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Biden says objects shot down over North America last week appear to not be part of China’s spy balloon operation

President Joe Biden speaks about the Chinese surveillance balloon and other unidentified objects shot down by the U.S. military, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks about the Chinese surveillance balloon and other unidentified objects shot down by the U.S. military, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 (CNN) -- President Joe Biden on Thursday said that the United States has no indication that the three objects shot down in North American air space are tied to China's spy balloon program and are likely from private entities.

"We don't yet know exactly what these three objects were but nothing right now suggests they were related to China's spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country," Biden said in his first formal remarks on the objects shot from the sky last weekend over Canada and the US. "The intelligence community's current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research."

Biden's White House speech to address the matter four days after the last known object was shot down comes after the president faced increasing pressure in Washington to be more transparent about the situation and his decision making as commander-in-chief.

Biden emphasized that there hasn't been evidence to suggest "a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky." And although the most recent three objects appear to have been benign, Biden warned, "If any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down."

The president said he has directed his team to devise "sharper rules for how we will deal with these unidentified objects moving forward, distinguishing between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not." Those classified parameters will be shared with Congress when they are finished.

The president also said he's directing national security adviser Jake Sullivan to lead a "government-wide effort" for how to address future encounters with similar high-altitude objects.

Specifically, the administration will be establishing an improved inventory of unmanned airborne objects above American airspace, implementing further measures to detect the objects, update rules and regulations for encounters with these types of objects above US skies, and establishing common global norms for similar encounters.

The president said he expects to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the matter, along with keeping allies and Congress informed.

"And I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon," he added.

Federal officials have said an initial Chinese surveillance balloon downed off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations and had a payload around the size of three buses. By comparison, the subsequent objects, which haven't been attributed to a specific country or entity, are believed to be much smaller.

It's anticipated that new protocols on how the US will handle similar unidentified objects going forward will be released this week.

Administration officials from the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community have briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill on the initial Chinese spy balloon in recent days.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have criticized Biden for not approving the military to down the first balloon quickly enough, letting it sail eastward for days. They had also called on him to speak on the matter.

But administration officials argued that the US didn't move earlier to shoot down the balloon in part over fears it could provoke an escalation of military tensions with China. They also told lawmakers the balloon was not first shot down when it entered Alaskan airspace because the waters there are cold and deep, making it less likely they could have recovered the balloon.

And officials had been wary of having the president speak publicly about the objects until more information was gathered about the three unidentified objects that were downed last weekend.

Biden on Thursday justified the decision to wait to shoot the Chinese balloon, saying he gave the green light for the US military to take it down "as soon as it was safe to do so."

"The military advised against shooting it down over land because of the sheer size of it. It was the size of multiple school buses and it posed a risk to people on the ground if it was shot down where people lived," he said. "Instead, we tracked it closely, we analyzed its capabilities and we learned more about how it operates. Because we knew its path, we were able to protect sensitive sites against collection. We waited until it was safely over water, which would not only protect civilians, but also enable us to recover substantial components for further analytics."

Shooting down the balloon, Biden added, sent "a clear message that the violation of our sovereignty was unacceptable. We'll act to protect our country and we did."

This story and its headline have been updated with additional developments.

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