observed it closely, and we knew when and where it was moving. With the three that we’ve located over the past few days, there’s a lot less we know. And it appears that all three of them went down in places that are very challenging to find and explore, including one in a remote area of Alaska.

What’s most interesting about these three newly spotted, unidentified objects in particular is that the U.S. government — like you saw today at John Kirby’s press briefing — is being very, very careful not to definitively say whether or not they should be regarded as threats to national security. It was only, as they say, out of an “abundance of caution” as a result of the supposed threat to aviation — and that the balloon was flying at the height that a lot of civilian planes fly — that the U.S. decided it was best to shoot them out of the sky.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] or on Twitter at @_AriHawkins.

What'd I Miss?

— Judge orders partial release of Georgia grand jury report on possible 2020 election crimes: A judge in Georgia has ordered public release on Thursday of a special grand jury report that focuses on whether former President Donald Trump broke state law by pressuring local officials to change the 2020 presidential election results. However, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said he doesn’t plan — for now — to release the bulk of the grand jury’s work, including the parts that address potential criminal liability for Trump or other individuals. In an order released this morning responding to requests from media organizations, McBurney said he intends to put the introduction and conclusion into the public record this week, along with a portion of the report’s discussion about potential false statements made to the grand jury under oath.

— Biden dismisses scandal-plagued Capitol manager: The White House has removed the Capitol complex’s top manager from his post following a series of misconduct revelations that prompted calls for his axing by top lawmakers in both parties, according to a White House official. Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton will depart seven years before his term is up under pressure from lawmakers across the Capitol. He faced a crescendo of criticism following a heated oversight hearing last week that centered on an internal watchdog report that cataloged his misuse of department resources.

— Tim Scott to attend presidential forum alongside Haley: Tim Scott and Nikki Haley will participate in a candidate forum set for next month in South Carolina, another sign that the two popular Palmetto State Republicans are on track to becoming primary opponents. Haley, the former governor and United Nations ambassador, and Scott, the state’s junior senator, are confirmed to speak at the Palmetto Family Council’s “Vision ‘24” forum, said Mitch Prosser, the conservative advocacy group’s director of outreach. The event is scheduled for March 18 and organizers have invited other potential and declared 2024 presidential candidates as well.


COUP PLOT — Russia wants to stage a coup d’état in Moldova, the country’s President Maia Sandu said today.

Sandu called for heightened security measures in Moldova after the pro-EU government resigned last week, following months of pressure from Moscow, writes Wilhelmine Preussen.

“The plan included sabotage and militarily trained people disguised as civilians to carry out violent actions, attacks on government buildings and taking hostages,” Sandu told reporters at a press conference.

She added that citizens of Russia, Montenegro, Belarus and Serbia would be among those entering Moldova to try to spark protests in an attempt to “change the legitimate government to an illegitimate government, controlled by the Russian Federation to stop the EU integration process.”

Moldova was granted candidate status to the European Union last June, together with neighboring Ukraine, against which Russia is waging an all-out war.

The Moldovan government has long accused Russia, which bases soldiers in the breakaway region of Transnistria in the east, of stirring unrest in the country, including protests in the capital, Chișinău.

“The Kremlin’s attempts to bring violence to Moldova will not work. Our main goal is the security of citizens and the state,” Sandu said.

Nightly Number

Radar Sweep

UNDER THE SEA — By volume, oceans make up 99.5 percent of our planet’s habitats. We’ve explored relatively few of them. As Martha Henriques reports for BBC Future, oceanographer Edith Widder estimates that, if you imagine the oceans to be the size of Manhattan, we’ve explored about all of the first floor apartments on one city block. But as climate change alters the way ecosystems function, knowing more about our planet is essential. That research, into the depths of the oceans, is expanding rapidly and “sizable marine animals new to science are still being documented every year.”

Parting Words

HE’S RUNNING — At 37 years old, Vivek Ramaswamy has made hundreds of millions of dollars, written a New York Times bestseller and become a fixture on Tucker Carlson’s show. Recently, he was dubbed by the New Yorker as the “CEO of Anti-Woke Inc.”

But on a chilly Monday evening last month, Ramaswamy found himself far from a Fox News set at a dinner event in Iowa, addressing a crowd of dozens of the state’s agricultural royalty tucked inside a huge upscale barn with exposed wood beams and the heads of elk and bison mounted on the walls, writes Daniel Lippman.

He was there to do what people with ambition, a thirst for the spotlight and an overflowing sense of self-confidence occasionally go to Iowa to do. He is exploring a run for president, testing, among other things, whether his warnings about the dangers of “wokeism” and socially-responsible investing — in business vernacular what’s called environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing — has political currency with Republican politicians, business leaders and, yes, farmers.

Ramaswamy has a theory for how this will all go. He wants to pull off what Trump did in 2016: enter the race with an entrepreneurial spirit, unorthodox ideas, and few expectations, and end up developing a major following that will carry him to the presidency — even if it seems like a long shot at the moment.

But making a fortune in biotech investing is different than glad-handing on the campaign trail or withstanding a barrage of attacks from Trump. Ramaswamy will have to convince Republican voters to take a chance on a true underdog — someone who’s never held public office, and who faces a field of candidates with far higher name recognition.

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