Every. Damn. Time.

Every. Damn. Time.

We tried, dammit.  God knows we tried.

We tried not to be openly cynical about the Chinese spy balloon.  We tried not to assume the worst.  When the rest of the Right-Wing Commentariat was demanding that President Biden shoot the balloon down and that to fail to do so IMMEDIATELY! was a sign of weakness, we tried to tell ourselves that it probably wasn’t that simple, that there were reasons why the balloon couldn’t be shot down RiGhT nOw!  We tried to believe that Biden, in conjunction with the military and the intelligence community, had sound, strategic and tactical reasons for allowing the balloon to traverse the entire continent before shooting it out of the sky.  We tried to think of reasons why it would be foolish or dangerous to act hastily.  In short, we tried to give our ruling class the benefit of the doubt, to assume that they knew what they were doing and that they were, at all times, acting in the best interests of the nation and its people.

And then, we read this, from Bloomberg:

Its journey across the ocean gripped the world’s attention and forced the top US diplomat to cancel his trip to Beijing, leaving the two superpowers grasping for ways to deescalate tensions. On Saturday afternoon, a US military jet shot the balloon out of the sky….

As it turns out, US authorities were well aware of the unidentified object that had entered American airspace on Jan. 28, that had then left and re-entered over North Idaho on Tuesday. But with such a high-profile trip at stake, keeping it on the down-low was key.

By the time the thing became visible in Montana, President Joe Biden had already been briefed and the White House was scrambling to decide whether to blast it from the sky.

The Biden administration knew it had to exercise extreme caution especially in what was a heated political environment ahead of 2024 elections, with Republicans agitating on which party could strike a harder or tougher line on China….

On Thursday afternoon, the Billings Gazette, a local Montana paper, published a photo of the balloon – meaning it was only a matter of time until national media would pick up on the report and the Biden administration would have to face questions.

To summarize: the Biden Administration knew about the spy balloon for a week but said nothing about it and tried to keep it “on the down-low.”  They did this NOT because they thought it was unimportant and NOT because they were concerned about panicking the American people.  They did so because they had, apparently, purchased non-refundable tickets for Anthony Blinken to go to Beijing and had saved $14 a night by prepaying (without the opportunity to cancel) for his hotel room.  They didn’t want to have to eat those costs, if they didn’t have to, and, frankly, who can blame them?  That and they were worried that Republicans would, as is their wont, “pounce” on the issue.  And they only admitted what they knew AFTER a local paper blew their scheme out of the sky.

Good thing WE weren’t cynical, right?

After the balloon was finally shot down just off the coast of South Carolina, the media was suddenly flooded with stories about how the narrative was all wrong.  Turns out, the same stuff happened during the Trump administration, but nobody complained then.  Nobody called the president “weak” or “senile” then.  People – Republican people, presumably – had attacked Biden unfairly.  Their own hero had done the same – only worse!  Trump never stepped boldly into the breach and showed the ChiComms what’s what.  Two years and two weeks after he left office, Trump was still the bad guy.  And Biden, in spite of himself, was the good guy.

The only catch was that this new narrative was worse than mistaken.  It also hid an even more concerning sub-narrative:

China previously sent high-altitude surveillance balloons over the U.S. that went undetected until after leaving American airspace, Biden administration officials said, as the military salvaged debris Sunday from the downed balloon in a bid to learn more about the Chinese operation.

After the Pentagon disclosed last week that it was tracking the balloon that the Air Force shot down Saturday off the Carolina coast, defense officials said that there have been prior intrusions over the continental U.S. At least three of those occurred during former President Donald Trump‘s term in office and once previously under President Biden….

One official said that much of the information on the flights was pieced together later.

“This information was discovered after the prior administration left,” one of the officials said. The official said that intelligence agencies are preparing to brief key figures in the previous Trump administration….

Several of the Trump administration’s top national security officials said that they were never made aware of any ongoing or previous balloon breaches.

“I had no knowledge of any incursions into U.S. airspace as national security adviser, either during my time as national security adviser or before I got there, nor was I briefed on any China issues like this,” said Robert O’Brien, who served as Mr. Trump’s last national security adviser from 2019 to 2021.

John Bolton and H.R. McMaster, Mr. O’Brien’s predecessors as national security adviser, also said that they were never informed of any balloon breaches.

So…one of two things happened here.  Either the intelligence and military establishments were tricked by balloons AT LEAST three times and allowed the Chinese to spy on us, undetected (until later, that is), or the military and intelligence establishments knew about the balloons but decided not to tell anybody about them until after Trump had left office.  To put it briefly, then: we either have a competence issue or a chain-of-command/insubordination issue here.  Or both.  And none of these options is especially reassuring.

In some ways, we think that the whole Chinese spy balloon is exactly the giant nothingburger Biden’s defenders initially said it was.  We doubt very much that the CCP gained anything especially useful from this mission.

At the same time, if a nothingburger can generate so much incompetence, treachery, and dishonesty, from the military, from the intelligence community, from elected officials, and from the media, then what would be the reactions to a serious incident?  How would these same institutions react to an act of war, a potential EMP attack, for example?

We know we’ve said it before, but our old friend Bob Feinberg taught us that just when we think we’re too cynical about Washington, we learn that we’re actually not cynical enough.

Every.  Damn.  Time.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.