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The United States’ Terrestrial Weekend
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The United States’ Terrestrial Weekend

Why has the military suddenly begun shooting down unidentified flying objects?

Happy Tuesday! Today is Valentine’s Day, and, if you’re just realizing that now, best of luck! 

Maybe you can grab some flowers and an iTunes gift card at the grocery store on the way home from work.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The State Department updated its travel warning for Russia on Monday, advising all U.S. citizens—including dual Russia-U.S. citizens—to leave Russia immediately. The U.S. embassy in Moscow cited concerns dual citizens could be conscripted into the Russian army should they remain in the country.
  • Georgia Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ordered the release of portions of the report from the grand jury investigating former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in the state. The report—set to be released publicly on Thursday—will not include any recommendations on criminal charges or the names of any witnesses under suspicion of lying to the grand jury.  
  • About 100,000 people gathered outside Israel’s parliament building Monday to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, which would reduce judicial review and allow parliament to overrule Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority vote. Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Sunday urged Netanyahu to delay votes on the changes—expected to begin this week—and instead negotiate a consensus plan for reforms.
  • A week after a train carrying chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter Friday to the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, listing three previously undisclosed and potentially hazardous chemicals released during the accident. One, ethylhexyl acrylate, is a known carcinogen. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and East Palestine officials lifted an evacuation order last week after they said air quality tests returned near-normal readings.
  • The Energy Department is scheduled to sell 26 million barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the coming weeks as part of a move mandated by Congress in 2015. The sale will bring the strategic stockpile to about 345 million barrels after the Biden administration flooded the market with 180 million barrels from the reserve last year in response to price spikes related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • President Joe Biden on Monday fired Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton—responsible for maintaining the historic building and grounds—amid bipartisan calls for Blanton’s ouster. An inspector general report accused Blanton of ethical violations including misusing a government vehicle. At a congressional hearing on the watchdog report last week, lawmakers criticized Blanton’s absence from the Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.
  • A gunman killed three people and wounded five others Monday night on the Michigan State University campus. In a news conference early Tuesday morning, the interim deputy chief of the campus police announced that the suspect had been found dead off campus with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He added that the suspect was 43 years old and not affiliated with the university as a student or employee. The five wounded are all in critical condition, a hospital spokesman said Tuesday morning.

Clearing the Skies

The National Security Council’s John Kirby speaks at a White House press briefing following the U.S. downing of a number of unidentified aerial phenomena. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The National Security Council’s John Kirby speaks at a White House press briefing following the U.S. downing of a number of unidentified aerial phenomena. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Anytime the National Security Council spokesman is assuring Americans they “don’t need to worry about aliens,” you know it’s been a weird couple of days.

This weekend felt eerily like the opening sequence of a sci-fi film—shots of Super Bowl festivities intercut with footage of newscasters describing strange phenomena—as American and Canadian officials detected and shot down three airborne objects. We warned you when the United States took out the Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month that balloon-gate was just beginning, but we didn’t realize just how right we were. Retrieval operations are underway, but for now details are scarce and curiosity is high—who sent the objects, and why? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was likely channeling Americans’ confusion on Monday when he spoke on the Senate floor: “What in the world is going on?”

The untimely demises of the various mystery objects began Friday, when an American jet brought down the first over Alaskan waters. F-35 pilots initially deployed to observe the object reportedly offered conflicting accounts of whether it interfered with their sensors, and they couldn’t identify a means of propulsion despite the object’s altitude of about 40,000 feet. Also Friday, radar detected a second object, this one “cylindrical,” wending its merry way over Alaska. The U.S. and Canada jointly operate the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which monitors and defends air and sea. Once the object entered Canadian airspace, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau conferred with President Joe Biden and ordered the object downed. A nearby American F-22 from NORAD did the deed Saturday over Canada’s Yukon Territory. The third—and, knock on wood, final—object was shot down over Lake Huron Sunday after being spotted in Montana Saturday.

“What’s gone on in the last two weeks or so, 10 days, has been nothing short of craziness,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said Sunday on CBS News’ Face the Nation. And that was before the Lake Huron strike.

Forget what we know for a moment. What we don’t know is, at this point, a much longer list—starting with how these funky fellas flew. “I’m not able to categorize how they stay aloft,” said Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD. “It could be a gaseous type of balloon inside a structure or it could be some type of propulsion system. But clearly, they’re able to stay aloft.”

Nor do we know where they came from—or even whether they were malign. “A range of entities, including countries, companies, research organizations operate objects at these altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious, including legitimate research,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton.

While U.S. officials swiftly and consistently declared that the big fat balloon from earlier this month was Chinese and made for surveillance—China acknowledges the first claim and denies the second—they’ve resisted making similar declarations about these three. “I would be hesitant, and would urge you not to attribute it to any specific country,” said VanHerck. “We don’t know.”

While the recovery operations battle cold temperatures, sea ice, and limited daylight, officials are waiting to find out what they can from the retrieved pieces before assigning responsibility. “We are in a heightened geopolitical time and the concern is always that accidents, mishaps, and incidents could escalate quickly if we’re not all professional,” said Andrea Charron, director of the Center for Defense and Security Studies at Canada’s University of Manitoba. She also argued the incident demonstrates NORAD—not just for tracking Santa!—allows the U.S. and Canada to respond to threats crossing between them but needs updates to its capabilities. “NORAD is working, but we need to value it,” she added. “It’s going to require constant modernization.”

It’s still unclear whether the seeming flurry of UFO activity is a sudden surge of malign activity—or the result of NORAD learning a lesson from the Chinese spy balloon and keeping its eyes peeled. “We have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week,” Dalton said. Typically, NORAD radar are more focused on spotting threats like bombers or intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would be moving faster and at different altitudes than the objects spotted this weekend. Adjust what altitude and speeds the radar picks up, and voilà, you’ve got an exciting game of “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a possibly hostile object of unknown make and capability entering our airspace without permission.”

But this weekend’s objects could also represent a real uptick. “This is a little bit odd, to see that much all at once, if there’s not a coordinated effort to gather intelligence around it,” said retired Maj. Gen. Scott Clancy, former NORAD director of operations and former deputy commander of the Alaskan NORAD region. If that’s the case, Clancy tells The Dispatch, figuring out who sent the objects will go a long way toward determining their geopolitical purpose. 

Meanwhile, the fallout over the Chinese balloon continues. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Monday the United States flew “more than 10” high-altitude balloons through Chinese airspace without permission last year. Nice try, said National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson, but that’s false and the “latest example of China scrambling to do damage control.” Wang also accused the U.S. of 657 surveillance sorties last year—though he didn’t specify how many of those violated China’s internationally recognized territory as opposed to territory it claims in the South China Sea. Still, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reportedly considering meeting with top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi at a Munich conference starting this week, indicating the administration hopes to keep lines of communication open despite canceling Blinken’s planned Beijing trip after the balloon blowup.

Even before these incidents, the U.S. was ramping up efforts to spot and identify flying objects—or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, as the Pentagon likes to call them. NASA created a team last year to study UAPs, and Congress recently required the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to issue annual reports on them. In January, DNI reported 247 UAP sightings from March 2021 to August 2022, nearly double the 144 reported from 2004 to 2021—possibly a reflection of officials encouraging pilots and others to relay what they see. The Pentagon’s efforts to sort through UAP incidents reportedly helped it identify China’s surveillance balloon fleet.

But the recent activity will supercharge that work. President Joe Biden has formed 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,” Kirby said Monday. Members of the team include Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. 

The headlines will also  intensify congressional oversight. Senators will get a classified briefing this morning on the weekend’s UAPs, but many lawmakers are unhappy with the secrecy so far—and the implication that NORAD has only just now started watching for such objects hasn’t improved matters. “If true, we are potentially looking at one of the most staggering intelligence failures since 9/11,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, chairman of the Select Committee on China, said in a statement. “How long have these objects operated in our airspace with impunity? How long has the Pentagon been aware of them? Congress has urgent and vital oversight interests in all these questions, and most importantly, the American people deserve to know what’s going on in the skies above their homes.”

Worth Your Time

  • Jamie Reed, “a queer woman, politically to the left of Bernie Sanders, now married to a transman” is blowing the whistle on the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital—which treats children with gender dysphoria—in a piece for The Free Press. “Frequently, our patients declared they had disorders that no one believed they had,” Reed writes. “The doctors privately recognized these false self-diagnoses as a manifestation of social contagion. They even acknowledged that suicide has an element of social contagion. But when I said the clusters of girls streaming into our service looked as if their gender issues might be a manifestation of social contagion, the doctors said gender identity reflected something innate. Many encounters with patients emphasized to me how little these young people understood the profound impacts changing gender would have on their bodies and minds. But the center downplayed the negative consequences, and emphasized the need for transition.​​ [The patients] had no idea who they were going to be as adults. Yet all it took for them to permanently transform themselves was one or two short conversations with a therapist.” 
  • Ten days ago, life imitated art when a train transporting chemicals derailed in tiny East Palestine, Ohio. The town had been one of the shooting locations for the 2022 movie White Noise about … a chemical spill in Ohio. “When Ben Ratner’s family signed up in 2021 to be extras in the movie White Noise, they thought it would be a fun distraction from their day-to-day life,” Brenda Goodman and Kyla Russell write for CNN. “Ratner tried to rewatch the movie a few days ago and found that he couldn’t finish it. ‘All of a sudden, it hit too close to home,’ he said. Ratner and his family are living the fiction they helped bring to the screen.” A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern—the company whose train derailed—“acknowledged but did not respond to CNN’s request for more information on how much of these chemicals spilled into the soil and water. The Ohio EPA says it’s not sure yet, either. The first trains to pass since the accident started rolling through again midweek, Ratner said. The roar of the trains, a sound he used to tune out, is now jarring.”
  • In a piece for the New York Times, Peter Baker memorializes Michael Gerson, the wordsmith behind George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and a key proponent of PEPFAR, the AIDS-reduction program that saved a generation. He died of cancer in November, at the age of 58. “Mr. Gerson, a low-key, bespectacled Midwesterner who was uncomfortable with Texas swagger and locker-room humor, forged a bond with Mr. Bush even though ‘I am not much of a towel snapper,’ as he put it,” Baker writes. “He had a poignant pen, the evidence of which could often be seen on lips turned blue from nervously chewing the top of his ballpoint. Driven by his Christian faith, the kind that emphasizes caring for ‘the least of these,’ as the Bible puts it, Mr. Gerson in a memoir summed up his philosophy as ‘a conservative respect for the institutions of family and community paired with a radical uncompromising concern for the poor and weak.’”

Presented Without Comment

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! It’s a two-parter this week, with Adam talking to Esther and Price about UFOs before shifting to a discussion with the Dispatch Politics team about the busy week ahead in 2024 jockeying. As always, there will be plenty of time for viewer questions. For more information on how to tune in, click here.
  • On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David discuss Ron DeSantis’ interest in loosening national libel laws and, as always, it gets complicated. Plus: Meta gets sanctioned!
  • In Monday’s Wanderland (🔒), Kevin looks at Sarah Palin’s case against the New York Times and explains why, at least on libel law, Ron DeSantis is right. “Losing the Palin case would have been good for the Times and good for American journalism,” he argues. “There’s nothing like having to write a seven- or eight-figure check to somebody you hate to encourage a newspaper to tighten up its editing standards.”
  • Is Nikki Haley 2024 faltering before it even gets off the ground? “So far, the soon-to-be-official Haley presidential campaign has no staff or advisers—paid or pro bono—in Iowa or New Hampshire,” David, Andrew, and Audrey report in Monday’s Dispatch Politics. Plus, the DeSantis v. Trump contest is already getting ugly.
  • In his latest Boiling Frogs (🔒), Nick speculates about how DeSantis supporters would handle the Florida governor losing to the former president in the Republican primary. “We shouldn’t underestimate an anti-anti-Trumpers’ ability to invent pretexts to justify voting for Trump,” he writes. “They’ve been doing it for eight years; they’re quite good at it.”
  • On the site today, Andrea Stricker warns that the Saudis are seeking to pursue the enrichment of uranium and that such a policy could upend the Middle East. Also, Arthur Herman writes that the Biden administration’s response to the Chinese spy balloon tells us a great deal about America as a superpower.

Let Us Know

So what do you make of all this UFO business? No, not whether it’s little green men or not. Is the administration being forthcoming enough in what it has announced so far? How concerning is NORAD’s statement that it only recently started taking a closer look for such items?

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.