The Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that monitors all air traffic in the United States, didn’t have an answer Monday to the question of whether Chinese spy balloons traversed American airspace during the Trump administration.
The aviation agency said its cooperation with the Defense Department in restricting airspace where the balloon was shot down, however, didn’t create any problems for civilian flights.
The military shot down a Chinese spy balloon Saturday off the coast of South Carolina after it had flown over much of the continental United States. The balloon was first seen in Montanna.
In response to numerous Republican lawmakers who criticized the Biden administration’s allowing the balloon to stay aloft for days despite concerns over Chinese espionage, Defense Department officials said that three similar spy balloons had entered U.S. airspace during the Trump administration.
Former President Donald Trump as well as senior Trump administration officials denied any knowledge of such balloons.
The Daily Signal asked the FAA whether it tracks these types of balloons, how many such balloons it tracked from January 2017 through January 2021, and whether the agency notified air traffic controllers about the balloons.
A spokesperson said the agency restricted airspace in the area off South Carolina where Reuters reported that an Air Force fighter jet shot down the balloon with a heat-seeking, air-to-air missile.
“The FAA has restricted a small piece of airspace at the request of the Department of Defense since Saturday afternoon,” an FAA spokesperson said in an email response. “There has been no operational impact for civilian operations. Please contact DOD for additional questions.”
The Daily Signal followed up, narrowing questions to the period from 2017 through 2021, but the FAA did not immediately respond.
The Defense Department referred to comments Thursday by the Pentagon’s press secretary, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, to note that it tracks suspected spy balloons in U.S. airspace.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Ryder said Thursday. “The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely.”
On Monday, unnamed Biden administration officials told CNN that Trump administration officials wouldn’t know about China’s spy balloons that flew over America during their time because those incidents weren’t discovered until sometime after Joe Biden took office Jan. 20, 2021.
The unnamed officials didn’t tell CNN when those alleged balloon incidents occurred or were discovered. But the officials said the intelligence community is willing to brief former Trump administration officials.
A Defense Department official told reporters during a background briefing Saturday that China sent three previous spy balloons to fly over the United States during the Trump administration and one more spy balloon earlier during the Biden administration. He used the initials for the communist regime’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.
“PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time,” the Defense Department official said. “We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.”
This seemed to come as a surprise to Trump and former senior officials of his administration, including former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo and former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.
“This never happened. It would have never happened,” Trump told Fox News.
Beijing “respected us greatly,” the former president said. “It never happened with us under the Trump administration, and if it did, we would have shot it down immediately. It’s disinformation.”
Two other top Trump administration officials who later became Trump critics also said they had no knowledge of Chinese balloons.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN: “I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States.”
Former national security adviser John Bolton, who became a harsh Trump critic after departing the White House, called for the Biden administration to provide “specific examples” of such incursions and said “they need to tell Congress.”
“I don’t know of any [surveillance] balloon flights by any power over the United States during my tenure, and I’d never heard of any of that occurring before I joined in 2018,” Bolton told Fox News. “I haven’t heard of anything that occurred after I left, either.”
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