Essential Politics: On the Chinese spy balloon fiasco

Large white balloon seen against blue sky
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., last week.
(Larry Mayer / Associated Press)

Most people’s ideas about how espionage works come from Hollywood.

The big car chases, funky disguises and intense fight scenes that fill blockbuster movies have created a not entirely realistic picture of how nations collect intelligence.

Last week, however, in an unusually transparent move, the Pentagon began detailing how China, one of the United States’ most prominent adversaries, gathered intelligence — using a balloon.

Why did the Pentagon tell the public about the balloon? Has this happened before? What could this mean for diplomacy between China and the United States?


Hello, I’m Erin B. Logan. I cover national politics for the L.A. Times. This week, we’re going to discuss spy balloons.

What happened?

The white balloon, the size of three school buses, first appeared in American airspace near Alaska on Jan. 28, the Associated Press reported. President Biden was briefed Jan. 31. Two days later, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder informed the public of the balloon’s existence, saying it was not an immediate threat and that the government had quickly moved to protect sensitive information.

Chinese officials insisted that the balloon was a weather instrument used for research that the wind accidentally knocked off course. They also said American officials had overreacted and were engaging in “information warfare against China.”

Still, the Pentagon’s disclosure prompted a frenzy and caused U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to cancel a highly anticipated diplomatic trip to Beijing.

The disclosure prompted some Americans to search the sky for the balloon. Some people even reported capturing images of it from the ground.

On Saturday, American fighter jets shot down the balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The aftermath

Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton criticized Biden for not downing the balloon sooner.

“China sent a spy balloon to fly all across America,” he said. “The Biden administration had a chance to shoot it down over Alaska and they chose to let it spy all across America.”

Biden wanted to order the military to shoot down the balloon but decided against doing so after top military leaders warned against it, saying it risked the safety of people on the ground, according to the Associated Press.


American officials said Thursday that the balloon is part of a much larger operation by China’s People’s Liberation Army, Times writer Tracy Wilkinson reported. The Biden administration said the aerial spy program targeted more than 40 countries around the world.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— Biden faces three big problems heading into a reelection campaign he’s expected to announce soon. His State of the Union speech aimed to help on two — and judging from early reaction, he may have succeeded, Times writer David Lauter reported.

— With three prominent members of Congress planning to run for one of California’s coveted U.S. Senate seats in 2024, the list of potential replacements in the House of Representatives is already beginning to stack up, Times writers Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta reported.

— At a recent gathering in Orange County, Republican leaders did something strange: They effectively urged the party’s candidates to charge headlong into a political buzz saw, Times columnist Mark Z. Barabak reported. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution calling on GOP contestants to “go on offense” on the abortion issue and recommended state and federal lawmakers “pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible.”

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The view from Washington

— Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who had a stroke during his campaign last year, has been hospitalized after feeling lightheaded while attending a Democratic retreat, the Associated Press reported. Initial tests at George Washington University Hospital did not show evidence of a new stroke, Fetterman’s communications director, Joe Calvello, said in a statement Wednesday night.

Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old who made worldwide headlines for disarming the Monterey Park gunman last month, stood and waved to the crowd of lawmakers as Biden labeled him a “hero” and called for new gun control measures in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Times writer Noah Bierman reported.

The view from California

— Adding to the growing list of gun control measures California Democrats have unveiled in recent weeks, a new bill announced Thursday would ban firearms dealers from holding game-style promotional events such as giveaways, lotteries and raffles, and add new misdemeanor convictions that prohibit people from owning guns for 10 years, Times writer Hannah Wiley reported.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom has granted 123 commutations, or reductions of sentences, since he became governor in 2019, Times writer Mackenzie Mays reported. But as of January, a third of those people remained behind bars — in some cases years after the governor’s recommendations, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That’s due largely to Newsom’s decision to defer to the parole board.

— Twice in the last two weeks, major corporations have scored wins in their fights against progressive policies approved by Democrats at the California Capitol, Times writer Taryn Luna reported. First, the secretary of state announced that fast-food companies had collected enough signatures to force a referendum on a state law meant to boost wages for restaurant workers. Last week, oil companies’ effort to overturn an environmental safety law that would ban new drilling projects near homes and schools similarly qualified for the ballot.

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