The Fecklessness is the Point
America’s Chinese spy balloon drama unmasks the unpleasant reality that our much-feared Deep State is really the Derp State
Ever since Donald Trump began his presidency, over six years ago, America has been engaged in a tempestuous debate about the so-called Deep State and its alleged nefariousness. That our security agencies, broadly defined, now constitute a threat to democracy has become a common trope on the Right, particularly on its MAGA fringes.
None of this debate is new. Republicans today are rehashing criticisms of the Intelligence Community that were proffered by the Left in the 1970s, in Watergate’s wake, when many Democrats viewed America’s security agencies as a profound threat to civil liberties and freedom itself. For decades after, the Left’s mythology had it that America’s spy agencies were misguided, nefarious, perhaps even evil. The Right didn’t think about the IC much, but conservative mythology imagined that our intelligence outfits were competent, staffed by hard-working patriots doing a tough job for freedom, quietly. All that’s changed since the Trump presidency is that many on the Right have taken up anti-IC arguments made by the Left a half-century ago.
But what if neither of these myths is exactly … true? What if the Intelligence Community is neither especially evil nor especially competent? What if America’s security agencies are mainly staffed by mediocre careerists, bland bureaucrats more interested in their pension, and currying favor with politicians, than in stealing secrets? What if the Intelligence Community is really just a highly secretive and extraordinarily expensive Department of Motor Vehicles?
That cold, harsh reality is pleasing to neither Left nor Right, but what if it’s the truth? The strange events of the last week, with a huge Chinese spy balloon flying across most of the United States before being shot down by the Air Force as it left our Eastern coastline, will not be soon forgotten by many Americans. This unprecedented event demonstrates that our very expensive national security state isn’t capable of doing its most basic job, namely the defense of our borders from foreign military incursions. When the global hegemon can’t monitor and defend its own airspace, is it really the hegemon anymore?
That America’s hegemony was already on its way out was made painfully evident by our shambolic retreat from Kabul in August 2021, amid the ignominious surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban, following 20 years of our highly diffident (but, as always, ruinously expensive) warfighting in that troubled country. The Kabul disaster raised basic questions about the Pentagon’s competence, as well as the decision-making of the Biden administration, but in the end, it’s just Afghanistan, a country far away that most Americans cannot locate on a map. That ugly finale, while humiliating for American power, was less politically traumatic than our retreat from Vietnam nearly five decades before. Besides, more than twice as many Americans were murdered in Baltimore (5,769) over our two decades in Afghanistan, where U.S. military deaths came to 2,456.
In the end, it’s just Afghanistan. But Montana is Montana. That’s where average Americans, not spies or fighter pilots, spotted something unusual in the sky above them last Wednesday, February 1, opening a national drama that’s never quite happened before. What they saw was a very large spy balloon, drifting high up, collecting intelligence. To any trained eye, the balloon’s enormous electronic array was collecting signals and taking pictures – SIGINT and IMINT in spook lingo – though we don’t know any details yet. Since many countries have used balloons to collect intelligence – we did this in our Civil War some 160 years ago – why anybody is surprised that this is still going on is just one of life’s mysteries.
It turns out that the Defense Department was tracking the balloon at least since it entered U.S. airspace off Alaska on January 28, then followed its course southeastward across Canada until it reached Idaho three days later. The rest of the story, we know, at least in outline. What’s evident is that the balloon, while undertaking its meandering journey across the United States, flew over or near multiple sensitive U.S. military installations, including nuclear missile bases. This was no random course by a “weather balloon” as Beijing insists.
There are many obvious questions here, none of which the Biden administration seems to be in any hurry to answer. The Pentagon is having trouble keeping its story straight, but the five-sided funny farm’s response here is that they didn’t consider the Chinese spy balloon a direct threat, so they left it alone (until, strangely they didn’t, shooting it down off South Carolina with an F-22 Raptor). Since when are incursions of foreign military aircraft, particularly from avowedly hostile states, into U.S. airspace not a threat? Who decided that?
Moreover, the Pentagon maintains, it didn’t want to endanger civilian lives by shooting down the balloon over U.S. territory. Who, exactly, was in central Alaska in danger of said falling debris? Neither is Montana exactly overflowing with people. We are supposed to take at face value that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have waged multiple losing wars of choice since 2001, at the cost of countless lives, and right now are incurring the risk of thermonuclear World War Three over Ukraine and perhaps Taiwan, were afraid of killing some polar bears and maybe a rural hermit or two? What’s amazing is that the Pentagon thinks anybody can accept their explanations here with a straight face.
Biden cheerleaders tried some of this tack too, initially explaining that A) everybody spies, it’s no big deal, B) Chinese spy satellites collect all this stuff already, plus C) it’s too high to shoot down anyway. Now, reality:
A) Everybody does spy, including with airborne collection platforms, but per the unspoken rules of this hush-hush game, it’s ok to get close to enemy borders, perhaps flying over them briefly, but extended flights over enemy territory – say, from Idaho to the Carolinas – are a definite no-no. That’s an invitation to your own shootdown. During the Cold War, Communist countries including China and the Soviet Union shot down numerous U.S. spy planes when they got near Red airspace, costing many American lives.
B) No countries undertake risky intelligence collection missions which don’t collect anything worthwhile, at least not more than once … unless of course Beijing intended this mission to make a political point, one which Team Biden seems not to appreciate.
C) In the end, a USAF F-22 fired a single Sidewinder missile from 58,000 feet which took out the Chinese balloon as it flew at 62,000 feet. Shooting it down turned out to be straightforward. Moreover, 63 years ago, Soviet air defenses managed to shoot down Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 CIA spy plane as it flew near Sverdlovsk, at an altitude higher than our Chinese balloon, using an S-75 (NATO calls it an SA-2) missile, 1950’s technology, so the notion that the Pentagon couldn’t shoot down the PRC’s floating intruder was so dumb it was perfect for Twitter.
There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but it’s obvious that there’s quite a backstory to all this, including that several PRC balloon overflights near U.S. borders happened prior to this incident – but, mysteriously, the Biden administration says they were unknown at the time. What the hell happened? is the question Congress needs to ask, urgently. Democrats promptly ran with the accusation that previous incidents were ignored by the Trump administration, but this is apparently not the case. Not only have multiple Trump national security officials insisted that they never heard anything about any Chinese spy balloons over the United States, even Trump’s denial for once seems honest. We know Don. If there had been a PRC spy intrusion like this during his presidency, which functionally was four consecutive seasons of The Apprentice: White House, Trump would have loved it. Imagine the ratings for “In this episode, the President PERSONALLY shoots down the Chyna spy balloon!”
Therefore, we are left with the awkward reality that last week’s incident was the culmination of multiple Chinese spy balloon intrusions into U.S. airspace, none of which got much Pentagon response, culminating in the audacious cross-country operation – none of which the Biden White House planned to tell the public anything about until Montanans saw the intruder with their naked eyes, thereby exposing Beijing and Washington’s mutual secret.
No amount of partisan obfuscation and tweeting through it can mask how feckless the Biden administration looks at this moment. Let it be stated that our national security bureaucracy looks no better. For some time, pundits on the Right have excoriated President Biden for allegedly caring more about defending Ukraine’s border than securing our own, as it’s breached by unprecedented numbers of migrants. Now it turns out that our gold-plated Deep State mysteriously knows more about what’s happening in Ukraine’s airspace than in our own.
How galling all this is to average Americans, who don’t follow foreign news closely but do know what national sovereignty means, is something which the Beltway bureaucracy and its attached pundit army needs to grasp but seemingly can’t. Back in the 1990’s, a good chunk of Flyover America got seriously worked up over the imaginary threat of black helicopters, perhaps from the United Nations, flying secretly above them, while Washington did nothing. Now, the Chinese Communists actually did fly over them while Washington did nothing to stop it. Can we be certain that Beijing’s big balloon had nothing more than intelligence gathering gear on it? No, we cannot (neither will many Americans believe what the Pentagon and the White House say about it). For years to come, every crop failure in the Great Plains will be blamed locally on Chinese airdropped chemicals.
This scandal in some ways resembles the shock of the Soviet launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, which demonstrated that the enemy was more advanced technologically than we dared imagine. Except in 1957 there was no partisan online legion insisting “#Sputnik is a #nothingburger.” Jumping forward three decades, China’s spy balloon drama reminds of the scandal that befell the Kremlin in 1987 when a German teenager managed to fly a single-engine Cessna from Hamburg to Moscow, via Helsinki, landing his plane in Red Square, without opposition from the mighty Soviet military. In turned out that the world’s biggest armed forces couldn’t protect downtown Moscow against a small airplane, thus exposing the rot festering at the heart of the ailing Soviet system. Certainly, Americans should now ask why our massive national security system, which can monitor the globe and project power anywhere on earth, at the cost of something like a trillion taxpayer dollars annually, can’t keep Montana’s skies free of a Chinese spy balloon.
Perhaps Beijing was making a political point rather than an intelligence one. Given the staggering nature of more conventional Chinese espionage against the United States, as against the entire West, Beijing probably has plenty of information about U.S. military bases anyway. However, if the Chinese Communists were seeking to demonstrate the diffident and feckless nature of America’s leadership, military and civilian, by overflying the country end to end, daring the Pentagon to respond, then it worked. After all, if Washington takes days to decide whether to respond militarily when Chinese aircraft fly over middle America, how long would it take for the White House and the Joint Chiefs to figure how to respond to People Liberation Army overflights of Taiwan? Or would Washington just pretend it never happened? This message was surely not missed in Taipei and far beyond.
Recently General Mike Minihan, a four-star Air Force general and the commander of his service’s vast air transport fleet, caused a stir with a memo which stated plainly the general’s belief that war with China is imminent, indeed likely by 2025. The Pentagon quickly distanced itself from Minihan’s comments, even though senior military officers, including the Navy’s top admiral, have recently made similar statements, albeit in more bureaucratic language. Few cared to notice that Minihan recently spent two years in Honolulu as the deputy commander of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command, where he got many intelligence briefings on the China threat. If Mike Minihan is right, Beijing’s spy balloon over America operation is an unsubtle provocation that indicates where the People’s Republic of China plans to go, sooner rather than later. Before last week, many Americans believed that any threat emanating from China was about Taiwan, on the other side of the vast Pacific Ocean. Thanks to those Montanans and their good vision, we know that is no longer the case. The China threat is now right at home too.
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