Trump’s Intelligence Community Knew About Suspicious Balloons In US Airspace

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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A small group of Pentagon intelligence officials under former President Donald Trump were aware of suspicious objects invading U.S. airspace but did not reach definitive conclusions and never reported the incidents to the White House, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing former U.S. government officials.

Revelations could explain how the Department of Defense (DOD) under President Joe Biden tracked sightings of what are now assessed as Chinese spy balloons back to the Trump administration, a claim former high level Trump officials have disputed or denied. While some officials under Trump suspected China had fielded the flying objects, the assessment, reached in the summer of 2020, was inconclusive and therefore not shared widely across the U.S. government, the former officials told the WSJ.

The intelligence “never got to be assertive,” one of the officials told the WSJ. As a result, the Pentagon’s intelligence agency could not attribute the objects to a Chinese spying program. (RELATED: The Chinese Spy Balloon May Have Accidentally Flown Over The US Mainland. GOP Lawmakers Say It Doesn’t Matter)

Intelligence analysts suspected China had been using the balloons to test radar jamming technology over sensitive U.S. military sites, the WSJ reported.

However, those objects, now thought to be balloons, were much smaller, flew at lower altitudes and logged fewer flight hours than the known Chinese surveillance balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina, the officials told the WSJ.

The Pentagon detected aerial objects over U.S. Navy installations in Coronado, California, Norfolk, Virginia and Guam, the officials told the outlet. In addition, unlike the latest known incident, where the Chinese surveillance airship floated across the entire North American continent from Alaska to South Carolina, these suspected balloons hovered over U.S. territory only briefly.

Numerous DOD sources and intelligence assets collected data on the balloon overflights, the officials told the WSJ. However, agencies are not mandated to share that kind of specialized information and often do not, they added.

Mark Esper, a former secretary of defense under Trump, previously told the WSJ he did not recall receiving a briefing on the unidentified aerial objects.

Biden administration defense officials said the Pentagon had retroactively identified balloons that transited sensitive U.S. sites under the Trump administration and associated them with a broader Chinese surveillance program. At the time, however, the balloons entered U.S. airspace undetected, they said.

A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to the WSJ that DOD analysts were aware of the possible balloons and had been tracking incidents but never divulged the intelligence to senior leadership.

The Biden administration’ Office of the Director of National Intelligence briefed former top Trump officials, including former national security advisers Robert O’Brien and John Bolton, former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Wednesday, the WSJ reported.

O’Brien told the WSJ the surveillance balloon downed on Feb. 4 exhibited notably distinct characteristics from prior sightings.

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