‘Unacceptable’: White House offers little information as lawmakers and public ask for answers about objects shot from sky

1 month ago NBC News

There are many theories but precious few answers after the U.S. downed three unidentified airborne objects in as many days over the weekend.

Now the White House — under fire for a lack of transparency over the incursions — must contend with frustrated lawmakers and a mystified public, amid the Biden administration’s failure to launch a coherent communications strategy about the shootdowns.

“In times of uncertainty, leaders need to be as transparent as possible with the public,” Larry Hogan, the former Republican governor from Maryland, tweeted Monday. “After shooting down three airborne objects, President Biden needs to communicate directly with the nation about what we know and what we don’t.”

With fighter jets downing unknown objects over U.S. territory, the White House has revealed little about what precisely is happening and whether the country is under threat. Are the objects harmless weather balloons or spy craft sent by foreign powers bent on doing Americans harm? President Joe Biden hasn’t said. In the absence of hard facts, uninformed speculation is filling the information vacuum, including whether the objects are visiting space aliens.

At one point, a U.S. Air Force general refused to even rule out that far-fetched possibility, though White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre clarified the question on Monday.

"There is no, again, no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns," she said.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby appeared at Monday's White House briefing to discuss the issue. He said that the three most recent objects did not pose a threat to people on the ground, did not send any communication signals and did not have any maneuverability or propulsion capabilities.

The objects did, however, fly at altitudes that could "pose a threat to civilian commercial air traffic" which led to the president giving the order to shoot them down, he said.

"Efforts are actively underway right now at all sites to find what is left of those objects so that we can better understand and communicate with the American people what they are," Kirby told reporters, emphasizing the challenge to recover the objects from the rural terrain in Alaska and Canada and the bottom of Lake Huron.

Kirby also announced a new interagency team dedicated to studying the objects and future related policy, but he did not offer specifics about the objects themselves as confusion and frustration over the communication about the U.S. military firing multiple missiles in American and Canadian airspace over the weekend lingers.

With a U.S. military pilot shooting down a fourth object on Sunday afternoon, the White House has not seemed set on its message about what was shot down, who from the government should communicate about it, why there appear to be more unidentified objects, who they might belong to, what threat they pose or whether decision-making over shooting down such items has changed.

Kirby noted on Monday what two U.S. defense officials previously told NBC News: the military is using a wider range of radar data to monitor North American airspace since the Chinese spy balloon was spotted, and they’re taking deeper looks at a larger number of objects that they might have filtered out in the past. 

Monday’s press briefing arrived after a weekend filled with news about additional objects being shot down in North American airspace and few details.

After an unidentified object was shot down off the coast of northeastern Alaska on Friday, Biden gave a one-word answer in response to a question from the press — “Success." Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made public Saturday’s shootdown over the Yukon, though it was a U.S. F-22 that destroyed the object.

Jean-Pierre said on Sunday morning the public should understand that the administration intends to “detect and we’re always going to defend our airspace,” but she gave little insight into new standards or processes to do that — nor did she identify what the objects were.

The absence of information grew even more apparent when the fourth object was shot down over Lake Huron hours before the Super Bowl began on Sunday. Despite inquiries, White House communications remained largely quiet, a posture that has allowed conspiracy theories to fester.

National security officials have declined to identify the three most recent objects as balloons, their owners or their function, whether that be weather monitoring or surveillance by foreign actors. Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, however, that intelligence officials believe that the second and third items were also balloons.

Many of the questions directed to the White House have been redirected to the Pentagon, as the Biden administration takes a guarded approach when it comes to inconvenient or untimely developments that distract from its larger message that the nation is making steady progress under a seasoned president. The White House used much the same playbook when it came to the classified documents found in Biden’s home and private office. Only when confronted with press reports that documents were found did the White House acknowledge that Biden had retained classified material that should have been turned over to federal archivists.
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