White House says shot down objects were likely 'benign' balloons

The leading explanation among US intelligence officials is that three objects shot down over North America last weekend were balloons being flown for benign purposes, the White House said Tuesday, the furthest the administration has gone in describing the as-yet-unidentified crafts.

The three mystery aerial devices have consumed areas of the federal government since they were shot down over the past several days. The administration hasn't been able to say with certainty what they were doing, where they were from or even what type of craft they were -- conditions ripe for conspiracies.

The White House, recognizing the potential for the spread of outlandish theories, has sought to tamp down on fears the objects could have originated from a hostile state or even from outer space. On Tuesday, a top White House official suggested they were likely harmless.

"The intelligence community's considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose," John Kirby, the strategic communication coordinator at the National Security Council, said Tuesday.

Kirby said he was comfortable ruling out the possibility the objects belonged to the US government, and said there was currently no indication they were connected to China's spy balloon program, which has commanded attention after the US shot down a Chinese spy balloon earlier this month.

Lawmakers reassured

On Capitol Hill, senators emerging from a classified briefing on the objects said they were reassured after hearing from administration officials that the objects posed no threat to the American people.

"There are a lot of these things that are up in the air from time to time, some commercial, some government and maybe there's some things we don't know," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, adding he wasn't worried "in the slightest" that the objects themselves pose a threat to the American people.

The disclosures seemed designed to put to rest ongoing speculation about the origins of the balloons, the remnants of which are still waiting to be collected by investigators. Administration officials have increasingly cast doubt on their ability to fully recover debris from the objects, given tough conditions where they landed.

"Getting our hands on that debris and having investigators look at that debris would certainly be of immense value in terms of our ability to positively identify what these objects were, and, and what their purpose was. So we're going to continue those intensive recovery efforts because they're important," Kirby said.

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby. Photo credit: Getty Images

So far, those efforts have been hampered by what he described as "pretty tough conditions," exacerbated by the geographic challenges on Lake Huron, in the Yukon wilderness and on sea ice north of Alaska.

"Pretty tough weather conditions, let alone just geographically, just tough time of year," Kirby said, noting that the Chinese spy balloon debris recovery off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month was also hampered by high seas in the Atlantic Ocean due to the time of year.

Kirby said the government was relying instead on information and expertise from the Federal Aviation Administration and the intelligence community to glean what they could about the mysterious airborne devices.

"We don't know of any evidence right now that that confirms that they were in fact doing intelligence collection by another government," he said.

One administration official said the government is leaning as much as possible on the US intelligence community to assess the objects. Observations by US military pilots, as well as the objects' flight patterns before they were shot down, are all being studied, the official said.

Since three objects were shot down from the sky over North America in recent days, administration officials have emphasized efforts to recover the debris and the hope that finding their remains will be able to shed important light on their nature.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday the search area in Yukon was a "fairly large area" in dense wilderness. Other Canadian officials were candid Monday about the difficult task of recovering debris from high-altitude objects shot down over Canada and the US.

"We are working very hard to locate them, but there's no guarantee that we will. The terrain in the Yukon is rather treacherous right now so it could pose some significant challenges to us in in terms of our recovery efforts the same could be said about what's taking place in Lake Huron, the marine conditions are also not conducive at the moment," said Sean McGillis, a spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Officials also disclosed that the object that was shot down over Lake Huron was first detected in Southern Alberta. Canadian officials added that out of an abundance of caution, they have deployed investigators with explosives, chemical, biological and radiological expertise.

The White House hasn't been able to say definitely whether photos of the objects were taken before they were shot down.

In a news briefing Monday following the extraordinary three-day stretch, the White House made clear the many things it still did not know. It couldn't say for sure whether the three downed objects had surveillance capabilities. It was hard to say exactly what these objects had looked like, given how fast the fighter jets monitoring them would have been traveling. And it was still unclear where the trio of objects had originated from and to whom they belonged.

Not from outer space

But in the briefing filled with unanswered questions, one statement from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was as definitive as anything else: The US military had not shot down any UFOs from outer space.

"There is no -- again, no indication -- of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent take-downs," she said. "Wanted to make sure that the American people knew that, all of you knew that. And it was important for us to say that from here because we've been hearing a lot about it."

While Jean-Pierre's reference to extraterrestrial activity prompted laughter from some members of the White House press corps, the White House is hardly dealing with a laughing matter. Following the unprecedented move by the president to shoot down four objects in the course of roughly a week -- starting with a Chinese spy balloon earlier this month -- White House officials have been besieged by a torrent of incoming questions about those objects and what had prompted Biden and his top military brass to take them down.

Officials have been particularly sensitive to the inherently mysterious nature of the airborne objects, and how ripe the recent series of events was for conspiracy theories.

"Everyone wants answers that no one has at the moment," one official said, conceding there was a risk with the void of information that conspiracies could sprout.

A determination was made that even in the absence of much concrete information that could be shared with the public about the three recently downed objects, it would be prudent to publicly rule out -- as quickly as possible -- the possibility of extraterrestrial activity, sources said.

There was added urgency to that consideration given that the recovery of the fallen debris -- and a comprehensive analysis of what those objects might have been -- is a process that officials acknowledge could take some time.

Administration officials continue to say their goal is to provide as much information as they can about the objects, but they have noted the circumstances are less than ideal for effective communication.

Biden himself has expressed a desire to be as transparent as possible about the devices with both Congress and the American public, according to officials, but the president has acknowledged that without a full picture of what the objects were, his ability to communicate on them is limited.

One lawmaker who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee had told CNN on Monday that it would be prudent for Biden to directly address the public, particularly given that the situation was ripe for conspiracy theories.

"Ambiguity is fuel for conspiracy theorists, and I hope information is shared expeditiously," the lawmaker had said.