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Chinese surveillance balloon recovery underway amid GOP attacks

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(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.

A senior government said the FBI is expected to take custody of any recovered components of the balloon’s payload and to ship it to its laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. for analysis and intelligence gathering.

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.

Asked whether the balloon incident has weakened U.S.-China relations as he arrived back at the White House on Monday from Camp David, Biden told reporters, “We’ve made it clear to China what we’re going to do, they understand our position. We’re not going to back off, we did the right thing, and there‘s not a question about weakening or strengthening, it’s just the reality.”

When asked whether it was always his view to shoot it down or that he did so only because it became public, Biden responded, “Oh no, it was always my position. Once it came over the United — into the United States from Canada, I told the Defense Department I wanted to shoot it down as soon as it was appropriate. They concluded — they concluded we should not shoot it down over land, it was not a serious threat, and we should wait until it got across the water.”

White House officials are continuing to push back against criticism from Republicans, insisting they simply did not want to endanger a successful takedown operation by disclosing sooner.

“On Wednesday, President Biden directed the military to shoot down the balloon while maximizing our ability to collect the payload,” a White House spokesperson said in response to inquiries about the timing of the disclosure. “The military was working on the plan to execute it and we did not want to get ahead of the operation or risk it in any way. We have also kept Congress briefed generally on this issue of Chinese surveillance balloons program, including briefings last August.”

White House spokesperson John Kirby spoke with reporters Monday afternoon to give an update on recovery efforts and also defended 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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