IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Former Obama official gets real about spy balloon hysteria

Ben Rhodes, an Obama-era national security adviser, injected a dose of sanity into the frantic push to shoot objects out of the sky.


Try as we might, fellow Americans, we cannot shoot all of our problems — nor our perceived problems — out of the sky. 

With much of the country in the throes of mass hysteria over a suspected Chinese spy balloon and other objects flying over U.S. airspace, the “shoot 'em up” strategy may seem fitting for a nation as gun-obsessed as ours. But now is not the time to lean into parody. Now is the time for Americans to get serious about surveillance, both foreign and domestic.

Ben Rhodes, who was White House deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, was spot-on during his appearance Monday on “The ReidOut,” where he assessed some of the reaction to the aerial objects reports. The Biden administration appears to have acquiesced to demands, led by many conservative lawmakers and media figures, to shoot down the objects. But Rhodes noted that this plan isn't an effective strategy. 

If Americans are truly concerned about invasions of their privacy, there are all sorts of U.S. institutions invested in probing their private and personal affairs.

There are "thousands" of balloons, drones and other devices used by individuals, businesses and other entities, Rhodes said, adding that the administration should outline its criteria for what warrants shooting any of them down.

Since the Chinese balloon was shot down this month, three more aerial objects have been shot down by the U.S., according to officials. The military has not yet identified the source of those objects, White House officials said Monday.

Conservative lawmakers have used the Chinese balloon story to fearmonger about China, which Rhodes seemed to acknowledge on Monday.

“I just don’t think, in talking to people in the administration and looking at what they’re putting out that there’s any way that these three things would have been shot down had there not been the original Chinese spy balloon," Rhodes said.

He continued:

I think John Kirby’s explanation makes common sense, which is, after the hullabaloo over that balloon and all the backlash, they decided, ‘Hey, we have to start looking more carefully for balloon surveillance.’ When you do that, you find there’s a lot of stuff in what is a vast swath of airspace, and they’ve moved from some tolerance of that to kind of a zero tolerance for balloons that we aren’t familiar with up there. And so they’re shooting this stuff down.

As Rhodes noted, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby referred to the objects during a news conference Monday. 

Here are some of those remarks:

We also know that a range of entities — including countries, companies, research and academic organizations — operate objects at these altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious at all, including scientific research. That said, because we have not yet been able to definitively assess what these most recent objects are, we acted out of an abundance of caution to protect the security — our security, our interests, and flight safety.

On "The ReidOut," Rhodes acknowledged that there are challenges that arise when the choice is made to shoot a balloon down, including the ability to quickly recover the item and brief the public about its significance. But, to that point, it seems the public, broadly speaking, is in need of some education about how widespread surveillance activities are, which ones rise to the level of national security concerns, and how best to regulate them. 

Not to seem dismissive here, but — people be spyin’. A lot. 

U.S. officials said this month that multiple Chinese spy balloons had flown into U.S. airspace during the Trump administration undetected. China, for its part, has accused the U.S. of floating spy balloons into its airspace, as well.

But surveillance isn’t just an international issue. If Americans are truly concerned about invasions of their privacy, there are all sorts of U.S. institutions — from police departments to social media companies — invested in probing their private and personal affairs. All of these things warrant a serious discussion about independence in the modern world. 

So no, America, the answer to your surveillance fears should not be to immediately shoot things down from the sky above. Instead, we should smarten up.