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Why Washington is crazy for Chinese balloons and UFOs

Congress just can’t get enough of unidentified aerial phenomena

A sign on the outskirts of Roswell, N.M., welcomes visitors in 2020. The military's downing of several unidentified objects has swamped the news of late.
A sign on the outskirts of Roswell, N.M., welcomes visitors in 2020. The military's downing of several unidentified objects has swamped the news of late. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For the better part of the last two weeks, Washington has been gripped by balloon fever, with symptoms including hot takes, gaseous emissions and alien hallucinations.

This collective obsession is driven in part by the performative aspects of international relations. No one was actually surprised that China was spying on the U.S. — it’s an open secret that nations spy on one another and China has satellites constantly looking down on us — but it’s de rigueur for a state to act outraged when that snooping stumbles into public view. 

News that three other unidentified objects were shot down over the weekend only added to the intense focus, even though the Pentagon reports hundreds of UFO sightings in any given year

The proliferation of unmanned missile fodder would be just another blip in the quickly churning news cycle — rather than the story of the month — if it weren’t for the confluence of elements that make it irresistible to politicians and political reporters alike. 

“The thing that would be shocking to me is if this story wasn’t taking off,” said Whitney Phillips, a professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. “It’s perfect in a lot of different directions.”

“It’s an amorphous story, too,” she added. “You could tell the narrative in a way that resonates with you and your politics.”

That’s perhaps most evident with Republicans hounding President Biden as feckless for not shooting the balloon down earlier, and Democrats responding by noting that these kinds of balloons went undetected when Donald Trump was in office. Depending on your politics, the response so far has either been prudent, or just the latest abrogation of American sovereignty and strength.  

The narrative around these objects is so nebulous in part because we don’t yet know much about them. The three other objects, shot down last weekend, were unidentified and described in vague terms: Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Tuesday that they were all “small, smaller than a car,” and that one carried “a payload.” 

That kind of mystery is catnip to political reporters, who usually just do covers of the same old tunes about partisan deadlock, said Phillips. And they jump at the chance to write a punny lede or make a joke about 99 red balloons going by (or bye, once they’re shot down). 

The idea of a high-tech spy balloon is oxymoronic — the hot air balloon is humanity’s oldest means of flight, predating the ratification of the U.S. Constitution by several years. Its primary propulsion comes from the prevailing winds. You don’t need James Bond to neutralize a spy balloon, just a good fan.

Senators got in on the jokes too. “We didn’t kill E.T.,” Lindsey Graham quipped, after an intelligence briefing Tuesday.

“Having the government kind of openly talk about UFOs, it lends itself to a comedic response because that’s weird,” Phillips said. “Things are funny when there’s some kind of juxtaposition that is unusual, or unexplainable.”

UFOs tickle the imagination in particular because of the implicit association with alien life. “UFOs are huge clickbait, that’s why they’re in the news all the time,” said Keith Kloor, a journalist and longtime critic of the media’s credulous embrace of the alien slant to UFO stories.

The first reports of flying saucers in the late 1940s became manna for science fiction writers in the ’50s. Movies weren’t far behind — “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was released in 1951.

Soon, sensationalist papers began to run with the alien angle to UFOs, replacing more sober-minded coverage that focused on U.S. or Soviet aviation experiments. Aliens have only gained cultural cachet since then, Kloor said.

In recent years, members of Congress have shared the UFO obsession with their constituents, but they’ve tried to tamp down the talk of aliens to focus on the risk that U.S. military technology might be falling behind that of other nations.  

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was particularly interested in UFOs. It was his urging that led to the Director of National Intelligence studying “unidentified aerial phenomena” and releasing a much-ballyhooed report in 2021. A House Intelligence subcommittee held a hearing on UAPs a year later. One member of Congress, Mike Garcia of California, was flying an F-18 when other naval aviators reported one of the more famous UFO sightings in 2004. “I’m intrigued by it. I don’t know that it’s extraterrestrial — I do believe it’s man-made,” he told Roll Call in 2021.

This concern — that America might be falling behind militarily — dovetails with another aspect of this story that explains its potency. The balloon came from China, which is increasingly being cast as the main competition in a new Cold War.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, America lost its unifying enemy, its justification for adventurism abroad and ever-growing military budgets. But in the last few years, China enthusiastically embraced that role. Rather than liberalizing as it embraced international trade as many expected, China under President Xi Jinping has done the opposite, oppressing Uyghurs, suppressing freedoms in Hong Kong, and taking a more militant stance toward Taiwan, all while allegedly stealing intellectual property from the West.

In response, U.S. concerns with China have grown. Last year, Congress authorized billions in semiconductor subsidies to re-shore production of the ubiquitous component in consumer (and military) products. This year, the House created a new Select Committee on China. 

Whether the threat from China is real or a continuation of American hysteria over communism (or both) is up for debate. But it’s clear that a Chinese angle lends any issue the drama of a conflict between the world’s two most powerful nations, complete with the existential risk of nuclear holocaust. 

Finally, it helped that this has been a relatively slow news week in Washington, with the House adjourned and the Senate still getting around to organizing itself. 

That doesn’t mean there weren’t events happening across the nation, of course. There was the slowly unfolding environmental disaster in Ohio, another mass shooting at a college in Michigan, and across the nation, thousands of Americans died from drug overdoses. But in Washington, tragic events like these have been accepted by inaction as the sad realities of American life. There’s nothing new to say about any of that.

Mark Satter contributed to this report.

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