Feb 6, 2023

The (alleged) Chinese spy balloon.

The moment after an alleged spy balloon was shot down. Image: LIVENOW from Fox / YouTube
The moment after an alleged spy balloon was shot down. Image: LIVENOW from Fox / YouTube 

Were we right to shoot it down? And now what?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the Chinese spy balloon that the U.S. shot down off the coast of South Carolina. Plus, a question about my interview with the "Keep Nine" guys and a poll to vote on The Extras section. 

Quick hits.

  1. The House voted along party lines to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from the Foreign Affairs Committee, citing her comments about Israel. (The vote)
  2. A new primary calendar was approved by the Democratic party that will make South Carolina the first state to vote, supplanting Iowa. (The calendar)
  3. Newly elected Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will deliver the Republicans' response to President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday night. (The address)
  4. The United States economy added 517,000 nonfarm jobs in January, far exceeding economists' estimates of 187,000 and the figure from December's jobs report of 260,000 new hires. The unemployment rate is now 3.4%, its lowest since May of 1969. (The numbers)
  5. Turkey and northern Syria were hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake just hours later. More than 1,900 deaths and 7,300 injuries have been reported. (The quakes)

Today's topic.

The Chinese balloon. On Saturday, a United States military fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean, about six nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina. The balloon had entered U.S. airspace nearly a week before, garnering national attention from citizens, news media, and the U.S. military alike.

President Joe Biden said he ordered the military to take the balloon down on Wednesday, but Pentagon officials warned the debris from the balloon — which was reportedly the size of about three buses — could have injured or killed Americans after falling thousands of feet from the sky. The debris from the eventual strike spread out across seven miles of ocean and landed in shallow water, and the U.S. military hopes to collect and analyze the remains. While several fighter jets and refueling aircraft were mobilized, just one — an F-22 — took the shot, hitting the balloon with an AIM-9x supersonic heat-seeking missile.

China has maintained that the balloon was used only for meteorological and other scientific purposes, had accidentally drifted into U.S. territory, and condemned the decision to shoot it down. The U.S. has dismissed those claims uniformly, saying the airship was being used to collect data and information for spying.

The balloon first entered U.S. airspace on January 28, by passing into Alaska, before drifting into Canada and then re-entering U.S. airspace on January 31 over northern Idaho. Then it was spotted on Wednesday over Montana, which has fields of nuclear missile silos at the Malmstrom Air Force Base. Citizens began taking videos and photographs of the balloon, and speculation about it spread rapidly on social media, but U.S. officials did not publicly acknowledge its existence until Thursday.

Chinese balloons have been spotted across the globe, and defense officials in the Biden administration claimed these incursions also happened during former President Trump's time in office, though Trump and a group of his senior administration officials denied that. Fox News reported that there was a downed spy balloon in Hawaii just four months ago. Pentagon officials also assessed there was a second balloon currently traversing Latin America. On Saturday, the Colombian military said it had spotted a balloon flying 55,000 feet above the country, but did not identify its origin.

The U.S. and China regularly leverage surveillance technologies, airships, low-orbit satellites and human intelligence to conduct espionage on one another, but U.S. officials framed this particular incident as a brazen violation of U.S. airspace. In 2001, an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter collided about 70 miles off the coast of China’s Hainan island, prompting both sides to promise better communication about such activities. Balloons, unlike satellites, are equipped with high tech sensors that can pick up radio, cellular and other transmissions not detectable from space. In his 2013 leaks to the press, Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) regularly targets China, breaking into Huawei networks and tracking the movements of Chinese leaders.

Some Republicans criticized the Biden administration for not shooting the balloon down sooner.

“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.

The downing of the balloon comes at an already tense time for U.S.-China relations, which have been strained by trade battles, technological competition, and the future of Taiwan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was scheduled to travel to China for a state visit last weekend, postponed his planned trip because of the drama surrounding the alleged spy balloon.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left to the episode, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left criticizes China for the incursion, but supported Biden's decision to wait to shoot the balloon down.
  • Some worry about the state of U.S.-China relations, and urge both sides to come together and talk.
  • Others call on China to apologize for what was obviously a brazen espionage mission.

In Bloomberg, Minxin Pei said China must repair the damage from this incident.

"The brouhaha shows exactly why the US and China must find some new equilibrium in their relationship," Pei wrote. "Their strategic competition has become dangerously militarized, as illustrated by the accelerated expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal, the recent agreement for the Pentagon to position US military assets in the Philippines, and a US Air Force general’s alarming prediction of war in 2025. The risk of an accidental clash is growing. In recent years, as the US has increased the frequency of its “freedom of navigation operations” and reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea, the Chinese military has responded with aggressive and unsafe intercepts. Meanwhile, Chinese attempts to intimidate Taiwan, including by sending a large number of fighters and bombers across the median line separating the island from the mainland, could easily spark a shooting war that could drag in the US.

"China’s initial expressions of regret, not to mention its claim that the balloon was conducting climate research and was blown off course by strong winds, are scarcely believable," Pei said. "If that had been the case, Chinese officials could have notified the US and Canadian governments as soon as the balloon supposedly went astray. At a minimum, Chinese leaders must conduct a credible investigation into the incident and punish those responsible for the balloon’s course, as well as those who should have informed the US in a timely fashion. China also should issue a stronger apology to the US and Canada, either publicly or through high-level diplomatic channels. If Xi is sincere in his regrets, he should call President Joe Biden to underscore his commitment to a more stable relationship with the US."

The Observer's editorial board said the "hawks" need to resume talks quickly before they bring the world to war.

"This incident says a lot, none of it good, about the jittery state of US-China relations," the board said. "The world’s two most powerful countries are at loggerheads over numerous issues, big and small. When the balloon went up, mutual trust, cool heads and timely communication were woefully lacking. This is not funny at all. The decision by Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, to postpone an ice-breaking weekend visit to Beijing is regrettable. But, given the opportunistic yet potent anti-China furore that has blown up on the American right, calm, sensible dialogue might have proved impossible.

"Unforeseen crises of this sort vividly demonstrate why resumed talks to foster improved mutual understanding are essential," it added. "The context is growing global competition, some call it confrontation, between Washington and Beijing. Donald Trump’s presidency took relations to a new low, with numerous rows over trade, US sanctions, spying and security. President Xi Jinping’s aggressive posture, including on Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Xinjiang, is just as much to blame. Amid a military buildup on both sides, hawks have begun to suggest that war is inevitable... Washington and Beijing should treat the wandering balloon as a warning from on high – and quickly find better ways to get along."

In The Atlantic, Juliette Kayyem wrote about why the U.S. didn't initially shoot the balloon down.

"The revelation [of the balloon] immediately produced a chorus of armchair analysts and GOP politicians insisting that President Joe Biden was weak in the face of a clearly aggressive action by the Chinese," Kayyem wrote. "Some insisted that former President Donald Trump would never have allowed such a violation of American borders. Many commentators wanted the U.S. to do something—anything. I’m no military expert, but I understand gravity. A surveillance balloon isn’t really a balloon; it likely has metal frames and carries electronic gear, and contains gases and other chemicals. These potentially dangerous materials will not reliably burn up when entering the Earth’s atmosphere, because they are already in the Earth’s atmosphere. Although the balloon lingers somewhere above where passenger jets normally fly, it is in American airspace—which is to say, the American homeland.

"Homeland-security threats demand different responses than national-security threats," she wrote. "Blowing up an adversary’s airborne surveillance equipment over Montana, or even scrambling to capture it, involves different logistical and legal calculations than doing so in an active theater of war. Montana residents probably wouldn’t appreciate stuff spilling from the sky. Falling debris could maim or even kill Americans on the ground. Personal and property damage would occur. Kinetic action in a situation like this has a cost borne not by another country or its citizens, but by ours... But even if Beijing is gathering information it couldn’t otherwise get from satellites—balloons, after all, can hover over particular facilities, perhaps including nuclear-missile launch sites in Montana—the U.S. goal is to make China stop doing that while avoiding harm to Americans."

What the right is saying.

  • The right criticizes Biden for not taking the balloon down earlier, and worries about the brazenness of China’s actions.
  • Some call out the numerous questions that the Biden administration has yet to answer on the balloon's incursion into U.S. airspace.
  • Others warn that China will continue to spy on Americans, and this should be a wake-up call for everyone.

Before the balloon was downed, The Washington Examiner editorial board conceded that shooting it down over land was not a good option but called Biden's response lethargic.

"His first failure is failing to condemn China for the incursion. The balloon is not, as Beijing ludicrously claims, a meteorological monitoring device. It is a spy platform designed to provide high-fidelity imagery of our country's possessions," the board said. "On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally announced he was delaying a trip to China. A State Department official explained that the United States had 'noted the [People's Republic of China's] statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law.' Why equivocate? Why bother with China's insincere regret? Why hasn't U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns been recalled from Beijing for consultations? That would be an appropriate response to this outrage. A cursory summoning of a Chinese diplomat to the State Department doesn't cut it.

"Through weakness, the Biden administration has undermined significant recent foreign policy successes it had achieved against China," they added. "Those successes suggested Biden might be serious about confronting the unique challenge Beijing poses to U.S. security and the democratic international order. Now the commander in chief hides as a Chinese spy balloon floats across sovereign American airspace... Why hasn't Biden at least spoken out against China's affront? Chinese fighter jets harass U.S. spy planes in international airspace, so why does the U.S. tolerate China's sustained intelligence harassment in our airspace? The U.S. may be preparing to destroy the balloon once it is over water. But that is little comfort. The public is shocked that our most powerful adversary is sauntering through U.S. airspace with impunity."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board raised many questions arising from the incident.

"The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reports an unintentionally amusing Pentagon claim that shooting down the balloon at 60,000 feet would have endangered 2,000 people in Montana. Not 2,500? How could anyone know such a specific number?" the board asked. "In any case, the balloon entered Alaskan airspace days earlier. Was there no safe place to down the balloon in that vast and sparsely populated state? Let’s hope Navy divers can recover the balloon’s intelligence-gathering equipment intact. Another question is when the Administration first spotted the balloon crossing into U.S. airspace. Sensors should be able to detect an air intruder, even one flying quietly at 60,000 feet, and if they failed to do so the public should know about this hole in our defenses.

"Other questions for the White House include whether and when it raised the balloon issue with Beijing, and how the Chinese responded," the board said. "Did they lie to U.S. officials the way their foreign ministry lied to the world on Friday in calling the balloon merely a 'civilian airship' doing mainly 'meteorological' data collection? Media reports say the White House kept its knowledge of the balloon under wraps until it was spotted by civilians on the ground, which made disclosure unavoidable. It’s fair to wonder if the Administration hoped the balloon would cross the U.S. into the Atlantic without public notice. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit Beijing this week in a high-stakes attempt to put U.S.-China relations on a less contentious footing. So much for that."

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) said the incident has "drastically changed" Americans' sense of security.

"As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and Intelligence Committee, I can tell you the United States has been under an espionage assault from China for years, but much of it has been behind the scenes. They didn’t need to send a balloon given their rapidly expanding constellation of spy satellites. But I’m glad they did. It was a very visible symbol of what so many of us have been ringing the alarm bells about for years. But, until last week, the magnitude and sheer scale of the Chinese operations were often cleverly hidden behind the scenes. In fact, FBI Director Chris Wray testified before Congress last year that the bureau was opening counterintelligence investigations into China every 12 hours.

“The CCP is spreading its espionage efforts throughout our agriculture industry, education systems, TikTok, Wall Street, and much more,” he added. “With this spy balloon, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping wanted to dare the Biden administration to do something about it. Instead, our government dithered. Xi tested the political will to respond and we failed. The Washington Post reported that China has deployed similar balloons in the past over Hawaii and Gaum. Clearly Beijing deployed one over our ICBM fields in the US mainland because they believed they could get away with it... China has a plan for global dominance and is executing it with little pushback from our government. Had Biden wanted to send a real message to Beijing, they should have rerouted Blinken’s trip from Beijing to Taipei.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • They made the right choice to wait, and it is clearly a spy balloon.
  • I'm not sure how big of a deal any of this really is — it's just us seeing the things we usually don't.
  • The real story will be how Blinken and the U.S. proceed once this meeting in China inevitably happens.

Well, we all learned a lot about espionage and spy balloons this week.

A few obvious points to get out of the way: Yes, I think it is a "spy" balloon. China's explanation was laughably unconvincing, much like the United States' explanations are when we’re caught in similar positions. No, shooting the thing down over land was not a good option, as evidenced by the reported seven mile debris field we saw after it got shot down over the ocean. And yes, both countries have long been routinely participating in these kinds of spying operations.

But there is something about the whole episode, to me, that feels like something went amiss. Sebastian Mallaby did a nice job documenting all the ways the U.S. has notched foreign policy wins over China in the last few years, and made a strong case that — given its successive losses on the global stage — Chinese officials are probably interested in thawing things out with their American counterparts right now. Even the reliably conservative Washington Examiner editorial board referenced Biden's "significant recent foreign policy successes achieved against China." So why would China do something like this now, just days ahead of a Secretary of State visit intended to bring things back to an even keel?

Perhaps it was an honest mistake, though not one of a weather balloon. Maybe it was a low-ranking intelligence officer’s mistake, a miscommunication, or something else. I doubt we'll get much clarity soon, as China seems committed to their largely unconvincing storyline. If it was intended as a provocation, it's hard to see why. The timing doesn't fit, and aside from creating a little bit of furor here in the states (which will be forgotten as soon as the next news cycle arrives), I'm not sure what China had to gain.

In the grand scheme of things I think this story is being blown wildly out of proportion. The United States has far more intrusive spying methods than hot air balloons, and they are active not just in China but across the globe. Any Americans not aware of the constant surveillance we and our adversaries (and allies) participate in may have just had their eyes opened, and it's easy to understand how the spectacle of an F-22 fighter jet shooting down a Chinese spy balloon could be so alarming.

But it’s important to me that cool-headed government officials don’t fall into the media trap of overreaction. Demands to recall ambassadors or further isolate ourselves are a major overreaction to a rather ordinary event — albeit one with much more public spectacle than usual. I imagine Blinken will simply reschedule his visit to China, China will continue to apologize, we'll keep spying on each other and everyone will move on.

The real question is how we will move on. We’ve had success in allying nations like India, Japan and Australia against China militarily; committing to an onslaught of trade and technology policies designed to weaken China's aims for global leadership; and have continued to put out signs of military support for Taiwan. How an event like this could alter the current diplomatic state of play is where the real meat of this story is. Secretary Blinken was presumably going to address these positions on his trip to China, but now we'll anxiously await that visit, and what comes of it, whenever he follows through.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I just listened to your “Keep Nine” interview. For someone who has done such a great job at being balanced in your reporting, I felt that this was a true low point. While I neither agree nor disagree with the “Keep Nine” position, the number of logical fallacies that you failed to offer even token resistance to was unfortunate. I was also disappointed that you waited so long to state your own position on the subject.

— ZJ from Portland, Oregon

Tangle: A few readers wrote in with similar reactions about this interview. To be clear, my ideal situation for Tangle interviews is to bring folks from opposing sides of issues together for a conversation. But, both because of logistical challenges and the unfortunate regularity with which people refuse to participate in that format, I haven't been able to do that. People just don't trust a news outlet they haven't heard of, and a lot of folks still haven't heard of Tangle.

Still, I have interviewed a lot of people with very partisan views on the Tangle podcast (on issues like abortion, third parties, and renewable energy, among others). My goal in these shows is not the same as it is when interviewing someone for a story or when I am being interviewed. It is not to press them, to argue, or to use my time asking questions to put forward my own opinion — it's to give them a chance to make their case to my listeners. Obviously, I feel a responsibility to make sure my listeners are getting accurate information, and I also ask questions I think they might ask themselves. This is why I often include editor's notes in transcriptions and challenge certain arguments in real time on the podcast.

In this case, what I found interesting was that I went into the interview agreeing with my guests that it would be reasonable to pass an amendment to lock in nine justices on the Supreme Court. But, like many Tangle readers, I didn't find their arguments particularly persuasive, and I actually left the interview less sure about how I felt.

Rather than being a failed interview, I think this was actually the format working as intended. If I can get real answers from people, readers and listeners can judge for themselves whether those arguments are compelling or not. Unlike the daily Tangle newsletters, we are not trying to make these conversations non-partisan or balanced. On the contrary, we're seeking out interesting guests and giving them a chance to discuss their passion.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

On Friday, the Agriculture Department proposed new nutrition standards for school meals, imposing limits on added sugar in school lunches for the first time. The proposal is aimed at reducing sodium levels and emphasizing whole-grain products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 20% of all children and adolescents are obese, and this proposal is meant to address that. Starting in 2024, cafeterias will be asked to offer products that are primarily whole grain, and in 2025 would implement limits on high-sugar products like yogurt, cereal, and chocolate milk. The proposal also reduces the weekly sodium limit for lunch and breakfast by 10%. NBC News has the story.


  • 47%. In 2017, the percentage of Americans who had an unfavorable view of China, according to Pew.
  • 82%. In 2022, the percentage of Americans who had an unfavorable view of China.
  • 37%. The percentage of Democrats in an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll who said they want Biden to seek a second term.
  • 52%. The percentage of Democrats in an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll who said they want Biden to seek a second term just weeks before last year's midterms.
  • 31%. The percentage of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents who said the party should renominate Biden, according to an ABC News poll.
  • 58%. The percentage of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents who said the party should find someone new, according to an ABC News poll.
  • 44%. The percentage of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who said they want Trump to run in 2024, according to an ABC News poll.

Have a nice day.

Thirteen years ago, a Canadian news outlet called SooToday ran a story about two young sisters who had emptied their piggy banks for people in Haiti. The sisters, Juliette and Sophie Lamour, were just five and two-and-a-half years old at the time. They had heard about efforts to raise money after an earthquake hit Haiti, and donated their shared piggy bank. Juliette Lamour, that philanthropic five-year-old girl, is now 18, and she just became $48 million richer. Lamour won the jackpot in Canada’s lottery, one of the largest ever, on the first ticket she ever bought. SooToday has the story.

The extras.

  • One year ago today: We didn't have an edition on February 6, 2022, but we had just published this (subscribers only) piece on how Biden could improve his approval rating.
  • The most clicked links in Thursday's newsletter: My favorite music to listen to while I work.
  • Hello, Nikki: 36.3% of Tangle readers said they'd vote for Nikki Haley if they had to pick one current Republican option for president. That's the most of any candidate (Ron DeSantis, with 32.9%, was second).
  • Nothing to do with politics: The scary near-miss at the Austin airport.
  • Today's poll: Should "The Extras" section appear before or after the "Have a nice day" section? Let us know.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.