Did Chinese-Sent Surveillance Balloons Fly Over the US During Trump's Presidency?

Glen VanHerck, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said the flights went undetected by the military.

Published Feb. 7, 2023

 (Chase Doak/Wikimedia Commons)
Image courtesy of Chase Doak/Wikimedia Commons

On Feb. 4, 2023, the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had spent the prior week traversing the country. U.S. President Joe Biden accused the Chinese of using it to collect information on military sites. However, this did not appear to be the first time a Chinese balloon had been found over U.S. airspace.

Many of our readers asked us whether Chinese balloons flew over U.S. airspace during former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. The questions followed a Feb. 4 comment by an official with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in which he said, yes, such surveillance balloons had transited the U.S. on multiple occasions since 2016, as well as a remark by a top general two days later explaining how those past flights supposedly went undetected by the military.

In response to the claim that Chinese-sent balloons had traveled over American airspace during Trump's presidency (2017 - 2021), the former president authored a TruthSocial post denying the assertion. Former members of his administration followed suit in interviews with media outlets — adding that, if such vessels had indeed transited the U.S. during their time in office, they were not made aware of them.

"Unequivocally, I have never been briefed on the issue," Robert O'Brien, a former Trump adviser, told Fox News.

Here's what we know: In an off-camera, on-background press briefing that was published on DoD's website on Feb. 4, an unnamed senior military and senior defense official said Chinese-sent surveillance balloons had transited the U.S. "at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration." The full quote read:

[People's Republic of China] government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time. We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility. 

Rep. Michael Waltz, a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Post that defense officials made the disclosure — that is, that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace prior to the 2023 incident — to lawmakers for the first time on Feb. 4, the same day as the above-described briefing.

The following day, on Feb. 5, Axios reached out to the Pentagon to get more information, and an official said, "at this time we have nothing further to add beyond what was stated during [the above briefing]." 

On Feb. 6, a top general — Glen VanHerck, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) — said those past trips went undetected by the military, according to a DoD transcript. He said:

So those [previous] balloons, so every day as a NORAD commander it's my [responsibility] to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that's a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. But I don't want to go in further detail.

The intel community, after the fact, I believe has been briefed already, assess those threats to additional means of collection from additional means and made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America. I hope that answers your question.

We should note that the 2023 balloon flew over the U.S. for a longer duration of time compared to those past incidents, according to VanHerck.

During the Trump administration, previous balloons were found around Florida and Texas. Also, earlier in the Biden administration, another balloon was also detected, resulting in a total of five reported incidents involving suspected spy balloons over the last several years. According to the Washington Post, they were also spotted above Hawaii and Guam in previous incidents. 

As far as the balloons during Trump's presidency, according to Bloomberg, it was true that federal officials did not know key details about the trips until after Biden took office in January 2021.

Unnamed Trump-era officials told that news outlet they realized that certain unidentified vessels were Chinese-spy craft, but those conclusions took weeks to determine, often because the balloons had jamming systems that hid their intent. Trump was never presented with an opportunity to shoot the balloons down, Bloomberg reported.

"I don't ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States," former Trump administration Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN.

Following the discovery of the 2023 balloon, an unnamed Biden administration official told CNN that the intelligence community was willing to brief Trump administration officials about the Chinese-surveillance program — which the Biden administration believes has been used in numerous countries across five continents over the last several years.

But the 2023 balloon was unique, according to officials, because of the path it took from Canada and Alaska into the U.S. and how long it lingered over sensitive missile sites in Montana.  

The Chinese government has claimed the balloon was a civilian craft doing weather research that was accidentally blown off course.


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Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.