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Rep. Jim Himes on unidentified object shootdowns

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier today, we learned that the U.S. military shot down another, to this point, unidentified object discovered at high altitude, this one over Lake Huron. It's the third one observed and then shot down over North America since Friday, with one over Alaska and another over Canada. U.S. officials have not confirmed the origin or nature of any of these things. But this all happened while U.S. officials are still analyzing whatever was in that balloon that the Chinese acknowledge was theirs, that the U.S. shot down last week over the Atlantic. So why are all these objects seemingly popping up all over the place and why now?

We can't be the only one with questions. So we called Congressman Jim Himes, who hopefully has some answers. He's the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and one of the so-called Gang of Eight. Those are the congressional leaders from both parties who are briefed first on intelligence and national security matters. Congressman Himes, thanks so much for joining us.

JIM HIMES: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Can you tell us any more about these objects that were shot down over Alaska and Canada?

HIMES: Well, I can't tell you a whole lot more, but I think I can give you and hopefully lots of people a way to think about it. I am very confident that none of these objects represent a threat to the national security of the United States, to its people. I'm confident that they are very unlikely to have the kinds of surveillance capabilities that the Chinese balloon that was shot down had. And the reason I say that would - is that if they were a threat, if they were a military action, if they had dangerous capabilities, I'm quite certain I would have been briefed on that.

Now, my theory is - and this is where it gets pretty speculative, but it's informed speculation. I'm thinking back last year to when we had the hearings on what we're supposed to call UAPs, unidentified aerial phenomas - most people call them UFOs. And what I learned in that hearing is that there is an immense amount of garbage up there, all kinds of balloons. You don't have to be a nation-state to launch a balloon. You know, there are folks launching weather balloons, Wi-Fi balloons, you name it. And now we're just particularly sensitized to it. And we also happen to have a lot of our military radars and that sort of thing doing something that they're not used to doing, which is looking for balloons. So I think because we're really looking hard, we're seeing a lot of this garbage. And when it incurs - when it - when there's an incursion into civil aviation space, I think, at that point, the authorities say, boy, we'd better do something about this.

MARTIN: And you call this garbage. Why do you say that? Why do you call it garbage?

HIMES: Well, that is - you're right to point out that that's imprecise language. I guess I say that because if somebody is operating a weather balloon, they would presumably let the FAA know about it. And I call it garbage simply because some of these balloons, by the way, can last in the atmosphere for months. This is not sort of a party balloon. And so when I say garbage, I mean, it could be just residual experiments that were done by anyone, frankly. I mean, you don't necessarily need to be in the area to put a balloon into the stratosphere and have it drift over North America. But you're right in saying that they might actually be active Wi-Fi balloons. They might actually be active weather balloons. But I come back to what I said at the start, which is I'm relatively sure that they're not a threat in any way to the people of the United States or to our national security.

MARTIN: So a couple things. Let me just see if I understand you. I think what I hear you saying is that we are seeing these objects now because there's more stuff up there. And also we're seeing these things now because we're looking for them. Is that right?

HIMES: That's correct. You know, our sensors - what have we worried about over the course of our lifetimes? We've worried about missiles coming over the pole from Russia back in the old Soviet days. We - post-9/11 we worried about unidentified aircraft coming in, perhaps laden with explosives or whatever. None of our technology is particularly focused on predicting something that's drifting along at 30 miles an hour at 50,000 feet. Now it is. And as a consequence, I think we're seeing a lot of things that were there before but that we just didn't see before.

MARTIN: So the Department of Defense says that they shot down these latest two objects, and we haven't yet heard from them about this third one. Out of an abundance of caution, do you think that was the right thing to do?

HIMES: Well, I do. And again, my suspicions are that they shot them down for precisely the reason they said they did, which is that they represented a risk to civil aviation. And when you get down below 40,000 feet, that is true. All of us have had the experience of being on a plane and being told that we're now at cruising altitude of 32,000 feet or whatever. What I do worry about is - and again, we need to know what these things are. I think it's going to turn out to be a lot less than meets the eye. But a military mission to shoot down a balloon is a very, very expensive thing. And now we've got teams in the Arctic and teams in Canada trying to recover these things. We can't make it the policy of the United States, I think, in the long run - if I'm right and these are, you know, errant weather balloons - to, you know, deploy the military to take down these balloons every time we find them. So we need to think a little bit harder about that.

MARTIN: Well, that was going to be my question is, does that suggest that there needs to be some sort of framework for allowing these things to be sent up, you know, into the air? I mean, again, these are high altitude items. I mean, these are things that people don't generally just kind of buy at Best Buy or whatever. But do you - does this suggest that there's some sort of regulatory framework is needed?

HIMES: Yeah, well, I mean, again, I think we sort of need to root ourselves in reality. I certainly can't remember. And I would wager that there hasn't been an airliner down to civilian - you know, civilian aircraft downed by a weather balloon or some other form of balloon. So we need to sort of evaluate what the risks really are. I think we were all attuned to balloons and being slightly frightened by balloons, I think, as the, you know, government has said, out of an abundance of caution. But you're absolutely right. Look, if this is going to be a thing, I think we're going to need to do more to have the owners of balloons, you know, whatever it may be, tell us that they're up there, tell us what the tracks are and, by the way, have some way of controlling them and taking them down when they're no longer useful for their particular purpose.

MARTIN: Congressman, sadly, we only have 30 seconds left, but I am interested in knowing whether you know any more about the balloon that we do know, the Chinese - that did belong to the Chinese. They've acknowledged that it is that - it is theirs. But they don't - we don't see eye to eye about what it is. Do we know any more about that?

HIMES: We do know a lot more. We've recovered a lot of it. Much of the question that you're asking won't be easily answered, you know, in public 'cause this is pretty sensitive stuff. But we have recovered much of it. And I do think that we're going to learn an awful lot about Chinese capabilities as a result of having that technology.

MARTIN: That is Congressman Jim Himes. He's the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. That means he's the top Democrat on the committee. He represents Connecticut. Congressman Himes, thanks so much for sharing this time with us.

HIMES: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.