Pentagon Won't Explain Misleading Statements About Trump-Era Chinese Spy Balloons

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley / Getty Images
February 6, 2023

The Department of Defense won't identify the Pentagon official who this weekend told reporters that the Trump administration let three Chinese spy balloons fly over the country without noting the critical fact that these incidents went undetected by the military.

The "senior defense official" told journalists in a background conference call Saturday that Chinese government surveillance balloons "transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration." Democrats seized on the Pentagon's disclosure to defend President Joe Biden amid outcry that China's balloon was allowed to travel unimpeded for several days across the continental United States, only to see the claim fizzle less than 24 hours later when other anonymous officials said the balloons were discovered only after former president Donald Trump left office.

"This information was discovered after the prior administration left," an official told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. A senior administration official said the same to CNN, but did not describe when or how those previous intrusions were uncovered.

The initial statement from the "senior defense official" gave no indication that the military failed to detect the balloons, putting Trump's administration in a much different situation than Biden's.

Chinese "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 unnamed official said, according to a transcript of the briefing.

The discrepancy comes amid revelations that the Biden administration withheld information from the public about the balloon out of concerns that the disclosure would derail Secretary of State Antony Blinken's planned visit to China. The administration was forced to acknowledge the balloon only after a newspaper in Billings, Mont., spotted it last week. Air Force fighter planes on Saturday afternoon shot down the balloon off the coast of the Carolinas.

The identity of the senior defense official could signal whether the Pentagon is also helping Biden combat the public relations crisis over the balloon. A Pentagon spokesperson denied the Washington Free Beacon's request to identify the senior official, or say whether the individual is a political appointee or career employee.

"As the briefing was conducted on background, we are only attributing remarks to a senior defense [official] and senior military officials," a Pentagon spokesperson told the Free Beacon.

The senior defense official made the remarks about the Trump-era intrusions in a conference call with reporters from CNN, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CBS, Fox News, and Reuters. A transcript of the call shows that the reporters asked follow-up questions, but none about the three previous intrusions.