The truth is out there: UFO fever grips Congress
Senators left a classified briefing Tuesday with at least one question answered about the three unidentified flying objects that the military shot down over the weekend: They weren't aliens.
That’s about where the certainty ends.
Members of both parties entered the briefing room with Biden administration officials wanting more information about the origin of the unidentified objects. They left the room reiterating calls for more transparency from the White House.
“This is what I took away: This has been going on for years,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “Number two, except for the China spy balloon, we don't really know what they are. Number three, we don't even know if we've caught all of them. Number four, what's different right now is that we've shot some down. That’s the good news, I suppose.”
Capitol Hill is swirling with intrigue about the military's downing of four objects that hovered over U.S. and Canadian airspace in recent days. In the absence of complete information, Senate Republicans nudged President Joe Biden to address the nation directly on the matter. While Democrats aren’t going that far, some indicated that the administration could be doing more.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin summed up the briefing this way: “It answered a lot of questions and raised a lot of questions.”
Even before the public knew about the three newest unidentified objects, Department of Defense officials were in contact over the weekend with senators from states over which they flew.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) recalled in a brief interview the alarming call she got Sunday afternoon from the Department of Defense, which gave her the mysterious play-by-play as the object hovered over the Mitten. She wasn't alone in being “kept informed, every step” — both Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) heard from the administration before it publicly disclosed the object.
Yet even as the unidentified craft became the third shot down by the U.S. military in the span of a weekend, senators still have critical questions about what the heck is happening.
“The most troublesome aspect is: What’s going on? Where are they coming from? Who is behind them?” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked on Monday. “We get weather balloons, we understand weather balloons. But if it’s not weather balloons, what are they? Who is sending them? That bothers me.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), meanwhile, said after the briefing that the Biden administration is “becoming more transparent, and that’s a good thing, but there’s a need for even more.”
The Tuesday briefing on the unidentified objects comes days after another classified briefing about the Chinese spy balloon. And that’s on top of another previously classified briefing scheduled for Wednesday that will touch broadly on China.
None of the three objects shot down over the weekend have been recovered. Murkowski said brutally cold conditions in Alaska were hindering the search, while Peters said the lake is deep enough to make finding anything extremely complex. Even as the Biden administration ruled out aliens, that’s not slowing down the pace of lawmakers' questions.
Senate Republicans, who previously castigated the Biden administration for waiting too long to respond to the Chinese spy balloon, had low expectations for the briefing. And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) suggested after that it was of little use. Instead, he called for Biden to address the public immediately.
“We learned nothing that I didn’t already know as a member of the Intelligence Committee and Armed Services Committee or, for that matter, that one could learn from reading your newspapers,” Cotton said. “That’s why I want to stress again: President Biden owes the American people an explanation.”
Over the past four days, the U.S. military shot down three unidentified objects: the first on Friday near Deadhorse, Alaska, the second over Yukon, Canada, on Saturday and the latest on Sunday over Lake Huron, Mich. That came just days after the military brought down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
“I don’t think anybody really understands,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). “We all knew what the first one was … [The Biden administration] took so much heat after the first one, they weren’t going to make the same mistake,” he added, and let the objects fly untouched.
While it’s not clear whether the unidentified objects are all from China, the latest developments will almost certainly spur calls for the U.S. to get tougher on Beijing. Following Thursday’s briefing on the spy balloon, GOP and Democratic lawmakers emerged requesting additional information.
The speakers for Tuesday’s briefing included Melissa G. Dalton, an assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims II, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, according to a list obtained by POLITICO.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who held a defense spending subpanel hearing Thursday on the Chinese spy balloon, described the latest unidentified objects as “concerning.” But he added that his level of concern will depend "on where they came from.” His subcommittee is expected to hold follow up hearings as the Senate kicks off its annual spending process.
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters Monday that enhanced radar capabilities “may at least partly explain the increase in the objects that have been detected.”
And Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) defended the White House’s approach: “I know everybody wants the president to speak on every issue immediately and sometimes it’s smart for presidents to get enough information in order to make a definitive statement.”
In the absence of more information, though, Republicans are having a field day with the incidents.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Monday that the administration has still “not been able to divulge any meaningful information about what was shot down” and asked: “are they benign science projects or something more nefarious that we have been missing all this time?” Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the administration is “creating a bigger problem for themselves by the lack of transparency.”
Yet despite bipartisan concern about China's role in the incursions, some senators suggested that the response to Biden’s handling of the unidentified objects may fall along party lines.
“I came to the conclusion the administration handled the first one properly,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine.), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “There are some people that if Biden walked out, woke up in the morning and walked across the Potomac River, they'd say, ‘Biden can't swim.’”
Connor O'Brien contributed to this report.