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The latest on U.S. fighter jets shooting objects out of the sky

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Three times in the past three days, U.S. fighter jets shot down slow-moving objects flying high above North America - one in Alaska, one in the Yukon in Canada's north and, yesterday, over Lake Huron. Those came about a week after the U.S. shot down a Chinese balloon off the South Carolina coast. It's all extremely weird. And today at the White House, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wanted to clear up one thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: There is no - again, no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity...

(LAUGHTER)

JEAN-PIERRE: ...With these recent takedowns.

CHANG: Darn - OK, so not aliens. But what were they? I'm joined now by NPR's Scott Detrow and Greg Myre. Hey to both of you.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hello.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So, Scott, I want to start with you. You were in that White House briefing today. What more do we know about these weird things in the air?

DETROW: Other than they're not aliens. Well, yeah, so White House spokesman John Kirby kept stressing that the U.S. government does not have the answers yet to the really big questions here - who launched these objects and what these objects were doing in the skies. And Kirby said the government is working to recover debris to try and find out. And he says in all three recent cases, the U.S. took the same steps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: We assessed whether they posed any kinetic threat to people on the ground. They did not. We assessed whether they were sending any communications signals. We detected none. We looked to see whether they were maneuvering or had any propulsion capabilities. We saw no signs of that. And we made sure to determine whether or not they were manned. They were not.

DETROW: But he said in each case, the U.S. could not rule out surveillance capabilities, so the president ordered them shot down.

CHANG: OK. But, Greg, why do there seem to be so many of these mysterious things floating in the sky all of a sudden?

MYRE: Yeah, Ailsa, I think it's two things. First, the discovery of the Chinese spy balloon was just so unusual, so public. You know, spying is not supposed to be public.

CHANG: Right.

MYRE: And this put the national security community on high alert. And when you start looking for something, you often tend to find more of it. And the second thing is the Air Force says it has changed the parameters on its radar. The filters were looking for things like missiles and jet planes, not slow-moving balloons at a high altitude. So the parameters are - were set wider. And think of it like an email filter. The U.S. was looking for the important stuff, possible threats. And other stuff was going to junk mail. When the Chinese balloon was uncovered, the U.S. went back, looked at old junk mail. It saw the Chinese balloons had come several times in recent years. And then in the past week, the U.S. has picked up other slow-moving objects that it couldn't ID, and it shot them down.

CHANG: OK. So wading through this junk mail, I mean, besides the potential for surveillance, how are they deciding, like, what to shoot down and what not to shoot down?

MYRE: So the Air Force is authorized to take immediate action and shoot something down if there is a hostile action or intent. But as Scott was saying or we just heard, that really wasn't the case. So the information was taken - worked its way up the chain. President Biden did make the decision to shoot it down basically, it seems, because these objects were seen as a possible risk to civilian aircraft. A couple were around 40,000 feet. Another was at 20,000 feet. So it could have gotten in the way of other aircraft. We still don't know if it belonged to a state, a private company or an academic institution, for example.

CHANG: OK. But, Scott, I'm curious because I know that the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, spoke about all of this today. Why haven't we heard from President Biden yet?

DETROW: I mean, it's a great question. President Biden did not have any public events today. There have been a lot of calls for explanation on all of this. Marco Rubio, who's the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted this morning, in its 65-year history, NORAD had never shot down an aircraft over U.S. airspace. Over the 10 days, they have shot down one balloon and three objects. Americans need to hear directly about this from their president today. So Biden hasn't spoken about this. The administration has been briefing lawmakers. And we have - you know, as you heard, we got a lot of details today from the White House, if not the president specifically. I was struck by one thing - that Kirby kept contrasting how much the U.S. knew about that initial spy balloon versus how much the U.S. doesn't know about these last three objects, even noting several different times that there might be a chance here that some of these came from commercial or research operations. It's just very unclear right now.

CHANG: OK. Well, in the time that we have left, I'd like to get a couple of quick parting thoughts from each of you. What will you be watching for? Are we still holding out hope for aliens, Greg?

MYRE: Well, I wouldn't hold your breath. We should note China and the U.S. have massive, sophisticated espionage programs. They're constantly spying on each other. And many in the national security community see the spy balloon as an important wake-up call because it really put the focus on Chinese spying, and they feel there needs to be more of this. That said, many see the balloon program in China's relatively low-level activity just a small part of these Chinese efforts that target the U.S. government and military secrets.

CHANG: Scott.

DETROW: I mean, I'm always holding out hope for aliens. But seriously, Biden and the White House talk so much about managed competition with China, not conflict. Now with U.S. fighter jets shooting objects out of the sky, I think there's a real threat that relations veer in the direction of conflict. So how does this deescalate? That's my big question.

CHANG: That is NPR's Scott Detrow and Greg Myre. Thank you to both of you.

DETROW: Sure thing.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.

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