(CNN) — A day before the suspected Chinese spy balloon entered US airspace over Alaska, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) quietly sent out an internal report about a foreign object heading towards the territory, they told CNN. US military and intelligence officials familiar with the matter.
The report, also known as “confidential,” was disseminated through classified channels accessible throughout the US government. But it was not designated as an urgent warning, and senior defense and intelligence officials who saw it were not alarmed that immediately, according to sources. Rather than treat it as an immediate threat, the US moved to investigate the object, seeing it as an opportunity to observe and gather intelligence.
It wasn’t until the balloon entered Alaskan airspace on January 28, and then made a sharp turn to the south, that authorities came to believe it was on its way to cross the continental US, and that his mission could be to spy on the country.
This previously unreported timeline of events helps explain why US defense officials refused to act before the balloon crossed US territory. That lack of urgency has become a sharp political flashpoint on Capitol Hill, as some Republicans have criticized the administration for not raising the alarm sooner.
“Our government knew that a Chinese military spy balloon was going to enter airspace over the continental US at least TWO DAYS BEFORE it happened. However, they did not act to stop it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Twitter on Wednesday. “Biden must reveal to the Americans when they learned that the balloon spay [sic] He was headed towards the US and explain why he was not detained.”
Officials familiar with the original DIA report acknowledged Rubio’s point that they did not see the balloon as an urgent threat until it was already over US territory, even as new revelations emerged about what the country knew about it. chinese spy balloons
During a closed-door briefing Tuesday, Senate staffers repeatedly pressed military officials about who knew what when. On Wednesday, Rubio and Sen. Roger Wicker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to President Joe Biden’s top defense and intelligence officials raising questions about the administration’s decision-making after before the balloon crossed Alaskan airspace.
CNN reported Tuesday that US officials tracking the balloon recognized it as part of a well-known Chinese military-led aerial surveillance operation that authorities say has flown dozens of missions around the world, including half a dozen near or within US airspace. An April 2022 military intelligence report, reported exclusively by CNN, revealed that the US had tracked previous flights with similar balloons.
It was only when the globe turned south that it “got weird,” a senior US official told CNN. “We immediately started talking about tearing it down.”
fighter jets on the move
On January 28, when the balloon entered US airspace near Alaska, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, sent fighter jets to make a positive identification, according to defense officials, which reflecting a subtle change in urgency.
Still, the officers tracking the balloon saw little reason to be alarmed. At that time, according to US officials, this balloon was expected to fly over Alaska and continue on a northward trajectory that military and intelligence officials could track and study.
Instead, shortly after the balloon crossed land, it alarmed officials by making its unexpected turn to the south.
On January 31, the balloon had crossed out of Canada and into United States territory. And concerns that the balloon had been sent by Beijing explicitly to spy on the US were confirmed when NORAD observed the balloon “loitering” over sensitive military installations, multiple sources familiar with the intelligence told CNN.
How much control China exerted over the balloon’s trajectory remains a matter of debate. Although the balloon was equipped with propellers and a rudder that allowed it to turn “like a sailboat,” according to the senior US official, it largely moved in the jet stream, one of the reasons officials they were able to predict their route across the US in advance.
who knew what and when
Senior administration officials appear not to have been informed of the balloon until on or about January 28, when it crossed Alaskan airspace, including the United States’ ranking general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the General Mark Milley.
Biden, according to senior administration officials, was not informed until three days later, on January 31, when the balloon left Canada and entered the United States. At the time, Biden asked the military to present options “immediately” to shoot down the balloon, officials said.
Military officials said it’s not necessarily surprising that the president wasn’t briefed until January 31, given the balloon’s expectations at the time.
“Confidential” sent out by the DIA also routinely makes its way through government channels, and while US officials have access to these reports, whether they read them or whether those reports are included in briefings for top policy makers is a matter of discretion.
“Some of these places send out emails and then count that as somebody being tipped off,” the senior US official said.
Questions without answer
As more information leaks out about the administration’s decision-making process on the globe, Congress has become more interested.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions about Alaska,” a Senate Republican aide told CNN. “Alaska is still part of the United States. Why is it okay to transit Alaska without telling anyone, but [el territorio continental de EE.UU.] is different?”
Some Republican lawmakers have raised scathing questions about why the Biden administration did not move to shoot down the balloon before it crossed into the US mainland, either while it was over Alaska or before.
Military and intelligence officials who spoke to CNN said the balloon was not known to sink to the south until the balloon was already over Alaska. Prior to that, officials did not believe it posed a real risk to the US and, in fact, it presented more of an intelligence-gathering opportunity.
“The awareness of the domain was there as it approached Alaska,” NORAD Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters Monday. “Based on my assessment, this balloon did not pose a physical military threat to North America… And therefore could not take immediate action because it did not demonstrate a hostile act or hostile intent.”
Once it was over US soil, officials have argued that the benefits of collecting additional intelligence on the balloon as it passed far outweighed the risk of shooting it down on the ground.
The US sent U-2 spy planes to follow the balloon’s progress, according to US officials.
A pilot took a cockpit selfie showing both the pilot and the surveillance balloon itself, these officials said, an image that has already gained legendary status at both NORAD and the Pentagon.