Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Travis Huffstetler/Handout via Reuters
- Chinese spy balloons had crossed into the US at least three times under Trump, officials said.
- Trump and former defense officials said over the weekend they were not aware of this.
- But they weren’t aware because the Pentagon only found out after Trump left office, reports said.
China flew spy balloons over the US while Donald Trump was president, but nobody realized until after he left office, according to multiple reports.
After the US shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic on Saturday, senior defense officials said it had not been the first time there had been incursions like this in US airspace.
In a press briefing on Saturday, the officials said that other suspected Chinese surveillance balloons had crossed into the US at least three times during the Trump administration, and once earlier in the Biden administration.
Details of the incidents were not provided, though The Washington Post, citing US officials, reported that the earlier sightings had been near Texas, Florida, Hawaii, and Guam.
Two of these sightings, in Hawaii and Guam, have been reported previously, The Post said.
What set the previous balloon flights apart is that they were much shorter in duration, which may be why some of them went undetected at the time, a senior administration official told The Wall Street Journal.
The sightings were only discovered “after the prior administration left,” senior defense officials told both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
The comments come after Trump and ex-national security officials said they were not aware of spy balloons flying over the US during the former president’s administration.
“It never happened with us under the Trump administration and if it did, we would have shot it down immediately,” Trump told Fox News Digital on Sunday. “It’s disinformation.”
Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told CNN on Friday: “I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States. I would remember that for sure.”
It’s also unclear if balloons spotted during the Trump administration were shot down. A Pentagon spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican lawmakers have criticized the Biden administration for being too slow to shoot down the foreign object.
House Intelligence Chair Rep. Mike Turner told NBC News on Sunday: “I think this administration lacks urgency. There’s no excuses here.”
“This should have been taken down before it entered U.S. airspace when it was over Alaska,” Turner added.
The balloon was first seen flying over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on January 28, before it flew over Canada, and then over some intercontinental ballistic missile sites in Montana, the Pentagon said.
It was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet over the coast of Garden City, South Carolina, on Saturday.
The military is still working to collect the debris in the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s likely that pieces could wash ashore, officials in neighboring North Carolina said.
Last week, Pentagon leaders advised Biden against immediately shooting the balloon out of the sky due to safety concerns for civilians, a senior defense official told reporters on Thursday.
China admitted it owned the balloon, but claimed it was a weather instrument blown off-course, and not meant for spying.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.