WASHINGTON– U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., vice chairman on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, yesterday sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin demanding answers to several outstanding questions about the Biden Administration’s decision making process related to the incursion of a Chinese surveillance balloon.
The letter addresses the response from the Department of Defense to Wicker and Rubio’s original inquiry last month. In a letter authored by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, the Department of Defense asserts that the senators’ questions were answered adequately by?relevant national security officials in briefings on Capitol Hill. Wicker and Rubio strongly pushed back against that claim.
“This response, which we interpret as reflective of your position, is unacceptable. We attended both briefings and can say with utmost certainty that Dr. Kahl’s contention is wrong: many of our oversight questions about the administration’s immediate response to the Chinese surveillance balloon remain unanswered,” the senators wrote. “In particular, we await documentation demonstrating when senior officials learned of the balloon and at what point you, and the President, were provided response options.”
Wicker and Rubio also condemned Undersecretary Kahl’s role in disseminating misleading information to the press and his obvious lack of interest in providing forthcoming responses to Congress. The senators requested Secretary Austin hold Undersecretary Kahl accountable for these actions.
“Dr. Kahl appears to be spearheading a communications strategy that aims to hide the administration’s early missteps...in addition, soon after the balloon became public knowledge, Dr. Kahl leaked previously classified information to the press about prior Chinese surveillance balloons during the Trump administration,” the senators wrote. “It remains unclear whether this leak was cleared internally though the proper channels. Either way, it was a brazen attempt to shift blame.”
Read the full letter here or below.
The Honorable Lloyd J. Austin, III
U.S. Department of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, D.C. 20301
Dear Secretary Austin:
On February 8, 2023, we wrote to you and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines requesting timely answers to a series of questions about the Biden Administration’s response to the Chinese surveillance balloon and subsequent shoot down of three unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). On February 27 – a full 10 days after our deadline for this information – Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl responded that the Department would not answer our questions. He also suggested that all of our questions had been addressed in the briefings that the Biden Administration provided to Senators on February 9 and February 14. We are surprised and disappointed that a letter addressed to you was answered by a subordinate. Our expectation moving forward is that your signature will appear on any correspondence exchange.
This response, which we interpret as reflective of your position, is unacceptable. We attended both briefings and can say with utmost certainty that Dr. Kahl’s contention is wrong: many of our oversight questions about the administration’s immediate response to the Chinese surveillance balloon remain unanswered. In particular, we await documentation demonstrating when senior officials learned of the balloon and at what point you, and the President, were provided response options. The simple point of the letter was to establish baseline facts to inform all members of Congress.
From what we have gathered thus far, the Commander of U.S. Northern Command/NORAD, Gen. VanHerck, notified his chain of command of the balloon on January 28, when the balloon was over the Aleutian Islands. But it is our understanding you did not learn of the balloon until at least a few days later, by which point the balloon had traversed Alaska and Canada and re-entered the United States.
As the Department’s senior policy official, Dr. Kahl likely would have been involved in briefing you on the balloon and developing response options. Alternatively, if Dr. Kahl did not play this role during the balloon crisis, learned of the balloon belatedly, or declined to provide response options while the balloon was over unpopulated regions of Alaska and Canada, that is something Congress should understand. Instead, Dr. Kahl is simply declining to answer our questions on your behalf.
Even worse, Dr. Kahl appears to be spearheading a communications strategy that aims to hide the administration’s early missteps. During their respective briefings for Senators, Dr. Kahl and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton repeatedly highlighted the administration's downing and recovery of the surveillance balloon while sidestepping questions regarding the U.S. government’s knowledge and actions prior to the shoot-down.
In addition, soon after the balloon became public knowledge, Dr. Kahl leaked previously classified information to the press about prior Chinese surveillance balloons during the Trump administration. It remains unclear whether this leak was cleared internally though the proper channels. Either way, it was a brazen attempt to shift blame. Most egregiously, Dr. Kahl omitted a key detail in his distribution of this sensitive information to the press – the prior Chinese balloons were only discovered much later. The Trump administration did not have an opportunity to respond at the time.
We sincerely hope you will hold Dr. Kahl accountable for his politicization of previously classified material. This type of behavior is the reason why every Senate Republican voted against Dr. Kahl’s nomination in 2021.
Although this correspondence is focused primarily on the Chinese HAB, we are equally disappointed with the Department’s lack of transparency when it comes to the unprecedented shoot down of three UAP over Alaska, Northern Canada, and Lake Huron. We are aware NORAD was actively tracking UAP over Northern Alaska as early as February 1 prior to the Department updating radar parameters. We were never informed about the Department scrambling fighters to Northern Alaska to address IUAP observed on February 1. Despite sixth generation sensor suites supported by ISR, U2, and AWACS, the Committees have seen zero data and reviewed few details about the UAP shoot downs.
In closing, we await your response to the questions that we sent on February 8. It is imperative for Congress to understand why this Chinese surveillance balloon was not stopped sooner so we can help the Department of Defense and the intelligence community better protect our airspace. Please let us know as soon as possible when we can expect to receive these responses.
We once again thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.