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Information trickles out about downing of flying objects

‘They’re not from outer space,’ Sen. Thom Tillis says after all-senators classified briefing

Sen. Jim Risch arrives Tuesday for a classified briefing on unidentified objects shot down by the military. He said afterward that the objects were flying in a high-altitude band that hadn’t previously drawn much attention from the world’s militaries.
Sen. Jim Risch arrives Tuesday for a classified briefing on unidentified objects shot down by the military. He said afterward that the objects were flying in a high-altitude band that hadn’t previously drawn much attention from the world’s militaries. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Biden administration is still piecing together the origins of three mysterious flying objects that were shot down by fighter jets over U.S. and Canadian airspace in recent days, the latest in a saga that began with the downing of a high-altitude Chinese spy balloon that had traversed the country earlier this month. 

Information about the three objects, which unlike the Chinese spy craft have not been identified as “balloons,” has slowly trickled out from the administration and lawmakers.

“They’re not from outer space,” North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who served on the Armed Services Committee during the previous Congress, told reporters on Tuesday after emerging from an all-senators classified briefing. “We didn’t kill E.T.,” quipped Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another former member of the Armed Services panel who now serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. 

No debris from the objects has been retrieved yet, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who said the remote locations of the debris fields and “tough” weather conditions have hampered recovery efforts. 

The first of the three was shot down near Deadhorse, Alaska, on Friday, then a second over the Canadian Yukon on Saturday. The final object was destroyed over Lake Huron on Sunday.

Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that all three objects were “small, smaller than a car,” and that one of the objects was carrying “a payload.” 

But Kirby said the administration has not seen any indication that the objects were part of China’s spy balloon program, or that they were involved in external intelligence collections efforts. A possible explanation, he said, is the objects are benign, and tied to research or commercial entities. 

The objects, which were flying at altitudes that could have posed a threat to commercial aircraft, officials said, were downed using F-22 and F-16 fighter jets that fired Sidewinder missiles — supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air munitions. 

One such missile fired by a jet over Lake Huron missed its target, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Mark Milley said Tuesday, and “landed harmlessly in the water” after being tracked “all the way down” by officials. 

Though unidentified objects floating in U.S. airspace are not necessarily unusual — the Pentagon reported hundreds of UFO sightings in 2022 alone — the downing of the Chinese surveillance balloon prompted U.S. officials to renew their focus on the floating phenomena. 

“They probably have better situational awareness now,” said Tillis. “We had no situational awareness a month ago.”

Risch agreed with that assessment. 

“We have really good eyes on everything that happens up to about 60,000 feet. We have really good eyes on things that happen in near space orbits or even further out space orbits. This [high-altitude area where the objects were flying] has not been focused on by the militaries around the world for a long time. And now it’s just starting over recent years, so there’s going to be more and more work done in that area,” Risch said. 

The Biden administration, by the end of the week, expects to have new parameters for deciding how such objects will be treated in terms of air defense, Kirby said, referencing an effort announced on Monday to review how such instances are handled. 

But some lawmakers expressed frustration at the administration’s timidity in releasing information. 

“Frankly, I would argue 95 percent of what we heard in [the classified briefing] could be made available to the American people without compromising security,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. 

Armed Services Committee member Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who said he has been in close contact with military officials regarding the object shot down near Deadhorse, said he is pushing the White House to be more transparent. 

“When you don’t provide information, and there’s a dearth of information, it can lead to wild speculation — it can lead to unfounded fears,” Sullivan said. 

Briana Reilly and John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.

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