Inside Biden’s decision to ‘take care of’ the Chinese spy balloon that triggered a diplomatic crisis

The massive white orb, carrying aloft a payload the size of three coach buses, had already been floating in and out of American airspace for three days before it created enough concern for Biden’s top general to brief him, according to two US officials.

By then, however, it was both too early and too late. After flying over swaths of sparsely populated land, it was now projected to keep drifting over American cities and towns. The debris from the balloon could endanger lives on the ground, his top military brass told him.

Its arrival had gone unnoticed by the public as it floated eastward over Alaska – where it was first detected by North American Aerospace Defense Command on January 28 – toward Canada. NORAD continued to track and assess the balloon’s path and activities, but military officials assigned little importance to the intrusion into American airspace, having often witnessed Chinese spy balloons slip into the skies above the United States. At the time, the balloon was not assessed to be an intelligence risk or physical threat, officials say.

When President Joe Biden learned a likely Chinese spy balloon was drifting through the stratosphere 60,000 feet above Montana, his first inclination was to take it down.

It would take seven days from when the balloon first entered US airspace before an F-22 fighter jet fired a heat-seeking missile into the balloon on the opposite end of the country, sending its equipment and machinery tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean.

The balloon’s week-long American journey, from the remote Aleutian Islands to the Carolina coast, left a wake of shattered diplomacy, furious reprisals from Biden’s political rivals and a preview of a new era of escalating military strain between the world’s two largest economies.

It’s also raised questions about why it wasn’t shot down sooner and what information, if any, it scooped up along its path.

What was meant to be a high-profile moment of statesmanship -as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepared to travel to China instead transformed into a televised standoff, testing Biden’s resolve at a new moment of reckoning with China. As Navy divers and FBI investigators sort through the tangle of equipment and technology that tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, Biden and his team must also piece together what the episode means for the broader relationship with Beijing.

Minutes after the balloon was shot down at his order, a reporter asked Biden what message his decision sent to China. He looked on silently before stepping into his SUV.

As its wreckage tumbled toward the Atlantic Ocean, Biden was on the phone with his national security team on Air Force One.

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