The US commander-in-chief "ordered" the Pentagon to shoot down the suspected Chinese surveillance device days ago
President Joe Biden has said that he gave his authorization to shoot down a Chinese high altitude balloon a day after he was first briefed on the suspicious device hovering over "sensitive" US military sites, but his defense officials convinced him to wait until it was "safe" for people on the ground.
"I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible," Biden told reporters on Saturday. "They decided, without doing any damage to people on the ground... they decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water outside within a 12 mile limit."
Biden was first briefed on the situation on Tuesday, according to his press secretary's statement earlier in the day. When pressed on whether he had given any explicit orders and who recommended him to wait, the US leader reiterated that he "told them to shoot it down... on Wednesday."
The US administration came under heavy criticism from Biden's detractors for allowing the foreign craft to breach the US airspace, and seemingly sitting idly while it flew over multiple "sensitive" military locations.
The Pentagon publicly aknowleged it had been "tracking" the suspicious device on Thursday, after the unusual sighting caught media attention, but did not clarify for how long. By then, the craft apparently already passed over Alaska and through the Canadian airspace, before it was spotted over Montana. The military claimed that it never posed any danger to aircraft or threat to national security.
On Saturday, after the object, floating at an altitude of around 18 kilometers (60,000 feet), traversed the United States unimpeded and reached the Atlantic Ocean, a US fighter jet shot it down just off the coast of South Carolina.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reported on the "successful" operation, confirming that Biden gave his authorization days ago, but "US military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area." Austin also thanked Canada for its "contribution to tracking and analysis," indicating that US officials knew about the balloon all along.
Beijing insists that the device was actually a Chinese civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes. "This is entirely an unexpected situation caused by force majeure and the facts are very clear," China's Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.
In response to the incident, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing, calling it "a clear violation of US sovereignty." China countered that no such visit had been agreed on in the first place.