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Senators downplay threats from unidentified objects, but call for more information

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks to reporters after the Senate classified briefing on the three unidentified objects shot down by the U.S. military over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron, in the Capitol on Tuesday, February 14, 2023.
Bill Clark
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CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks to reporters after the Senate classified briefing on the three unidentified objects shot down by the U.S. military over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron, in the Capitol on Tuesday, February 14, 2023.

After emerging from a classified briefing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, senators from both parties said the spate of unidentified floating objects shot down by U.S. jets in recent days do not pose an immediate threat to Americans, but many urged the Biden administration to share more information with the public.

Fighter jets shot down three slow-moving objects flying above North America over the weekend — one over Alaska's coast, one over Canada's Yukon territory, and one over Lake Huron. This comes about a week after the military shot down a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean.

U.S. officials are working to determine who launched the three unidentified objects and why, but say they did not pose a threat to people on the ground. Senators, who were briefed on the matter Tuesday, said the latest objects have not been recovered due to difficult terrain and inclement weather on the ground.

Many senators from both parties agree, Biden should release more information publicly

Since the initial balloon sighting, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for more transparency from the Biden administration. After Tuesday's classified briefing with intelligence officials, many senators urged the president to speak directly to the country to allay concerns.

"I have a better understanding, but the American people deserve and need to know more," said Sen. Blumenthal, D-Conn. "I am not in any way afraid that we are under a threat of attack or physical harm to our homeland. That's my personal feeling. But the American people need to be reassured with more facts."

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., head to a secure area as lawmakers and intelligence advisers arrive for a closed briefing on the unknown aerial objects the U.S. military shot down this weekend at the Capitol on Tuesday morning.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
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AP
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., head to a secure area as lawmakers and intelligence advisers arrive for a closed briefing on the unknown aerial objects the U.S. military shot down this weekend at the Capitol on Tuesday morning.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told reporters that U.S. officials don't have confirmation yet about any surveillance capabilities on the aerial objects, but added that, "they certainly didn't pose any kinetic threat to the United States."

While he said he didn't believe there were many more of these objects over the U.S., he conceded he doesn't know that for sure.

Murphy argued that since the objects were operating in civil aviation space and weren't registered with the FAA that was reason alone to make the case they needed to be taken down.

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton expressed concern that intelligence officials are providing "contradictory" explanations — that while they do not know the origin of the objects, they are confident they do not pose a threat.

"I appreciate the military coming to brief us, I appreciate the intelligence community briefing Congress in a classified setting. But Americans are worried, they're concerned, they're interested and they have a right to know why President Biden directed the actions that he did over the last week," he said.

"President Biden owes the American people an explanation. President Biden should speak on camera directly to the American people today."

Murphy pushed back against calls for Biden to address the nation saying that while he understood people want to hear from their commander in chief, "sometimes it's smart for the president of the United States to get some more information before he makes a statement."

GOP Sen. Thom Tillis from North Carolina told reporters he supported the administration's response so far and said it's a complex issue to sort out. "They've done a good job of getting our situational awareness to where it is today and we had no situational awareness a month ago," he said.

Tillis said the administration hasn't categorized what the objects are, but added, they were "not from outer space."

Sen. Marco Rubio, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence panel, stressed that unidentified objects over U.S. airspace is not new — but the strategy to shoot them down is. He also called on the Biden administration to share more information with the general public.

"Ninety-five percent of what was discussed in that room today could be made public without compromising the security of this country," he said. "The most important question we have to answer now is what are these things? Who sent them here? And what are they doing here?"

The White House says it will take time to recover and examine the objects

Some Democrats defended the administration's response.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said officials are learning more about the objects "hour by hour." He also called the administration's approach "very careful [and] very thoughtful," given the sensitive nature of the investigation.

"I think some of our Republican colleagues are being at the very minimum premature, and often just very political," Schumer said. "There's a lot of information to assess, there's a lot of information to recover. And the administration is on top of this, and done a very very good job."

John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said Monday that the most recent objects did not pose "any direct threat to people on the ground, and we are laser-focused on confirming their nature and purpose."

Kirby told reporters Tuesday that it will take time to recover and forensically examine the debris from the objects, but noted that thus far, there's no indication they were part of China's spy balloon program or another foreign surveillance program.

"Given what we've been able to ascertain thus far, the intelligence community is considering — as, again, a leading explanation — that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose," Kirby said.

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters "this is a new phenomenon" and described the last three objects shot down as "very, very small objects" and were much smaller than a car. He said at least one of the three objects carried a payload, but declined to give details.

"I sleep very comfortable at night knowing what I know. The American people should do the same." But he echoed the push to share more information more quickly given the intense public interest.

NPR's Devin Speak contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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