February 22, 2024
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby, February 13, 2023
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby, February 13, 2023James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 1:17 P.M. EST Q    Hello. MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Hi. (A reporter sneezes.) Bless you.  And good afternoon. Okay, just have one thing at the top to get us started. President Biden has made clear that the United States is prepared to provide any and all types of aid to the...

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:17 P.M. EST

Q    Hello.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Hi.

(A reporter sneezes.)

Bless you.  And good afternoon.

Okay, just have one thing at the top to get us started.

President Biden has made clear that the United States is prepared to provide any and all types of aid to the people of Turkey and Syria in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis there, and we continue to take steps to do so.

I’m sure you all saw, during the Super Bowl, to — during the Super Bowl yesterday — to donate to earthquake relief efforts.  And I want to point out some resources just for that.

There’s a page on USA AID’s [USAID] — has a list — where they have a list of vetted organizations responding to this crisis should individuals want to contribute.  You can find that at CIDI.org.

In Turkey, our urban search and rescue teams continued their efforts assisting in live rescues over the weekend.  We also continue to support the Turkish teams on the ground.  U.S. military helicopters are providing critical lift for U.S. and international responders. 

Our teams also continue to conduct structural damage assessments of buildings with the hope of being able to clear as many as possible.  To date, they have assessed more than 5,500 buildings, allowing thousands of people who are currently displaced to be able to return home.

In Syria, cross-border aid shipments have increased.  Yesterday, a fourth U.N. convoy of 10 trucks from a U.S.-supported humanitarian partner successfully crossed into Syria from Turkey.  That brings the total to 52 U.N. trucks.  But more needs to be done.

It’s critical for the Security Council to authorize two additional crossings to help deliver lifesaving assistance.  We cannot delay any longer.

Again, I want to emphasize that any U.S. or international sanctions include exemptions for humanitarian, medical, food, and other aid.

And one last thing before I turn it over to the Admiral.  I just wanted to make sure we address this from the White House.  I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no — again, no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity — (laughter) — with these recent takedowns.

Again, there is no indication of aliens or [extra]terrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.  Wanted to make sure that the American people knew that, all of you knew that.  And it was important for us to say that from here because we’ve been hearing a lot about it.

Q    Are you disappointed by that?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I — I’m not — (laughter) —

Q    Would you tell us if there were, really?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m just — you know, I loved “E.T.,” the movie.  But I’m gon — I’m just going to leave it there.  (Laughter.)

With that, with all seriousness, I know there’s a lot of questions about the flying objects.  Admiral John Kirby is here with us today, and he’s going to have a topper — couple of things to say at the top about it and then take your questions. 
Okay?

MR. KIRBY:  Thanks.  Thanks for clearing that up, Karine.  (Laughter.)

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Anytime.  Anytime.

MR. KIRBY:  Makes my job easier.  (Laughter.)

I do have quite a few comments here at the top.  So I do hope that you’ll just bear with me.  And then I’d be happy to take whatever questions you — you might have.

So, I’d like to begin today by updating you on our efforts to recover the debris of several objects that the United States Air Force shot down over the last few days, as well as that of the spy balloon belonging to the People’s Republic of China. 

And I’d like to put into some context for you how we have worked and are still working to better understand the issue of high-altitude, low-speed craft.

Now, let me start with the Chinese program.

When President Biden came into office, he directed the U.S. Intelligence Community to do a broad assessment of Chinese intelligence capabilities and to ensure — and to ensure that we were working to detect and to protect against them.

I think for reasons you will all understand, we cannot publicly go into many details about how we discover and counteract foreign intelligence collection efforts, because much of what we have done and are doing is, of course, sensitive.

But we were able to determine that China has a high-altitude balloon program for intelligence collection that’s connected to the People’s Liberation Army.  

It was operating during the previous administration, but they did not detect it.

We detected it.  We tracked it.  And we have been carefully studying it to learn as much as we can.

We know that these PRC surveillance balloons have crossed over dozens of countries on multiple continents around the world, including some of our closest allies and partners.

We assessed that, at this time, these balloons have provided limited additive capabilities to the PRC’s other intelligence platforms used over the United States.  But in the future, if the PRC continues to advance this technology, it certainly could become more valuable to them.

The President also instructed the Intelligence Community to take a broad look at the phenomenon of unidentified aerial objects.

Indeed, President Biden conducted the first-ever Daily Intelligence Briefing session devoted to this phenomenon back in June of 2021.  He was briefed that this is not just an issue for the United States but one for the rest of the world.

And as I said, our friends and our partners are dealing with this as well. 

We worked on a bipartisan basis to stand up an office at the Pentagon to study this, in partnership with the Intelligence Community, academic institutions, and the private sector.

And these unidentified aerial phenomena have been reported for many years, without explanation or deep examination by the government. 

President Biden has changed all that.  We are finally trying to understand them better.

Now, in light of the Chinese balloon program and this recent incursion into our airspace, the United States and Canada, through NORAD, have been more closely scrutinizing that airspace, including enhancing our radar capabilities, which — as the Commander of NORTHCOM and NORAD, General VanHerck, said last night — may at least partly explain the increase in the objects that have been detected.

Slow-moving objects at high altitude with a small radar cross section are difficult to detect on radar.  Even objects the size of the Chinese spy balloon — which had a payload the size of, roughly, three school busses — were not picked up by previous administrations or other countries.

We also know that a range of entities — including countries, companies, research and academic organizations — operate objects at these altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious at all, including scientific research.

That said, because we have not yet been able to definitively assess what these most recent objects are, we acted out of an abundance of caution to protect the security — our security, our interests, and flight safety.

In Saturday’s case, we acted in consultation with the Canadian government, the President speaking personally with the — with Prime Minister Trudeau. 

The spy balloon was, of course, different, because we knew precisely where that was. 

As we have said, we do not assess that these most recent objects posed any direct threat to people on the ground, and we are laser-focused on confirming their nature and purpose, including through intensive efforts to collect debris in the remote locations where they have fallen. 

In each instance, we have followed the same basic course. 

We assessed whether they posed any kinetic threat to people on the ground.  They did not.

We assessed whether they were sending any communications signals.  We detected none.

We looked to see whether they were maneuvering or had any propulsion capabilities.  We saw no signs of that. 

And we made sure to determine whether or not they were manned.  They were not.

We did, however, assess that their altitudes were considerably lower than the Chinese high-altitude balloon and did pose a threat to civilian commercial air traffic.  And while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out.

That is why the President — at the recommendation of Sec- — of the Secretary of Defense, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the NORTH- — NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander — gave the order to shoot them down.

These missions were completed successfully and safely.  Efforts are actively underway right now at all sites to find what is left of those objects so that we can better understand and communicate with the American people what they are.

I think it’s important to remind: the objects in Alaska and Canada are in pretty remote terrain — ice, wilderness, all of that — making it difficult to find them in winter weather.  And the object over Lake Huron now lies in what is probably very deep water. 

So, outside of recovery operations, what are we doing?

Well, first, we are continuing to monitor.  There are no active tracks today, but the professionals at NORAD will continue to do their important work.

Secondly, we are consulting with allies and partners on the challenge of unidentified aerial phenomenon and how we can all work together to deal with that challenge. 

The President has directed the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence to engage with their relevant counterparts to share information and to try to gain their perspectives as well.  Again, this is an issue that affects everybody around the world.

Third, we will continue to brief members of Congress and relevant state leadership on what we are doing and what we learn.  The President has made this a very top priority. 

We have, over the course of just the last few days — and certainly over the course of last week — reached out to inform and brief members of Congress and relevant state governors of the operations that we were conducting and of the recovery operations that are underway. 

We’ve also kept Congress briefed generally on this issue of Chinese surveillance balloons, including classified briefings last August.  And last week, administration officials provided classified briefings for all senators and all members of the House of Representatives on the PRC surveillance balloon.  We fully expect and anticipate and support the ability to continue these briefings in the days ahead.

And fourth, the President, through his National Security Advisor, has today directed an interagency team to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis, and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks.

Every element of the government will redouble their efforts to understand and mitigate these events.

And I’m happy to take some questions.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay.  Go ahead, Colleen.

Q    John, if the objects don’t pose a military threat and they don’t pose a threat to anybody on the ground, why shoot them down?  Particularly because the military has — is routinely monitoring radar — you know, radar blips and such.

MR. KIRBY:  I kind of covered that in the opening statement.  Two real reasons here.  First, there was a very real potential risk to civilian air traffic.  The one shot down on Saturday — I’m sorry, yesterday — was about 20,000 feet.  And the two shot down Friday and Saturday were at about 40,000 feet.  And as you know, transcontinental air traffic is roughly around 30,000 feet.  It depends, of course, on weather. 

And so, because we assessed that they weren’t manned and weren’t being controlled, therefore left to atmospheric conditions, the real risk to safety of flight was a problem. 

The second purpose — and I talked about this earlier, too — was even though we had no indications that any of these three objects were surveilling, we couldn’t rule that out.  And so, there — you know, you want to err on the side of safety here in terms of protecting our national security interests, and the fact that these objects could have and likely did at some point in their path transit over, you know, potential military sites of ours, or sensitive sites. 

So again, out of an abundance of caution, for those two reasons, the President, with the recommendation of his military leaders, directed them to be taken down.

Q    And because it’s so unprecedented, should the public be hearing from the President directly on this?

MR. KIRBY:  I have — we have been, I think, as transparent as we can be.  I won’t speak for the President’s personal speaking schedule.  But, I mean, he has been deeply engaged in every one of these decisions.  He has been kept informed, including as of this morning, on what’s going on with recovery efforts.  And he’s very much staying on top of the issue and directing his team to make sure we are properly consulting and briefing not just members of Congress, but state leaders as well.  And, of course, you know, we’re also doing what we can in the public sphere.

Q    Can you (inaudible)?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Wait a second, sir.  Excuse me.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, John.  What is the President’s standard going to be going forward about when he orders an unidentified object shot down? 

MR. KIRBY:  It comes down to one simple formulation.  And that’s if, at the recommendation of his military leaders, he believes that the safety and security of the United States, the safety and security of the American people — his prime responsibility — warrant that kind of a decision. 

Q    So it’s possible we could see these shootdowns on a regular basis, like we saw over the weekend? 

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t think it’s useful for me to get ahead of where we are right now.  The President will always side on preserving and protecting the safety and security of the American people. 

Q    You said we’re not flying any surveillance balloons over China.  Are we flying any other kind of surveillance craft routinely over China?

MR. KIRBY:  We are not flying surveillance balloons over China.  I’m not aware of any other craft that we’re flying over — into Chinese airspace. 

Q    And then, finally, can you tell us anything more about this octagonal object?  How big was it? 

MR. KIRBY:  We’re still trying to assess what that was.  I’m not going to get into a description.  I’ve seen the press reports about what it looked like.

I think we all need to be humble here in terms of what our ability is to positively identify stuff from fighter aircrafts that are going several hundred miles an hour past, essentially, in terms of relative motion, a stationary object that was not very big. 

So we don’t know what this exactly looked like.  And again, we’re still not sure exactly what the purpose of it was or who owned it.  But we — we hope to be able to find out more once we can recover the debris from that one and from the other two as well.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Scott.

Q    Just a few minutes ago, Prime Minister Trudeau said that there’s some sort of pattern to the objects over the last few days.  Is that something you could elaborate on — what sort of pattern the White House has seen?

MR. KIRBY:  I’m not familiar with the Prime Minister’s comments, so I don’t know if I — if I should take a swing at that. 

I would just tell you that, going back to what I said before, these objects were not being maneuvered.  They did not appear to have any self-propulsion.  So the likely hypothesis is that they were being moved by the prevailing winds. 

And maybe perhaps that’s what the Prime Minister is talking about.  I don’t want to speak for him.

But certainly, as the prevailing winds, particularly at that altitude, go west to east across the North American airspace — I mean, there was a general common movement in that regard. 

Q    And you spoke at the top about kind of reassessing radar given what happened with the initial balloon.  Can you give us a sense — can we expect — should we assume that this is the regular number of these objects over the United States, that they’ve always been there and they just haven’t been looked at the same way?  Or is there any reason to expect that this is — this is more than usual that are flying over our airspace?

Q    MR. KIRBY:  So, two thoughts here.  I mean, I think
— I think we can all get our heads around the fact that there are sometimes things floating at high altitudes for various purposes.  As I said, scientific research, weather — weather balloons.  All manner of innocuous craft can be aloft at high altitudes.  I don’t think that that’s necessarily unusual here. 

It’s difficult for me to say exactly what you can expect going forward. One of the reasons that we think we’re seeing more is because we’re looking for more. As you heard General VanHerck mention last night, they have -they have modified the filters and the gains, as we call it, of the radar capabilities  to look more discreetly at high-altitude, small radar criss section and low-speed objects.

And so if you do that — and anybody that’s operated a radar will know you can set — you can set the parameters.  And if you set the parameters in such a way that — to look for a certain something, it’s more likely that you’re going to find a certain something. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Given all you’ve discussed here and the actions the administration are taking, and what people have learned — Chinese spy balloon this year, in previous years; these unidentified objects that we shoot down — they might have a question.  When it comes to these higher altitudes, are America’s borders secure?

MR. KIRBY:  The President takes — as I said earlier, he takes our national security extremely seriously.  He has no higher responsibility than the safety and security of the American people.  And I don’t think you need to look any further, quite frankly, than the decisions he’s made in just the last week to 10 days to evidence that.

Q    But it feels like he’s plugging holes, like these are vulnerabilities that we are discovering in real time. 

MR. KIRBY:  You’re making an assumption there that I don’t know that the — I don’t know that the analysis will actually bear out.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Brian, in the back.

Q    Thank you very much.  The President gave the order to shoot down the object over Lake Huron yesterday.  Where was he?  What kind of information did he have when he gave that order?  What was briefed to him?  And what — how did he anticipate the outcome of that?

MR. KIRBY:  He was here in the White House.  He was kept constantly informed by his national security team and certainly by the military.  He made that decision.  I don’t — couldn’t give you the exact time on the clock, but it was, I believe, mid to late morning.  And then it was executed in the afternoon.

Q    And were there contingencies in place in case there was a reaction from a foreign government in reaction to shooting that object down?  Was the President anticipating —

MR. KIRBY:  The one on — the one yesterday?

Q    The one yesterday, yeah.

MR. KIRBY:  Well, it was shot over — I mean, it was shot over Lake Huron and landed in what we believe to be the Canadian side of the lake.  So we were obviously in constant communication and consultation with our Canadian counterparts.  And they are, rightly because of where we think it splashed down — I mean, they’re sort of the — in concert with the U.S. Coast Guard, but they are also involved in trying to locate the debris right now. 

But there was good communication with our Canadian allies.

Q    Are there any signs of a foreign government taking a special interest in that object from yesterday?

MR. KIRBY:  No.

Q    Or reacting in an unusual way? 

MR. KIRBY:  No.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, S.V., in the back.

Q    Yeah, thanks, John.  Two questions.  One, you mentioned early on that this — the China balloon might have been giving limited additive capabilities.  I assume you’re meaning onto their satellite surveillance.  Can you specify what — I mean, what exactly it’s getting from a balloon that they’re not getting from orb- — orbiting satellites that go over, like, dozens of times a day?

MR. KIRBY:  With the caveat that we haven’t fully recovered everything — though we have recovered some things from the bottom of the — of the Atlantic, and we’re analyzing that — but with that caveat that we don’t know exactly what this balloon was surveilling or what its capabilities were. 

So, just in general — and I — that’s an important caveat that I’d like you to remember — when you are at a lower altitude than space, you could perhaps get a better fidelity of imagery, for instance, of things on the ground. 

When you are not moving at the speed of a satellite and therefore, you know, only getting seconds over a site, when you can maneuver left, right, slow down, speed up, like this thing could, then you can loiter.  If you can loiter, you can soak in a little bit more, you can spend more time over a sensitive site.

Q    But some of their satellites are in geostationary orbit.  I mean, they’re just sitting there gathering signals intelligence, right?  So what is the benefit?  I mean, is it just to see what kind of fidelity they’re missing?

MR. KIRBY:  We’re going to learn more.  I’d rather not go into any more detail than that right now.  We’re going to learn more.  And, frankly, I think that’s a terrific question you should be asking Beijing.

Q    And one last one.  The — you said that — before — the other objects shot down were not able to transmit or were not transmitting signals, that they did not have any propulsion.  Did the China balloon — did that have any — was it emitting signals back?

MR. KIRBY:  I’m not going to go into more detail about the capabilities of that.  We are going to be studying it and analyzing it. 

There is no question in our minds that that system was designed to surveil, that that was an intelligence asset.  I’ll leave it there.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Kelly O.

Q    Has there been any outreach from anywhere in the administration to the kinds of companies that produce weather balloons or other craft that would fit these descriptions that might be from the commercial or corporate world to say, “Is this yours?”  Or any kind of outreach?  Or have you been hearing from anyone who might say, “We have ours; they’re in this area”?  Is any of that going on now?

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t know of any conversations right now, Kelly.  But one of the reasons why the President directed Mr. Sullivan to put together an interagency effort is to take a long look at that and try to learn a little bit better about who is up at that altitude doing what for completely legitimate purposes.

I think we — we all recognize we need to probably have a better sight picture on that.  And that’s why the President wants this interagency effort to take a look.

Q    And what kind of intelligence might be happening in terms of the diplomacy that’s going on or whatever if these are state-owned objects?

MR. KIRBY:  I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

Q    Is there — is there a network of conversations that might be happening where someone might be able to say, based on this octagonal description, that, “Hey, that sounds like the so and so.”  I mean, is there some conversations that are happening that might be able to give us some descriptions?

MR. KIRBY:  I mean, the short answer to your question is yes, and I talked about that in my opening statement.  The President also directed Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin, Director Haines to have these kinds of conversations with our allies and partners around the world, to share with them what we’re learning, but also to see — get the — get their perspectives.

Q    Because the Chinese were quick to say “it’s ours, but it was for commercial purposes.”

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.  I — again, we’re going to have those kinds of conversations with our allies and partners to see what kind of experiences that they have had, what — what we can learn from — from them, what perhaps they can learn from us.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Trevor.

Q    And are we still with “object,” or can we call them “balloons”?

MR. KIRBY:  Still with “object.”

Q    And just to follow-up on Kelly’s question —

MR. KIRBY:  And I won’t mess that up today.  (Laughter.)

Q    — on the — on the corporate angle.  Is there any expectation that this is going to affect the — the executive order on surveilling the U.S. companies and what they’re doing in China and the — their operations there?

MR. KIRBY:  I know of no such change to that executive order.

Q    Okay.  And then, is there — and just — you said a moment ago that there’s no knowledge of a U.S. balloon or other craft over Chinese territory.  Just being cognizant of the fact that China has a different definition of what their territory is than the United States, is there any U.S. surveillance aircraft over Taiwan, over the South China Sea that — that would — would fit into that?

MR. KIRBY:  There is no U.S. surveillance aircraft over Chinese — in Chinese airspace.

Q    Okay.  Even Chinese-claimed airspace?

MR. KIRBY:  There is no U.S. surveillance aircraft in Chinese airspace.

Q    Okay.  And then, just finally, is there any new formal approach that’s being developed as far as how you’re going to deal with these things on a systematic basis going forward?  Is there a review underway?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, again — again, that’s what — that’s exactly what the President wants Mr. Sullivan to run is a process — an interagency process to help us, as I said in my opening statement, get around the policy implications here and whether — and whether or not there needs to be any policy changes going forward.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Phil.

Q    Thanks, John.  There’s no precedent for U.S. fighters taking down objects over U.S. territories, as far as I’m aware of.  I guess my question is — you talked about the tweak in the radar systems.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Q    Has there been a tweak in the threshold for the Pentagon presenting to the President, the President signing off on military action related to anything over our airspace?

MR. KIRBY:  I’m not sure I’m following what you mean.

Q    In the wake of the Chinese spy balloon —

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Q    — the radars were tweaked, which is why you think you’re seeing some of these things.

MR. KIRBY:  Right.

Q    Has the decision about or has threshold for the use of fighters to take down objects also been tweaked?  Has it been lowered?  Has it been changed?  We’ve never seen this before.  All of a sudden, we’ve seen three in three days.

MR. KIRBY:  No, actually — I’m sorry I didn’t understand it at first.  No, I mean — and you heard General VanHerck talk about this last night.  He’s using established protocols to engage craft in — in the air — aircraft in the air that can be legitima- — can be brought down.

And as he said last night, the best way to do that, certainly in a timely and efficient effective way, was through fighter aircraft and through the Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. 

And they looked at — and he talked about this.  They looked at other options to try to bring them down, to include gunfire.  But that would have presented a greater risk to the pilots themselves.  So this was the safest, most effective way to do that.

Now, where we go from here, I think we just don’t know right now, in terms of whether there needs to be threshold changes, as you put up.

I think it’s important to just take a step back here.  And — and what the President did was order these actions with the safety and security of the American people foremost in his mind.  And there were — there were very good reasons to do it.  The military then, once given an order, determines how they’re going to execute that order.  General VanHerck decided that the best way to do this was with Sidewinder missiles and fighter aircraft.

Q    And just to put a sharper point on it, this isn’t reactive to the Chinese spy balloon in the sense of there was political pressure and so we are going to act quickly to take down any objects over our airspace because the pressure that came from, say, Republicans on Capitol Hill.

MR. KIRBY:  This was — this was — these were decisions based purely and simply on what was in the best interests of the American people.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Jacqui.

Q    Thanks.  Thanks, Karine.  Thanks, John.  John, does the U.S. government have video or imagery of these latest intercepts?  And will you guys be releasing it?

MR. KIRBY:  You’d have to talk to DOD about that, Jacqui.  I — I don’t know what kind of imagery might exist, and they’d be one to talk about whether they’re releasable or not. 

Obviously, certainly with respect to the spy balloon, we want to make sure that we are gleaning what we can from this imagery so that we can answer your questions better. 

And so, to what degree there is or will — it will or will not be public release, I do want to stress that, you know, we’re going to want to make sure that we have had a chance to analyze that imagery for ourselves as much as possible.

Q    And following up on Phil’s question, I mean, I guess what we’re trying to discern is you said earlier, you know, “We’re looking for these more, so we’re finding more.”

MR. KIRBY:  I said that could be one reason why we’re finding more.

Q    Could be one reason.  But what we’re getting at is, you know, why are we all of a sudden shooting them down? 

And to add to that, you know, the NORAD Commander, for instance, said that when the first spy balloon was crossing over American and then Canadian airspace, one of the reasons that he couldn’t take action was because his assessment was that it didn’t pose a military threat or have hostile intent, and so he couldn’t take action there. 

It seems like maybe that protocol has changed or his — his ability to make that call where there’s not an immit- — imminent threat militarily or physically might have changed.  So can you explain to us what changed?  Why are we shooting them down all of a sudden?

MR. KIRBY:  I kind of feel like I took care of that in my opening statement, but I’m happy to revisit it.  I mean, really, two reasons here.  And these are in — certainly in — well, in both cases, they’re — they’re different.

I think we need to separate the Chinese spy balloon.  We knew what it was.  We knew where it was going.  We knew what it was trying to do.  And by not taking it down — I mean, that was also a huge payload — like I said, the size of three school buses. 

So, really, the option of shooting that down over land wasn’t a legitimate option because somebody really could have gotten hurt. 

And we used the time available to us — knowing what this thing was all about, we used that time to study it, to learn from it, to collect on it, then taking it down at the earliest opportunity in the water.  And we have retrieved some of that debris off the bottom, and we’re studying that —

Hang on a second, I’ll be right there —

But — so let’s separate that from these other three.  These other three, what are some of the differences?  Altitude is a big difference.

Q    Is that the threshold now: a risk to civilian aircraft?

MR. KIRBY:  Just — just let me — let me get through this.

Q    Okay.

MR. KIRBY:  And then altitude is different.  The Chinese spy balloon was at 60,000-plus — well outside commercial air traffic concerns.  These three were right on the border of it, so there was a legitimate concern there.

Chinese spy balloon, we knew exactly what that thing was and we knew what it was trying to do.  And we saw it, Jacqui, as it slowed down, sped up, maneuvered a little bit, trying to get a look at what we believe to be sensitive military sites. 

These other three, they didn’t have propulsion.  They weren’t being maneuvered.  It was basically — they were been being driven by the wind.

We don’t think — we don’t — we don’t know for sure whether they had a surveillance aspect to them, but we can’t rule it out.  So, there was a little bit — there was enough uncertainty there that, again, out of an abundance of caution, doing the prudent thing, the President directed that they get taken down.

And I — I get where you’re going: Is this the standard going forward?  And we’re going to — we’re going to dive into this.  We’re going to learn from these three events.  We’re going to continue to study what happened.  We’re going to have an interagency effort that helps us get around the policy implications here.  And we’ll see where this goes.

But bottom line for President Biden is: You got to do the right thing for the American people, for our safety and security.

Q    Is it strange that no one has claimed these yet as theirs?

MR. KIRBY:  I can’t say whether that’s strange or not, since we’re sort of in uncharted territory here, no pun intended.  But we don’t — you know, we don’t — we don’t know.  And I suspect that —

Q    (Inaudible), sir?

MR. KIRBY:  Go ahead.  I’m —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Let him finish with Jacqui.  Go ahead.

MR. KIRBY:  I’m basically done.  I’m basically done.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay.  What’s your name, sir?  What your name, sir?

Q    Bo, from CBS.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay.  Go ahead.

Q    Has the payload been recovered from South Carolina yet?

MR. KIRBY:  The —

Q    The large so-called payload that’s (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, as I said, some of the debris — certainly, they were able to take things off the surface, like the next day — actually, that afternoon — some of the balloon fabric.  And in the days since, they have been able to recover some, not all, of the payload that sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.  It’s in about 45 feet of water. 

Weather conditions are pretty tough off the coast right now.  Like today, for instance, they have not been able to get into the water and dive on it.  But over the course of the weekend, they were able to raise some of the debris, including some of the electronics and some of the structure.

Q    Do you have an expectation of when all that payload is going to be collected?

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t.  I wish I — if I could tell you that, I’d be a very wealthy man.  I mean, it’s going to — it could take — it could take a long time, given the sea state and weather conditions and the degree to which when we have to protect the safety of the divers.

Q    And then, one last question, because you said you were unsure of the surveillance capabilities of these latest objects.  Last week, we were told several times that every precaution was taken to ensure that the sensitive installations were covered.  We don’t know exactly what you all did.  But has there been a pos- —

MR. KIRBY:  Nor are you going to find out.  (Laughter.)

Q    Well, has there been a posture change nationwide regarding all of these sensitive sites —

MR. KIRBY:  If you’re —

Q    — taken proactively?

MR. KIRBY:  If you’re — let me just put a fork in this.  If the implication is that, you know, there’s some sort of blanket, now, security policy for every base on the continental United States, the answer is no. 

We do have protocols, particularly when we know that surveillance is going to occur.  Like in the Open Skies Treaty with Russia, for instance: When all that is scheduled and laid out, and when you know that there’s going to be an open skies flight by Russia, you take the appropriate actions.  And that’s what we did in the case of the Chinese spy balloon.  And we’ll always do that.

I will never talk about what precautions we’re going to make at any given base at any given time.  But we always do what we need to do to protect our nation’s secrets.  I

Q    No proactive(inaudible) right now?

MR. KIRBY:  I won’t talk about it any more than that.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay, we have to move.  Way in the back.  Way in the back.  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  Me?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yes.

Q    Thank you very much.  Iraq’s —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, no, no.  The gentleman right there.

Q    Okay.

Q    Admiral, you started the briefing by talking about the President’s involvement in this, the report from ODNI recently that goes over this. 

In that ODNI report about unidentified aerial phenomena, it says there were 247 unidentified aerial phenomena reports since March of 2021, some of which have, quote, “demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.” 

So can you say why the President just recently, within the last couple of weeks, started ordering some of these objects to be shot down and why there weren’t any orders throughout 2021 or throughout 2022?

MR. KIRBY:  It’s very — it’s very simple.  It comes down to what sort of safety and security threats and risk we’re talking about.

And — and also, it comes down to — a lot to our ability to tract [sic] — to track, detect, and engage.

Having come from the Pentagon, I can tell you that some of these UAPs, while we may not be able to know what each and every one is doing, some of the big concern there was that
a lot — not — many of those reports were happening around our training ranges, were happening around air training ranges.  So combat pilots were seeing these things.  And it was — and there was a potential impact to the safety of flight of our pilots.  But you may not have but a fleeting moment on some of these things to see it.  And so, it’s different.

In these cases, we had time to detect, time to analyze, time to engage, time to make those kinds of decisions.  But it all comes down to safety and security, first and foremost.

Q    So, is the time, though, as a matter of capability — you have better capabilities now than we did back then?

MR. KIRBY:  We are certainly improving our capabilities now.  And as I said, the President has directed the national security team to dig into this deeper from an interagency effort and to see what — if other improvements might need to make.

I mean, look, just — just by adapting the way the radar parameters are set, we have improved our ability to detect.  And again, I said that could be one reason why we’re seeing more.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Aurelia.

Q    Thank you so much.  So, you said that the debris fell on frozen waters or in remote areas.  And these are also, like, huge objects, and they were shot down by missiles.  So how optimistic are you that you will be able to collect enough debris to really get an idea of what these objects were?

MR. KIRBY:  We won’t know until we get on site to see, you know, how much damage was done, not just by the missile strike, but by the fall from very high altitude — and, as you said, in one case, on sea ice.  So, we’ll just have to see.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Joey.

Q    Yeah.  Thank you, John.  Does Secretary of State Blinken plan to meet with his Chinese counterpart this week at the Munich Security Conference?

MR. KIRBY:  I’d refer you to the State Department for the Secretary’s schedule.  I — I don’t have visibility on that.

Q    Okay.  And have you been able to — what have you been able to learn more — or not you, but the government — since these objects were shot down?  I mean, you just alluded to the fact that you’ve not been able to get on site yet.  I mean, has there been any additional information since one was shot down Friday and then over the weekend?

MR. KIRBY:  Because these just happened over the last few days and we haven’t found the debris, there’s — there’s still a lot more we expect to be able to learn.  And I think once we can get to the debris — and I’m not forecasting how easy that’s going to be.  They — all three have fallen into some pretty remote, difficult areas to reach.  But we’re going to do everything we can to find them.  And that will tell us a lot.

Since we have — since — and I know you didn’t ask about this — but in the case of the Chinese spy balloon, we have been able to recover some debris and some of the electronics and even some of the structure from the bottom of the Atlantic.  And that will also tell us a lot.  And we are — we’re learning from it right now.

(Cross-talk)

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, no, no.  No, we’ve got to get everybody.

Q    Just a quick follow-up —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, no, we got to get everybody.  Go ahead.  Go ahead.

(Cross-talk.)

Guys, everybody — go ahead, Catherine.  Go ahead, Catherine.

Q    (Inaudible) Chinese spy balloon has been flying over U.S. military installation outside —

Q    When do you think that you’ll have all the debris — as much debris as you can get from all the sites?

MR. KIRBY:  I’m sorry, when do we think we’ll —

Q    When do you think you’ll be satisfied that you’ve gotten as much debris as you can from all the sites?

MR. KIRBY:  I wish I could give you a date certain on the calendar.  I can’t do that.  We’re going to — we’re working to surveil them right now.  In fact, you know, there’s a Navy P3 that’s flying over this site in Alaska.  The Canadians are in charge, obviously, of the one in the Yukon.  And now the Coast Guard is in Lake Huron working with the Canadian Coast Guard to do the same thing there.

So we’re working this as hard as we can.  And we will keep you informed as we learn more.  As I’ve told you today, divers in the water over the weekend — we have recovered debris off the coast of South Carolina.  We’ll keep you informed.

Q    Will you brief Congress this week?

MR. KIRBY:  There have been briefings as early as late last week, and we do fully expect that there’ll be additional briefings this week, perhaps even — perhaps even later today.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  We’re running out of time, guys.  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, John.  Just on Beijing’s response.  They have been very harsh.  They said the first balloon was an accident and the last three objects were not theirs.  How do you respond to that?  Has the White House had conversations with Beijing about this, and can you share a little bit about that?

MR. KIRBY:  We know the first one was Chinese.  They admitted it.  They claimed it was a weather balloon.  We know it’s not. 

These three, we don’t have attribution for right now.  We don’t know — we don’t know who owns them, so I’m not going to take anybody’s word at face value here until we can get a chance to take — to take a look at them.

Q    Who else could it be?

MR. KIRBY:  Are we in touch with the Chinese?  We have — we have an embassy in Beijing.  We maintain routine diplomatic conversations, and we have had in — over that spy balloon incident, we did have private discussions with senior Chinese leaders.  

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thanks.  Thanks, Admiral.  I know you just said that are you in touch with the Chinese.  Is there any effort to arrange a call with President Xi at all?

MR. KIRBY:  I’m not aware of any plans for that.

Q    And then, if I could just ask a question on Israel.  Does the President plan to speak with PM Netanyahu about the moves his government is making to try to weaken the Israel judicial system?

MR. KIRBY:  I have no calls or conversations to read out.  But we are deeply concerned by some of the moves here with respect to settlements.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  We’re running out of time.  Go ahead.  Go ahead. 

Q    Mr. Kirby, at this time, are these spy balloons flying over U.S. military installation outside the U.S.?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.  Go ahead.

Q    The Moldovan President just recently has said that there was a Russian plot to sort of overthrow her government and break Moldova’s path to Europe.  It was something that President Zelenskyy himself had also warned about.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Q    What is the U.S.’s assessment of this possible plot?  And more broadly, what is the concern about Russia’s attempts to sort of influence these gov- — these pro-European governments in the region, even though it’s right now focused on Ukraine, about other countries in the region? 

MR. KIRBY:  So, what I’ll say about that is: Deeply concerning reports.  Certainly not outside the bounds of Russian behavior.  And we absolutely stand with the Moldo- — Moldovan government and the Moldovan people.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    But you have no confirmation from the U.S. side of intel?

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t know independent confirmation, but we’re certainly not questioning their capacity, the will of the of the Russians and Mr. Putin to try to do that.  It’s perfectly right — a page right out of his playbook.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Chris.

Q    Yes.  I was going to ask you a question, if I — (laughter) —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Oh, okay. 

Q    Just one quick question.  Have you —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I have to get through everybody.  

Q    — established whether these were lighter than air or heavier than air?

MR. KIRBY:  We have not. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay, but we have to get to everyone.  Okay?  You already had a question.

Go ahead. 

Q    All three shootdowns in the U.S. occurred offshore, but the one in Canada occurred over land.  So is it effective U.S. policy to not shoot down these objects over land for safety concerns?

MR. KIRBY:  I wouldn’t read into this some kind of policy decision.  We will always, in deciding whether something should be taken down or not, consider the impact on the ground. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    When the Chinese balloon came down, the Chinese foreign minister indicated they would respond in a way that they were prepared to.  If it turns out that the other objects are also Chinese in origin, is the — is there a menu of options prepared for the President for how we would react?

MR. KIRBY:  Terrific hypothetical.  We’re just not there yet. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    So, (inaudible) relationship issue.  You have the Chinese spy airship that went through.  You got China in — buying oil from Russia.  You’ve got China, you know, opening up cases in the U.S. trying to steal U.S. technology from universities.  President Xi is going to be meeting with the Iranian president.  At what point do you review — a big review — of the U.S. relationship with China?  And at what point does the President ask for a call from President Xi?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, I don’t have a call to talk about today.  Let me just, again, level-set here.  And I know I’m running close on time, but —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yeah. 

MR. KIRBY:  Sorry.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, it’s not your fault. 

MR. KIRBY:  But the President met with President Xi at Bali, at the G20.  The whole purpose of that discussion was to move this relationship forward in a better way.  The most consequential bilateral relationship in the world; the President knows that.  And he wanted to move that relationship forward in a better way. 

And Secretary Blinken was dang near wheels up trying to head to Beijing to have those kinds of conversations to get some of these communication vehicles and venues back on track, whether it’s climate change or military-to-military.  We were willing to do that.  We were looking forward to doing that. 

And then the Chinese decided to fly a surveillance balloon over the continental United States.  And it wouldn’t have been appropriate to have that meeting. 

When is — when are those discussions going to get back on the calendar?  I couldn’t tell you.

As you — as Secretary Blinken has said, it’ll happen at the appropriate time.  Now is not that time. 

It doesn’t mean — and people shouldn’t take away from this that all communication has been severed between the United States and China, that Beijing and Washington aren’t talking.  We still have an embassy there.  We still have an ability through Secretary Blinken’s good offices to communicate with senior Chinese leaders. 

Unfortunately, the Chinese military is not interested in talking to Secretary — Secretary of Defense Austin, but there are still ways to communicate.

And the President would tell you that now is exactly the time to at least preserve some of those lines of communication so that we can avoid miscalculation.

Q    But has it set back the relationship?

MR. KIRBY:  I’m sorry?

Q    Has this all — this list of things set back the relationship?

MR. KIRBY:  It has certainly not helped us move forward in the way that we wanted to move. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right, last question in the back.  And that’s going to be the last question for the briefing.

Q    Thank you very much.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, sir.  No, sir. 

Q    Iraq —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No.  Right here. 

Q    James?  Okay.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Oh, thank you.  Last Friday, you answered my question about President Biden’s message during his trip to Poland.  But I’m wondering why he’s specifically chosen Poland for this trip, since so many countries are helping Ukraine and he visited Poland 11 months ago?

MR. KIRBY:  The President is really looking forward to this trip.  Certainly not lost, I’m sure, on any of you that it’s timed around what sadly is going to be a year of war in Ukraine. 

Poland has been a strident ally, a tremendous supporter of Ukraine, and a generous host not only to American troops, but millions of Ukrainian refugees who have fled there in safety. 

The Poles are — pardon the pun — but they’re punching well above their weight.  And we very much appreciate all the support.  The President wants to thank President Duda in person.  He wants to thank the Polish people in person.  He wants to make broader points about how it’s important for the kind of courage and unity we’re seeing out of Poland and so many NATO Allies continues, sadly, into what will now be a second year of war.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right —

Q    What is the message —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  James, you have the last question

Q    — to the people of Poland?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  James, you have the —

Q    Okay, thank you very much.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  We actually have to end the briefing. 

Q    Thank you, Karine.  And thank you, Admiral.  Naturally, I have two questions.  (Laughter.)  One on the unexplained aerial phenomena —

MR. KIRBY:  My fault.  (Laughter.)

Q    — and the second will be on the Russia-Ukraine war.

My understanding is that the top officials in the Pentagon, when asked explicitly if they were ruling out any kind of extraterrestrial presence, said they weren’t ruling anything out.  And yet, at the beginning of today’s briefing, albeit with her usual winning smile, Ms. Jean-Pierre seemed to rule out any extraterrestrial activity. 

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens, with respect to these craft.  Period.  I don’t think there’s any more that needs to be said there.

Q    On the Russia-Ukraine war, as we approach the anniversary: In the days immediately after the commencement of the conflict, we heard from senior U.S. officials, such as the CIA director in congressional testimony, that President Putin had been observed by U.S. officials to have constricted his decision-making circle during the pandemic, that he was making erratic decisions.  And these were — seemed to have played out in what happened on the battlefield. 

As we approach this year anniversary, what do we observe about President Putin’s decision-making now, the caliber of his decision-making, and also his grip on power in his own country?  Has any of that changed over the course of the year? 

MR. KIRBY:  I can’t speak to the way Mr. Putin gets advised and how he — you know, who’s advising him and what they’re saying.  I couldn’t begin to get inside Kremlin decision-making processes. 

Clearly, Mr. Putin is not making good decisions.  Shouldn’t have invaded in the first place.  This is a country that posed no threat to anybody, let alone Russia. 

Clearly, he hasn’t made sound decisions, nor has his military, with respect to their performance on the battlefield.  They’re still suffering some of the same problems they were a year ago: logistics, sustainment, integration of joint fires, manpower, personnel, unit cohesion.  I could go on and on.  The Russian military is still struggling.  They have not surmounted these — these problems. 

And it’s borne out by the fact that, you know, he continues to change generals the way I change socks.  So, I mean, he’s — he’s still struggling. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right, we have to — sorry, guys, we have to end the briefing.  I got to go into the Oval.  But I will see you tomorrow. 

And thank you for the compliment on the smile.  I appreciate that. 

But I’ll be back — I’ll be back tomorrow.  Thanks, everybody.  Have a great day. 

2:06 P.M. EST   

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2023/02/13/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-karine-jean-pierre-and-national-security-council-coordinator-for-strategic-communications-john-kirby-february-13-2023/

originally published at Politics - Social Gov