It’s not every day that a gigantic, self-propelled Chinese surveillance balloon traverses the continental United States, becoming a source of national curiosity and scandal before a Sidewinder missile shoots it out of the sky. The Biden administration improvised its way through the crisis, leaving behind a variety of contradictory statements and unanswered questions in its wake. Before anyone makes any more sudden movements, those questions need to be answered.

At the start of the crisis, the media devoted outsize attention to the balloon’s capabilities. Though this was the least urgent matter before policymakers, it was clearly in the Biden administration’s comfort zone, given how often they directed reporters back to the balloon’s technical specs.

Was it free-floating, or could it change course? Was it an intelligence-gathering instrument? If so, why would a state that operates a sophisticated assortment of orbital reconnaissance satellites deploy this relatively crude alternative? Was the balloon actively gathering intelligence and returning it to China, or had American officials successfully jammed its communications while it assessed its capabilities?

We have since been provided with partial answers to these questions. Perhaps anything more detailed is and should be unavailable to civilians. But that justifiable ambiguity distracts from geopolitical concerns, which are more important.

The balloon over North America was one of two simultaneous unmanned incursions into continental American airspace. The second traveled over Central America. Is it likely that China lost control over two harmless weather balloons that just happened to menace America’s continental defenses? Is it likely that these two airships, which typically fly at altitudes outside the range of the naked eye, descended to observable altitudes as a result of accidents?

If all that strains credulity, was this a deliberate provocation by China? Was Beijing seeking to test America’s response to a potentially hostile incursion? Was it a test of U.S. defense capabilities? Was it designed to provide Beijing with a pretextual justification to ratchet up tensions in its neighborhood?

Initially, the Defense Department downplayed the significance of the balloon. While this incursion was “completely out of the ordinary,” one Pentagon official told Politico, the military tracks “hundreds” of balloons on a daily basis, and they are typically harmless. But the dangers were rendered unequivocal when an F-22 fighter jet blew the thing out of the sky. We subsequently learned that the president ordered that action last Wednesday, but the mission was delayed until the balloon had drifted off the coast of South Carolina to ensure that no Americans would be harmed by falling debris.

Whether the device itself was a threat or not, we can safely conclude that the U.S. regards the incursion as a hostile act since it was met with force. But why, then, was this assessment delayed so long? The balloon that traveled the continental U.S. was detected over Alaska’s Aleutian islands first on January 28—not a heavily populated area—and it engaged in “almost loitering” flight over Canada before entering U.S. airspace over Idaho. What delayed the decision to neutralize this device over sparsely populated terrain?

And why were these assessments left to Western intelligence officials alone? According to the New York Times, even 22 years after a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off the coast of Hainan Island, deconfliction channels between Beijing and Washington are unreliable. Why was Beijing mum about this episode until it became public? Have Sino-U.S. communications channels atrophied to a dangerous degree? Were Chinese political officials aware of this operation, or were elements of the People’s Liberation Army freelancing?

Slightly less urgent but no less confusing are questions surrounding the domestic political considerations to which the White House appeared sensitive throughout this episode.

The balloon’s existence was first revealed by the Billings Gazette when an intrepid photographer looked up after the airspace around that Montana city was closed unexpectedly. Was the administration’s hand forced by the newspaper, according to Bloomberg News, because they didn’t want to scuttle Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s now postponed trip to China? Did they really just hope no one would notice?

Biden administration allies have tried to defuse the political headaches arising from this incursion by insisting that it was unremarkable. After all, Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloons entered U.S. airspace during the Trump administration, too—a claim Trump administration officials deny. As a political matter, this was only ever a non-sequitur. Nothing comparable to this weekend’s events happened before, obviously, or it would have been a national scandal comparable to this one.

But when this claim was investigated further by the Wall Street Journal, Biden administration officials conceded that their predecessors would not have known about those earlier incursions. These were sophisticated operations, and U.S. analysts only became aware of them in retrospect. So, was that a failure of military intelligence? Why were Donald Trump and his national-security team not briefed on the matter? How vulnerable is American airspace to undetectable incursions right now?

To even ask these questions is to divert attention away from an even more pressing political conundrum: Why did the Biden administration and its allies seek political cover at all? If the balloon was a threat—a question that the fireball over the Carolina coast satisfyingly answered—why would the administration attempt to first ignore and downplay its existence only to pivot to blame-shifting partisan narratives when that doomed strategy failed? All this only saps the public of trust in the administration when it needs it most.

In lieu of answers to these questions, we are privy to tweets featuring members of the august upper chamber of Congress aiming rifles at the sky and calling anyone concerned about the violation of U.S. sovereignty by an aggressive foreign power “bedwetters.” The GOP-controlled House is considering a resolution that would condemn the Biden administration’s handling of the affair before we know how they handled it. The Biden White House invited this flippancy and political posturing, but lawmakers shouldn’t take the bait. This is a serious moment. It’d be nice if we had some serious people in government capable of navigating it.

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