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Balloon-gate Takes Flight
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Balloon-gate Takes Flight

China’s inflatable espionage device has been shot down, but plenty of unanswered questions remain.

Happy Tuesday! An Illinois school worker was charged last week with allegedly using district funds to steal $1.5 million worth of chicken wings over a 19-month period. According to authorities, the “whereabouts of the 11,000 cases of chicken wings remain unclear.”

Steve’s decision to take that teaching gig in Chicago last year is starting to make a whole lot more sense.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The death toll of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria early Monday morning has reportedly climbed to over 5,000 people in the two countries after a series of aftershocks and a separate 7.5-magnitude quake Monday afternoon. The earthquakes have leveled thousands of buildings, and the casualty count is likely to climb still further as rescue efforts get underway. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a seven-day period of national mourning, while the Biden administration promised an “immediate U.S. response” to the humanitarian crisis. 
  • The Justice Department charged two people on Monday with conspiring to sabotage five power facilities in Maryland. Brandon Russell, who founded a neo-Nazi group, allegedly worked with Sarah Clendaniel to plan attacks on power transformers hoping to “completely destroy” Baltimore. The two—who were both previously incarcerated—were caught by a confidential FBI informant.  
  • A bill from the Florida Legislature released Monday would create a new entity to replace the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the independent area in central Florida that contains Walt Disney World. Under the new bill—which follows an April 2022 law that dissolved the district by mid-2023—the district’s five supervisors would be appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis rather than being selected by area’s landowners, of which Disney is the area’s largest. Lawmakers introduced the bill, which would also change the district’s name to “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” during a special session of the legislature.

RIP Chinese Spy Balloon, Alive Forever in Our Hearts

The Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte NC, United States on February 04, 2023. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It began with Montanans looking up: Would-be passengers of suddenly grounded flights spotted a white orb in the sky on Wednesday, and America’s balloon obsession began. The Pentagon had spotted the balloon days earlier but made details public once people started spotting it, announcing a Chinese surveillance balloon had crossed down from Canada to cruise over the continental United States at about 60,000 feet, out of commercial airline and backyard trebuchet range but close enough for discomfort.

President Joe Biden said once the balloon entered from Canada, he ordered the military to shoot it down as soon as was appropriate. Pentagon officials say they waited days to shoot down the balloon for fear its girth—reportedly three bus lengths, with attached equipment the size of a regional jet—would spew debris and injure people below. But once it floated off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, the big fella never stood a chance: a missile fired from an F-22—the fighter’s first air-to-air kill, good job buddy—dissolved it into a white puff, leaving the Navy to retrieve the pieces for analysis.

Balloon-gate is over. But balloon-gate is also just beginning. With the evil beach ball deflated, politicians’ and analysts’ attention has turned to a series of questions: Why did this happen? Has it happened before? And what does it mean for U.S.-China relations?

Many Republicans’ immediate reaction to the story was to accuse the Biden administration of not moving quickly enough to down the balloon. “I will be demanding answers and will hold the [administration] accountable for this embarrassing display of weakness,” said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The [administration] should have taken care of this before it became a national security threat.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio argued Sunday China would have shot an American balloon down more quickly and said the incursion was meant to prove “the United States is a once-great superpower that’s hollowed out.” Other Republicans posted photos of themselves with guns as if aiming for the intruder, while police in York County, South Carolina pleaded with locals not to shoot their shot. 

China acknowledged ownership of the balloon—and another one over Costa Rica—but claimed the vessel was a civilian airship primarily taking weather readings and reached the U.S. only accidentally. “Its entry into the U.S. due to force majeure was totally unexpected,” the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) foreign ministry said in a statement. “Under such circumstances, the U.S. use of force is a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”

But the “it was just collecting weather data” explanation sounds like hot air to balloon experts finally having their moment in the sun. Our great golf ball in the sky was carrying much more equipment than a typical weather balloon, for one thing, and the Pentagon noted it showed signs of maneuvering. That said, the Pentagon hasn’t been heavy on the details, so it’s hard to be sure whether this balloon’s maneuverability was a step above other high flyers used for telecommunications, research, or surveillance. Some stratospheric balloons, for instance, can be controlled by adjusting their helium-to-air ratio, moving them up and down to catch winds which flow in different directions at different altitudes—but it’s a finicky process beholden to storms and geography. “Think of it kind of like a sailboat, but in three dimensions,” said Russ Van Der Werff, a vice president at Aerostar, which produces stratospheric balloons for clients including NASA and the Air Force.

Though they look cartoonish next to stealth planes and satellites, a new generation of spy balloons has its place in a nation’s surveillance toolkit. Balloons operate higher than a plane for a wider field of data collection, yet lower than satellites, allowing them to scoop up data like radio frequencies if properly equipped to do so. Spy balloons are also easier to operate and cheaper than a plane or satellite, Van Der Werff noted, making their deployment more nimble and their loss less painful.

Radar also has trouble detecting balloons’ ponderous movements, which may be part of why we’ve had trouble spotting them previously. Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command, admitted Monday the Pentagon didn’t discover at least three lesser balloon incursions—near sensitive sites, but featuring smaller balloons and shorter trips—that occurred during the Trump administration until after the former president left office. “That’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” he said. “But I don’t want to go into further detail.”

Pentagon officials claim the military took steps to prevent this balloon from collecting any intelligence, though it said the balloon flew over sensitive sites. Montana, for instance, houses a major nuclear missile silo field. Regardless of what the balloon spotted, though, its odyssey gave the world some insight into our detection and countermeasure capabilities—and where they may fall short. “It’s not what they did, it’s always what they could have done,” said retired Army Gen. John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “[Chinese officials] are doing what you always want to do if you’re an adversary, which is to cause your opponent to expend resources—whether you plan to exploit that gap or not.”

But it’s hard to see China deliberately picking this blatant balloon flight, given the negative impact on diplomacy at a moment when top officials have been sounding a more collaborative note. The saga has apparently only hardened the congressional turn against Beijing—Republican lawmakers are reportedly planning a bipartisan resolution condemning the flight. And the Biden administration has temporarily tabled a planned China visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Nobody expected that summit to end with hugs and friendship bracelets, but the Biden administration wants to keep communication strong as tensions grow, and Beijing had recently proved receptive to that effort—perhaps a bid to fend off further U.S. economic countermeasures like the CHIPS Act as China faces economic headwinds. “This is very bad timing for both Beijing and D.C.,” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A requisite amount of time has to pass for political optics before the administration can re-engage.” 

In fact, Blanchette argued, the incursion was more likely the result of a disconnect between China’s military and political leadership than a deliberate provocation. “While Xi Jinping has undeniably more control over the military than did previous general secretaries, it’s also the reality that China’s system—when you get up close to it, you start to see the duct tape,” Blanchette said. Whether China’s military wildly misjudged a routine spying operation or officials lost control while testing new balloon equipment, Blanchette argued a blunder is more likely than an attempt to show force. So far Beijing hasn’t publicly penalized anyone for the screwup—though national weather chief Zhuang Guotai was shown the door Friday without explanation.

And though the glowing white orb in the sky understandably riveted public attention, China routinely conducts balloon-based surveillance—along with much more invasive espionage like hacking and data collection. “People should be paying attention to all aspects of China’s information threat against the United States,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “Hopefully this just serves as the catalyst for that.”

Worth Your Time

  • In August 2022, Salman Rushdie—the novelist who’d been the target of an Iranian fatwa since 1989—was stabbed at a speaking engagement in Chautauqua, New York. “Over the years, Rushdie has occasionally suffered from nightmares, and a couple of nights before the trip he dreamed of someone, ‘like a gladiator,’ attacking him with ‘a sharp object,’” writes David Remnick in a sweeping New Yorker profile of the writer. “Rushdie has spent these past months healing. He’s watched his share of ‘crap television.’ He couldn’t find anything or anyone to like in ‘The White Lotus’ (‘Awful!’) or the Netflix documentary on Meghan and Harry (‘The banality of it!’). The World Cup was an extended pleasure, though. He was thrilled by the advance of the Moroccans and the preternatural performances of France’s Kylian Mbappé and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, and he was moved by the support shown by players for the protests in Iran, which he hopes could be a ‘tipping point’ for the regime in Tehran.”
  • There’s a cost to taking care of the pets we all love—one Andrew Bullis didn’t understand until he became a vet himself. In this (warning: heartbreaking) piece for Slate, Bullis recounts the hardest part of being a vet. “Female veterinarians in clinical practice are 3.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population; male vets are 2.1 times more likely,” he writes. “Three-quarters of these deaths come from vets in small animal practices like mine. The pressure is so high—you’re the only one who can make the final call. In veterinary medicine, doctors operate alone. Yes, there are specialists and techs to assist you, but the system is much less organized than human medicine. It’s just you on an island, and you’re supposed to be the be-all and end-all doctor for anything and everything your community needs. Animals deserve a painless, humane death. I went to sleep that night knowing I at least did that and I did it flawlessly.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! Tune into this week’s episode to catch Jonah, Kevin, and Declan previewing President Biden’s State of the Union address and much more. As always, there will be plenty of time for viewer questions. Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to watch.
  • On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David share their thoughts on a recent Fifth Circuit ruling involving gun rights before turning to the Murdaugh murder case. 
  • In Monday’s edition of Dispatch Politics, Andrew, David, and Audrey break down the coming battle for Debbie Stabenow’s U.S. Senate seat in Michigan before turning to the Koch Network’s decision to jump back into the GOP presidential primary fray. “This is the group’s most explicit statement in years that it intends to be involved in picking the top of the ticket,” they write.
  • How do you solve a problem like senior Trump administration alums? Kevin presents a simple solution in this week’s Wanderland (🔒). “My own belief is that the senior figures in the Trump administration should never again hold any position of public trust,” he writes. “Or, if not never again, at least not in the foreseeable future.”
  • Monday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒) focuses on the Republican reaction to The Balloon. “It’s an attempt to paper over the fact that the party is stuck in an ideological identity crisis that leaves it incapable of addressing complex problems,” Nick writes. “If you’re willing to be ruthless enough, the thinking goes, any complicated policy dilemma can be resolved simply. Don’t think. Don’t wait. Just shoot it down. Immediately.”

Let Us Know

Which question related to the spy balloon story is most interesting to you, and why?

— Did the CCP intend for the balloon to cross into the United States? If yes, what data was it trying to collect?

— What does this incident mean for U.S.-China relations moving forward?

— What really went into the Biden administration’s decision to delay shooting the balloon down?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.