'Who is behind them?': UFO fever grips Capitol Hill
Lawmakers have critical questions for the Biden administration about the objects flying over the U.S., as officials return to the Hill for a classified briefing Tuesday.
Michigan’s two senators knew about the unidentified object flying over their state before the news broke. That doesn’t mean they’re any less in the dark than most Americans are.
Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) recalled in a brief interview the alarming call she got Sunday afternoon from the Department of Defense, which gave her the mysterious play-by-play as the object hovered over the Mitten State. She wasn’t alone in being “kept informed, every step” — both Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) heard from the administration before it publicly disclosed the object.
Yet even as the unidentified craft became the third shot down by the U.S. military in the span of a weekend, senators still have critical questions about what the heck is happening as the Biden administration prepares to return to the Hill for another classified briefing on Tuesday.
“The most troublesome aspect is: What’s going on? Where are they coming from? Who is behind them?,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked on Monday. “We get weather balloons, we understand weather balloons. But if it’s not weather balloons, what are they? Who is sending them? That bothers me.”
While the 118th Congress is off to a slow start, Capitol Hill is swirling with intrigue about the military’s downing of four objects that hovered over U.S. and Canadian airspace in recent days. In the absence of complete information, Senate Republicans on Monday criticized the Biden administration for what they called a lack of transparency about where the objects are coming from and what they are. Even some Democrats indicated that the Biden administration could be doing more to alleviate concerns.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Monday night that he’s “not satisfied yet” with the administration’s response but will wait until the Tuesday briefing before making a final judgment. Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said that it’s possible for Biden officials to be more transparent without compromising national security.
The full Senate’s slated briefing Tuesday on the unidentified objects comes days after another classified briefing about the Chinese spy balloon. And that’s on top of another previously classified briefing scheduled for Wednesday that will touch broadly on China.
None of the three objects shot down over the weekend have been recovered. Murkowski said brutally cold conditions in Alaska were hindering the search, while Peters said the lake is deep enough to make finding anything extremely complex. The Biden administration already ruled out aliens on Monday, but that didn’t slow down the pace of lawmakers’ questions.
Summing up what’s on almost everyone’s minds, Peters remarked: “Why do we have these objects now? Is it because we just haven’t been looking for them? Or something else?”
Senate Republicans, who previously castigated the Biden administration for waiting too long to respond to the Chinese spy balloon, are going into Tuesday’s briefing with low expectations. But they argued that any information, at this point, would be helpful to prevent imaginations from running wild.
“It’s just crazy what’s happened the last few days,” observed Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t know if they don’t know what’s going on. And maybe either way, whether they do or don’t, at least tell us what they do know — and try and reassure people of the things that they’ve ruled out.”
Over the past four days, the U.S. military shot down three unidentified objects: the first on Friday near Deadhorse, Alaska, the second over Yukon, Canada on Saturday and the latest on Sunday over Lake Huron, Mich. That came just days after the military brought down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
“I don’t think anybody really understands,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). “We all knew what the first one was … [The Biden administration] took so much heat after the first one, they weren’t going to make the same mistake,” he added, and let the objects fly untouched.
While it’s not clear whether the unidentified objects are all from China, the latest developments will almost certainly spur calls for the U.S. to get tougher on Beijing. Following Thursday’s briefing on the spy balloon, GOP and Democratic lawmakers emerged requesting additional information.
The speakers for Tuesday’s briefing include Melissa G. Dalton, an assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims II, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, according to a list obtained by POLITICO.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who held a defense spending subpanel hearing Thursday on the Chinese spy balloon, described the latest unidentified objects as “concerning.” But he added that his level of concern will depend “on where they came from.” His subcommittee is expected to hold follow up hearings as the Senate kicks off its annual spending process.
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters Monday that enhanced radar capabilities “may at least partly explain the increase in the objects that have been detected.”
In the absence of more information, though, Republicans are having a field day with the incidents.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Monday that the administration has still “not been able to divulge any meaningful information about what was shot down” and asked: “are they benign science projects or something more nefarious that we have been missing all this time?” Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the administration is “creating a bigger problem for themselves by the lack of transparency.”
Yet despite bipartisan concern about China’s role in the incursions, some senators suggested Monday that the response to Biden’s handling of the unidentified objects may fall along party lines.
“I came to the conclusion the administration handled the first one properly,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine.), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “There are some people that if Biden walked out, woke up in the morning and walked across the Potomac River, they’d say, ‘Biden can’t swim.’”