The Biden administration is willing to brief former Trump officials on newly discovered intelligence that China sent spy balloons into U.S. airspace during their time in charge.
The offer, described by senior Biden administration officials on Sunday night, comes as former President Donald Trump and senior members of his national security team say they were never briefed on such an incursion by a Beijing-sent aircraft.
“This information was discovered after the prior administration left. The intelligence community is prepared to offer key officials from the Trump administration briefings on [China’s] surveillance program,” one of the officials said. The official, along with several others, asked not to be named in order to discuss sensitive information.
Briefers would also be willing to discuss Beijing’s similar operations in East Asia, South Asia and Europe over the last several years, the official said.
The proposal to brief the Trump officials is the latest development following the military’s shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon on Saturday, seven days after it entered U.S. airspace. Republicans and former Trump officials said this week that they would have downed the airship as soon as it appeared, and criticized President Joe Biden for waiting until the balloon was over water before bringing it down.
Yet on Saturday, a senior Defense Department official said that Chinese spy balloons entered American airspace three times during Trump’s tenure and once before during the current administration. The administration officials didn’t detail how they learned of those events long after they happened.
Still, it helps explain why five senior Trump administration officials POLITICO spoke with on Sunday said they were never told of such incidents occurring when they were in office. “This never happened. It would have never happened,” Trump told Fox News on Sunday.
“I’m not aware of a single civilian national security leader from the Trump administration who heard of this,” a Trump administration national security official said.
But the difference between past instances and the one from last week, Defense Department officials said, is that those balloons never stayed above U.S. territory for a significant period of time. When pressed for specifics, such as the date, location and duration of those instances, Biden administration officials refused to provide them to POLITICO, citing the classified nature of that information.
Some officials did speak in generalities, however. DoD tracks “hundreds” of balloons every day, but they are typically not deemed a threat. Their presence close to or over the United States would not be brought to the attention of senior leaders unless their behavior was “completely out of the ordinary, like this one,” said one senior Pentagon official.
At lower levels, officials have tracked multiple instances of balloon activity over U.S. territories in recent years. One of the Trump-era balloons hovered over Guam, according to two U.S. officials. And in 2020, the intelligence community assessed that much smaller balloons detected off the coast of Virginia were Chinese radar-jamming devices, according to a former senior DoD official.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a House Armed Services Committee member, tweeted Sunday that the Pentagon had informed his office that “several Chinese balloon incidents have happened in the past few years - including over Florida.”
“Why weren’t they shot down?” he added. “And according to several Trump Admin national security officials - they were never informed of these intrusions by the Pentagon.”
The other time a similar airship appeared with Biden in the White House was last February near Hawaii.
Those and potentially other events were seemingly not discovered in real-time. One senior administration official said the events went “undetected.”
“We’ve gotten better at detection over time,” a second senior Biden administration official said, noting that those responsible for surveilling Chinese spy balloons can remain in government even with a new president in the Oval Office.
Before the Biden administration’s new offer, Trump officials denied any of this ever happened. “I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” Trump’s second Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN on Friday.
“This never happened in the first two years of the Trump administration,” a former senior DoD official said. A senior Trump intelligence official said nothing like what transpired over the past week happened during all four years of the previous administration.
Biden’s team has given no indication it will downgrade intelligence to make a public case that there were past examples of Chinese spy balloons above the U.S. from 2017 to 2021. At this point, all briefings will apparently take place behind closed doors.
In fact, all senators will receive a briefing on the just-downed vehicle’s flight on Feb. 15, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday.