US downs Chinese balloon, drawing a threat from China
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.
President Joe Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier, on Wednesday. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water, U.S. officials said. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the U.S. for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
In its statement Sunday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.” China’s Ministry of Defense echoed the statement later in the day, saying it “reserves the right to take necessary measures to deal with similar situations.”
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the U.S. this week dealt a severe blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.
The giant white orb was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. About 2:39 p.m. EST, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defense officials said.
The spectacle had Americans looking to the skies all week, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.
On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbors looking up — and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky. Then she saw fighter jets circling and the balloon get hit.
“I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” she said.
The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over roughly seven miles and the recovery operation included several ships. The officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks. A salvage vessel was en route.
U.S. defense and military officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was spotted Wednesday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos.
The Americans were able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the U.S., giving them a number of days to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, according to two senior defense officials said. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
The officials said the U.S. military was constantly assessing the threat, and concluded that the technology on the balloon didn’t give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could already obtain from satellites, though the U.S. took steps to mitigate what information it could gather as it moved along.
Republicans were critical of Biden’s response.
“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tweeted: “Now that this embarrassing episode is over, we need answers from the Biden Administration on the decision-making process. Communist China was allowed to violate American sovereignty unimpeded for days. We must be better prepared for future provocations and incursions by the CCP.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was more positive: “Thank you to the men and women of the United States military who were responsible for completing the mission to shoot down the Chinese surveillance balloon. The Biden Administration did the right thing in bringing it down.”
China has claimed that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation of Blinken’s trip. “In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. Officials said the balloons are part of a fleet that China uses for surveillance, and they can be maneuvered remotely through small motors and propellers. One official said they carry equipment in the pod under the balloon that is not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
This isn’t the first time Chinese spy balloons have crossed into U.S. airspace in recent years, one of the officials said. At least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president they’ve seen balloons cross, but not for this long, the official said.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the U.S. was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at U.S. defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leaped to use the news to mock the U.S.
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. not to “smear” it because of the balloon.
In preparation for the operation Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions. The FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the giant deflated balloon descending like a ribbon toward the water.
Bill Swanson said he watched the balloon deflate instantly from his house in Myrtle Beach as fighter jets circled around.
“When it deflated it was pretty close to instantaneous,” he said. “One second it’s there like a tiny moon and the next second it’s gone.” Swanson added that a trail of smoke followed the balloon as it dropped.
Is DeSantis darkening Florida’s sunny open-records laws?
Florida has long been known for sunshine — not only the warm rays that brighten its beaches but also the light of public scrutiny afforded by some of the nation’s strongest meetings and records laws.
Although years of rollbacks have gradually clouded the impact, advocates are ringing alarms that this year presents the greatest threat to transparency yet in the state that coined the name “Sunshine Law” for its open-government rules.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, weighing a presidential bid, is pursuing a home-state agenda that could make it harder for people to learn what public officials are doing or to speak out against them. In an unprecedented move for the Sunshine State, DeSantis has claimed an executive right to keep key government records secret. He’s also seeking to weaken a nearly 60-year-old national legal precedent protecting journalists and others who publish critical comments about public figures.
Florida’s Republican-led Legislature appears eager to carry out his vision. As their annual session began last week, lawmakers filed dozens of bills that would add to the state’s lengthy list of open-government exceptions.
“The state of sunshine is in peril,” warned Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, who has been tracking the state’s public access laws for three decades.
DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid following the session, has thrilled conservative activists nationwide by leaning into fights against the GOP’s perceived political adversaries: public health officials, so-called “woke” leaders in business and public education — and the press.
Former President Donald Trump, a potential rival and fellow Floridian, also is well-known for lambasting the press — describing the U.S. media as “the enemy of the people.” Such criticism often plays well within the modern-day Republican Party, where mainstream media are perceived to side with the interests of Democrats and liberals.
But it runs contrary to Florida’s historic reputation as a place where reporters — and curious members of the public — can unearth government data and documents that shed light on the decisions made by elected officials.
Florida’s law making government records open to public inspection dates to 1909, long before similar measures emerged in many other states. It added a Sunshine Law requiring public meetings in 1967. Then, in 1992, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a public right to access records and meetings. A decade later, as lawmakers were adding exemptions, voters approved another a constitutional amendment making it harder for legislators to approve future exceptions.
Florida newspapers launched the first “Sunshine Sunday” in 2002 to highlight the importance of public access to government information. That one-day event has since grown to an annual Sunshine Week observed nationally by media and First Amendment advocates.
As this year’s Sunshine Week began Sunday, lawmakers in state capitols were pursuing a mixture of proposals — some excluding more government records from public inspection; others increasing the ability of people to keep an eye on their government. But nowhere, perhaps, have Sunshine Week issues garnered as much attention as in Florida — due largely to DeSantis’ powerful platform to voice his complaints about the media.
Last month, DeSantis hosted a livestreamed “panel discussion on defamation” while attempting to build support for his plan to make it easier to bring defamation lawsuits against the media or people who post things on the internet about public officials and employees.
“You smear somebody, it’s false, and you didn’t do your homework, you’re going to have to be held accountable for that,” DeSantis said while concluding the event. “Hopefully, you’ll see more and more of that across the country.”
DeSantis is seeking to undercut a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that shielded news outlets from libel judgments unless proven that they were published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was false or acting with “reckless disregard” to whether it was true. Florida legislation to carry out DeSantis’ plan would make it unnecessary to prove “actual malice” when the allegedly defamatory statements don’t relate to the reason why someone is a public figure.
Other provisions of the legislation would presume anonymous statements in news stories are false for the purposes defamation lawsuits and would treat accusations of racial, sexual or gender discrimination as intrinsically defamatory.
Petersen said such provisions appear to be a first nationally and could have a freezing effect on free speech.
But Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who is sponsoring the bill, said it is “a sincere attempt to try and fix the problems that exist in this type of law.”
“This bill would make it easier for someone who’s actually been harmed by a defamatory statement to pursue justice in Florida courts,” Andrade said.
The defamation legislation is just one of several DeSantis administration policies prompting concern among media organizations.
Earlier this year, a Florida trial judge upheld DeSantis’ assertion of “executive privilege” in refusing to turn over information requested under the state’s public-records law about his screening of potential state Supreme Court nominees. That case is being watched by national media organizations as it’s being appealed.
The Florida Constitution contains no specific mention of “executive privilege.” Neither does the U.S. Constitution, though courts have upheld the president’s prerogative to withhold documents to protect the confidentiality of advice received in the decision-making process. Governors in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington also have previously asserted the privilege.
Another DeSantis administration policy has slowed access to some public records. Television station WKMG reported last month that public records requests to some state agencies were being routed for review to the governor’s office, sometimes delaying their release by weeks or months.
Public protests at the Capitol also have been limited. Under a DeSantis administration rule that took effect March 1, demonstrations at the Capitol Complex are only permitted outdoors. Requests to use space in the Capitol Complex must come from state agencies, the Legislature or judiciary, must be “consistent with the agency’s official purpose” and cannot include displays with “gratuitous violence or gore” that are “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community.”
Florida’s open-government reputation already was fading before DeSantis took office in 2019, but that trend has gained steam. In his first year, lawmakers expanded the list of personal details forbidden to be disclosed about various public officials. Last year, DeSantis signed a law shielding information about candidates for college and university presidencies.
This year, roughly five-dozen bills already have been filed proposing more open-government exemptions, Petersen said. Some of those would prohibit the agency that provides security for DeSantis from disclosing the governor’s travel arrangements — even after the fact.
Though DeSantis said he doesn’t support it, another bill filed this year would require bloggers to file periodic reports with the state if they are paid for posts about the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet members or legislative officials.
The cumulative effect is that “open government and public records laws are very much under the gun right now,” said Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit that advocates for the public’s right to open government.
“Every year, we’re seeing the vast sweep of the original intention chiseled away – sometimes bit by bit, other times chuck by chuck,” Block said, “and it’s definitely not the way it used to be.”
Missouri debates ban on LGBTQ education for all grades
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers argued Wednesday over a bill that would ban most LGBTQ education subjects for all grades in the state’s public schools.
The proposal is modeled after a Florida education law passed last year, touted by supporters as protecting “parent’s rights” and dubbed by opponents as a “ Don’t Say Gay ” law.
The Missouri bill debated in a state House committee hearing would ban K-12 public school staff from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The Florida law only prohibits teaching those subjects from kindergarten through third grade, although any lessons on those topics for students of any grade are also banned if they are not age-appropriate.
“Exposure to such topics is inappropriate for children, creating confusion which may then cause doubt in their identities,” said Rep. Ann Kelley, a former teacher and the Republican sponsor of the Missouri bill. “It is not the place of the school to indoctrinate our children by exposing them to gender and sexual identity curriculums and courses.”
Kelley said her bill will need to be amended so it does not limit teaching for Advanced Placement courses.
In response to a question from a committee member, Kelley said she assumes that under her bill, educators would be banned from explaining the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage.
“It seems like the things that you want to prohibit are targeted to one particular group that you find disfavorable,” Republican Rep. Phil Christofanelli told Kelley.
Democratic Rep. Ian Mackey, a former teacher who is openly gay, asked Kelley if him “being gay in the classroom” and not hiding that from students would be limited under her bill.
“Did you ever inform your students on your beliefs?” Kelley asked Mackey.
“They did know I was gay,” Mackey said. “They would see my wedding ring and they would ask about it, and I would say I have a husband.”
A committee vote on the bill was not scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.
The White House, Disney, and LGBTQ advocates criticized the passage of the Florida bill last year. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the bill was a victory for parents and would prevent “indoctrination.”
Secretary Blinken to Honor International Women of Courage Awardees at White House Ceremony
WASHINGTON, DC – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden will honor a group of extraordinary women at the 17th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Ceremony on Wednesday, March 8, at 2:00 p.m. The ceremony will take place at the White House for the first time in the award’s history.
The annual IWOC Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Since 2007, the Department of State has recognized more than 180 women from more than 80 countries.
The ceremony will be pooled press and streamed live on whitehouse.gov/live and state.gov.
Following the IWOC ceremony, the awardees will participate in an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, where they will meet with American counterparts in various cities throughout the country.
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