Listen to a reading of this article:
The Washington Post has a weird new article out citing multiple anonymous US officials saying that the Chinese “spy balloon” we’ve been hearing about for the last two weeks was never intended for a surveillance mission over North America at all.
The article is titled “U.S. tracked China spy balloon from launch on Hainan Island along unusual path,” and throughout it alternates between the objective journalistic terms “suspected spy balloon” and “suspected Chinese surveillance balloon” and the US government’s terms “spy balloon” and “airborne surveillance device”. There is at this time no publicly available evidence that the balloon which was famously shot down on February 4th was in fact an instrument of Chinese espionage; the Chinese government has said that the balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that got blown off course, and the Pentagon’s own assessment is that a Chinese spy balloon would not “create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit.”
What makes the article so weird is that it actually contains claims which substantiate Beijing’s assertion that this was in fact a balloon that got blown off course, yet it keeps repeating the unevidenced claim that it was a “spy balloon”. Here’s an excerpt, emphasis mine:
By the time a Chinese spy balloon crossed into American airspace late last month, U.S. military and intelligence agencies had been tracking it for nearly a week, watching as it lifted off from its home base on Hainan Island near China’s south coast.
U.S. monitors watched as the balloon settled into a flight path that would appear to have taken it over the U.S. territory of Guam. But somewhere along that easterly route, the craft took an unexpected northern turn, according to several U.S. officials, who said that analysts are now examining the possibility that China didn’t intend to penetrate the American heartland with their airborne surveillance device.
The balloon floated over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands thousands of miles away from Guam, then drifted over Canada, where it encountered strong winds that appear to have pushed the balloon south into the continental United States, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence.
The article really reads like someone trying to reconcile two contradictory narratives, claiming that although China didn’t intend to send the balloon over the United States, it decided to seize the opportunity to surveil US nuclear sites while it was there anyway.
“Its crossing into U.S. airspace was a violation of sovereignty and its hovering over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana was no accident, officials said, raising the possibility that even if the balloon were inadvertently blown over the U.S. mainland, Beijing apparently decided to seize the opportunity to try to gather intelligence,” write the article’s authors Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, and Jason Samenow.
“Intelligence analysts are unsure whether the apparent deviation was intentional or accidental, but are confident it was intended for surveillance, most likely over U.S. military installations in the Pacific,” they write.
No mention is made of the two weeks of hysterical shrieking from the western political/media class about China’s outrageously brazen intrusion into US airspace, or the claims from conservative China hawks that it proves Biden has failed to make Beijing sufficiently afraid of American might. No mention is made of the rhetoric from warmongers like House China Select Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher, who claimed the balloon is evidence that China is “a threat to American sovereignty, and it is a threat to the Midwest — in places like those that I live in.” And no mention is made of the White House’s recent admission that the three unidentified objects that US war planes shot down over the weekend were most likely benign balloons.
“The intelligence community’s considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” the National Security Council’s John Kirby told the press on Tuesday.
So it’s entirely possible that the American political/media class has been spending the month of February furiously demanding more militarism and more cold war escalations over four harmless balloons. It’s entirely possible that the world’s mightiest air force just spent two weeks waging kinetic aerial warfare on random pieces of junk in the sky. And that this is being used to manufacture consent for more aggressions against China.
In a recent article titled “Media ‘Spy Balloon’ Obsession a Gift to China Hawks,” Fair.org’s Julianne Tveten documents the ways the western media have been committing journalistic malpractice with their obedient regurgitation of US government slogans about a “Chinese spy balloon” despite a complete lack of evidence for this claim:
Despite this uncertainty, US media overwhelmingly interpreted the Pentagon’s conjecture as fact. The New York Times (2/2/23) reported that “the United States has detected what it says is a Chinese surveillance balloon,” only to call the device “the spy balloon”—without attributive language—within the same article. Similar evolution happened at CNBC, where the description shifted from “suspected Chinese spy balloon” (2/6/23) to simply “Chinese spy balloon” (2/6/23). The Guardian once bothered to place “spy balloon” in quotation marks (2/5/23), but soon abandoned that punctuation (2/6/23).
Given that media had no proof of either explanation, it might stand to reason that outlets would give each possibility—spy balloon vs. weather balloon—equal attention. Yet media were far more interested in lending credence to the US’s official narrative than to that of China.
And of course getting lost in all this is the obvious fact that it’s no big deal for major governments to spy on each other; they all do so constantly, and the US does it more than anyone else. To suddenly treat increasingly flimsy claims about Chinese spy balloons as some kind of incendiary existential threat is ridiculous.
As commentator Matthew Petti recently observed on Substack, the US has historically been so insistent on its right to fly surveillance aircraft over foreign countries that it has repeatedly come close to war with nations who’ve shot down its spy planes. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, then-attorney general Robert Kennedy issued a red-line threat to the Soviet ambassador that if the Cuban military didn’t stop shooting US spy planes, the United States would launch an invasion of Cuba. Just in 2018 the US came close to the brink of war with Iran when its military shot down a US surveillance drone, and was only averted because Trump was talked out of it by TV pundit Tucker Carlson.
If the US insists on its right to conduct aerial surveillance on foreign nations, it’s a bit silly for it to throw a tantrum when foreign nations return the favor. It would be even sillier to throw a tantrum over a surveillance mission its own intelligence says was accidental. It would be even sillier for the news media of the western world to assist it in doing so.
Sometimes I think American media should abandon its whole “free press” charade and just switch to publishing the news straight out of the Pentagon. This is definitely one of those times.
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