Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) U.S. Sen. Steve Daines again called for a Congressional briefing on the Chinese spy balloon following a news report that confirmed the Biden administration intended to keep it a secret from Congress and the public.

Daines, a Montana Republican, said this weekend “the effort to cover up this incident is unacceptable,” citing an NBC News story.

“It is imperative that Congress get to the bottom of what happened, so it doesn’t happen again, and the administration needs to fulfill my request for a report on U.S. technology used aboard the spy balloon and present the findings to Congress and the American people,” Daines said.

In February 2023, Department of Defense officials confirmed a balloon from China was flying over the United States after a couple of photojournalists in Montana captured an image of a “suspicious” object in the sky over Billings.

The NBC story last week said the U.S. Air Force general in charge of defending the country’s airspace from invasion warned that China’s balloon program remains active, and the U.S. has failed to develop systems to quickly detect the devices and share information about them.

“It exposed significant gaps, long-range gaps, for us to be able to see potential threats to the homeland,” Gen. Glen VanHerck, also head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told NBC News. “I think that opened the eyes of a lot of people.”

The Biden administration shot down the balloon over the South Carolina coast so the debris wouldn’t harm people. Before being destroyed, it floated over the continental U.S. for about seven days, including over nuclear warhead sites in Montana.

The incident damaged the relationship between the U.S. and China, and Biden administration officials told NBC the political fallout was worse than the threat posed by the balloon.

U.S. officials initially declined to discuss whether the balloon could collect sensitive data, but the Wall Street Journal later reported a mashup of gear it contained could gather information. However, U.S. officials said data didn’t appear to have been transmitted back to China.

Daines and U.S. Sen Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, both have demanded more information from the Biden administration about the balloon, the reasons it was carrying American technology, and the Department of Defense’s response.

In February, Tester, chairperson of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, led a hearing where senators grilled Defense officials about the reason they had let the balloon fly over the U.S. for so long and its purpose and capabilities.

Daines gave a nod to one of the Billings photojournalists in his most recent criticisms of the Biden administration’s approach to national security and the balloon.

“I’m not sure which is worse: letting a spy balloon fly across the country or thinking the American people may not notice,” Daines said. “Thanks to our own Montana media, especially Larry Mayer who took the initial photographs, the American people became aware China was spying on us in plain sight.”

In November, in advance of President Joe Biden’s meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, Daines sent the FBI a letter with demands. In it, he called on the agency to brief Congress on its investigation into how China obtained and illegally deployed U.S. technology, “evading both the law and spirit of U.S. military end-use export restrictions.”

Tuesday, the FBI confirmed it received the letter but did not answer questions from the Daily Montanan, including the status of any public briefing.

Ahead of that same meeting, Tester also expressed concern about aggression from China and urged the president to be firm with the Chinese leader.

“The United States must be clear that our nation will not tolerate surveillance efforts like the Chinese spy balloon incident, online misinformation campaigns through TikTok, or any other conduct that is designed to undermine our democracy,” Tester said in his November letter to Biden. “There is no doubt that China is seeking to replace the United States as the leading world power and will use any tactic to achieve this end goal.”

An expert on China and senior fellow with the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana earlier told the Daily Montanan the U.S. and China are likely each other’s No. 1 espionage targets.

Last week, Reuters projected the political strife between China and the U.S. will spill into 2024, including with presidential elections in both Taiwan and the U.S.

In his reaction this weekend to the NBC story, Daines reiterated his request for answers to questions he sent to the FBI last month.

“The spy balloon incident was a national embarrassment, and the United States must repair its image around the world — starting with projecting strength, not weakness,” Daines wrote.