America has way too many balloon experts

You probably have a strong opinion about the balloon. The Chinese balloon. The only balloon that matters. The one President Biden allowed to menace America as it drifted across U.S. skies like a solar-powered Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Analysts have drawn many instant lessons from the balloon: Biden is weak on China. Biden is trigger-happy. The Pentagon has a gaping balloon vulnerability. China is the next Soviet Union. China is a paper tiger. Balloons could trigger the next world war.

There’s one other obvious lesson from The Balloon: America has way too many balloonheads spouting too many uninformed opinions. If you were a serious analyst trying to make sense of a puzzling new threat, you might wait to draw conclusions until you had all the possible information. You might want to know, for instance, what was on the balloon. Cameras? Microphones? Technical sensors? Amazon deliveries? Paparazzi?

You might want to know where the balloon was supposed to go. Was an overt arc over the United States the original plan? Or was it supposed to hug U.S. airspace without entering it? Did it aim for parts of North American airspace that had radar vulnerabilities? Was it a complete screw-up? What went wrong, exactly? Is somebody heading to the Chinese gulag because of this?

Who was operating it? Was it a formal part of the Chinese military, reporting straight up the chain of command? Or could it belong to a rogue element with less oversight? Is it possible industrial espionage, rather than traditional spying, was the purpose? And is China ahead of the United States in the global balloon wars?

People photograph a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023.  REUTERS/Randall Hill
People photograph a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floats off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023. REUTERS/Randall Hill (Randall Hill / reuters)

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The Pentagon may know some of this and it will probably learn a lot more as it collects debris from the balloon that landed in the shallow waters of the Atlantic Ocean after the Air Force shot it down on February 4. What that data reveals should then help determine whether the Biden administration acted shrewdly by letting the balloon drift for days before taking it out or reacted too slowly and got stuck making excuses for an embarrassing flub.

Everybody who says they know what Biden should have done is a poseur. Here’s one example: Shoot-em-up Republicans say Biden should have shot down the balloon down in waters off Alaska before it ever hit the U.S. landmass. Maybe, assuming the military had the balloon in its sights by then. But what if the Pentagon already knew the balloon wasn’t carrying anything especially threatening? What if there was intelligence value in following the balloon, such as capturing transmissions back to China before the Chinese knew the Americans were tracking the balloon? What about all the intelligence-gathering tools the U.S. military might have been able to point at the Chinese intelligence tool? Should Biden have ordered an Alaskan shootdown just to prove his manliness to Ted Cruz?

Biden’s political enemies obviously hope to embarrass him with opportunistic criticism before the balloon controversy deflates. But it may well turn out that letting the balloon traverse U.S. airspace for all the world to see was the right move. It demonstrates Chinese belligerence and recklessness in ways that could be helpful to a Biden administration eager to highlight the growing militancy of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Retrieving the balloon remnants from the ocean could provide crucial insights into Chinese intelligence efforts. And downing the balloon over the ocean was clearly smarter than risking wreckage crashing onto farmland or other inhabited terrain, which is what some of Biden’s most impatient critics called for. If Biden had ordered a shootdown over Montana and injured a single chicken, the same jugheads saying he waited too long to shoot it down would have lacerated him for not waiting longer.

The government may never provide a full public analysis of all the intelligence secrets obtained or revealed in the balloon incident. It would be prudent to reveal as much as possible, since the balloon’s U.S. visit was so public. Even so, ignorant speculation by amateurs doesn’t substitute for government redactions of legitimate secrets.

It’s obvious these days that social media and a million other sources of information tell everybody everything they need to know to be an expert on anything. It’s unfashionable to wait for the facts because something else will dominate social media by the time they’re in. Yet it’s still okay to withhold judgment until you actually know something.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman

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