(WASHINGTON) — U.S. Navy vessels on Monday swarmed a widespread debris field with divers and cranes to retrieve pieces of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon shot down by a U.S. fighter aircraft off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
The balloon had been traveling across the continental U.S. since at least Tuesday with the White House facing mounting questions and political blowback as to why the balloon was allowed to cross the country in the first place, especially as the U.S. faces tensions with China.
Republicans continue to condemn President Joe Biden for not having ordered the balloon shot down earlier, but Biden said Saturday he did ask for such action, until the American military advised him they should wait until the balloon wasn’t over civilian territory.
“I told them to shoot it down on Wednesday. They said to me let’s wait for the safest place to do it,” Biden told reporters.
White House spokesperson John Kirby spoke with reporters Monday afternoon to give an update on recovery efforts and to defend the decision to allow the balloon to traverse over the country.
The debris field is roughly “15 football fields by 15 football fields,” he said, and some debris was recovered “off the surface of the sea,” but weather conditions weren’t favorable on Sunday.
“Our efforts to surveil this balloon and what we’re going to learn from the recovery will prove to be valuable,” Kirby said, and the fact the balloon took time to travel under tracking will give the U.S. “clarity” on the balloons’ capabilities and China’s intentions.
Suspected Chinese spy balloons flew over the continental U.S. three times under former President Donald Trump — but the Biden White House said over the weekend that Trump and other top officials weren’t aware at the time.
“This information was discovered after the prior administration left,” according to senior Biden administration officials.
“From every indication that we have, that that was for brief periods of time — nothing at all like what we saw last week, in terms of duration,” Kirby said Monday, asked about the other instances but offering limited information.
House Republicans have promised a slew of investigations into the balloon’s handling. Some Republican lawmakers are weighing introducing a resolution Tuesday condemning Biden’s response — right before his State of the Union address — but no decision has been made.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a statement Sunday, said the Biden administration “reacted at first too indecisively and then too late.”
“We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace. It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere between the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and the coast of Carolina where this balloon could have been shot down right away without endangering Americans or Canadians. This was a reminder of the PRC’s brazenness and President Biden missed the opportunity to defend our sovereignty, send a message of strength, and bolster deterrence,” McConnell said.
He said he hopes Biden’s “belated decision to finally do the right thing carries over into his soon-to-be-released annual budget request,” adding, “Whether it’s spy balloons or spy satellites, hypersonic weapons or stealth aircraft, massive naval construction or nuclear stockpile expansion, China’s military modernization effort is no joke.”
In a statement on Sunday, U.S. Northern Command said the balloon was brought down “within sovereign U.S. airspace and over U.S. territorial waters to protect civilians while maximizing our ability to recover the payload.”
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, meanwhile, lodged “solemn representations” with the U.S. Embassy in China on Sunday over the “use of force” against what it maintains is a “civilian unmanned airship.”
“What the U.S. has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-U.S. relations since the Bali meeting.”
He said the U.S. has “obviously overreacted” and that China “resolutely opposes and strongly protests this.”
The so-called “Gang of Eight” of congressional leadership is still slated to have a briefing on the balloon this week as Republicans warn Biden of investigations to come over his handling of the matter.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, also announced Friday that he’ll hold a subcommittee hearing on the ballon.
It’s unclear when Secretary of State Antony Blinken will move forward with plans for high-level meetings in Beijing postponed last week as relations with China remain tense.
“This balloon incident has done nothing to help improve U.S-China bilateral relations,” Kirby said earlier. “And now it’s just not the appropriate time for us to have those sort of face to face discussions with them on larger diplomatic issues.”
ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Ben Gittleson, Karson Yiu, Allison Pecorin, Justin Gomez and Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.
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