It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a helium-fueled nightmare here to steal all our national security secrets!
Yes, the Chinese balloon scandal has eaten up a lot of bandwidth over the last few weeks. Other, arguably more important stories (like the Norfolk Southern mushroom cloud) haven’t gotten nearly as much media attention as the floating white blob that the government decided to shoot down earlier this month. News of the balloon’s intrusion into U.S. airspace sidelined what promised to be a productive diplomatic mission by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who “indefinitely postponed” his flight to Beijing after the balloon reared its head. Instead of de-escalation and diplomacy, America decided to completely and utterly lose its shit.
In addition to the military shooting down a bunch of other unidentified objects in recent weeks, America’s national security zealots have gone full-on gonzo about the dreaded balloon, with one Fox News guest recently suggesting that the balloon could’ve been carrying “anything” and that it was “extremely dangerous.” Blinken himself has called the balloon expedition an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law.”
Critics of America’s great national balloon freakout have pointed out that this really isn’t that big of a deal, that it’s not clear that the balloon was actually collecting any actionable intelligence. China’s foreign ministry has also alleged that the U.S. has used balloons to enter Chinese airspace “more than ten times” in the past year, though the U.S. denies this is the case.
When it comes to spy balloons, though, America freaking out about this is pretty hypocritical. Why? Because we’re one of the worst propagators of these dreaded floating snoops. America loves spy balloons. We just love them. Our own, that is. And we’ve been using them a very long time! Allow me to enumerate some examples.
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Exhibit A: Cold War spy balloons
In modern times, America’s love of the spy balloon goes all the way back to the Cold War (we could go even further back, but I presume you don’t want to be here all day), when our security agencies discovered they could be quite useful in our war with the Soviets. Most notably, the U.S. Air Force secretly launched a program called Project Moby Dick, in which it sent droves of camera-armed, high-altitude balloons, capable of drifting as high as 50,000 feet, to float over the USSR and take pictures of Russian defense installations. Similarly, the CIA used balloons during this period to drop psychological warfare material into communist countries to undermine (or, at the very least, irk) their governments. This included using balloons to sneak copies of George Orwell’s novel 1984 from West Germany into Eastern Europe—apparently as a way of inspiring dreams of liberal democracy beyond the Iron Curtain. Go figure!
Exhibit B: Spying on Afghan goat herders by balloon
In recent years, the spy balloon has gotten way more high-tech and way more invasive. These days, big boy defense contractors like Lockheed Martin engineer sophisticated spy balloons, also known technically as “aerostats” (or, in one government report, “unmanned buoyant craft”), which have been used to spy on foreign populations—mostly in the Middle East. The idea behind the balloons, which were reportedly used quite frequently during the “War on Terror,” is to automate surveillance capabilities to that real human beings don’t have to do the hard work of monitoring entire regions or villages. Still, most people in the areas where they’ve been deployed don’t seem to like them very much. A New York Times report from 2012 noted that the U.S. had a habit of deploying these floating narc blimps in rural areas in Afghanistan and then just leaving them there indefinitely; the goat herders living in places like Kabul and Kandahar told the paper that they didn’t appreciate being watched constantly, expressing that the balloons contributed to an overall “sense of oppression” in local populations. You can see why. It’s basically like being watched by that thing from Jordan Peele’s Nope all day long. Not so great.
Exhibit C: Spy balloons to spy on Ourselves
In 2019, news broke that the Pentagon had been testing surveillance balloons “across the U.S,” allegedly deploying them in six midwest states as an experiment to see whether they could fulfill the vague mandate of responding to “narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.” The dirigibles, which could hover at altitudes as high as 65,000 feet, may have been rigged with Gorgon Stare, a sophisticated surveillance software that the government has used to spy on foreign populations via drones. Gorgon Stare has the ability to record ground-level activity in urban environments with granular detail, essentially supplying government operators with an “instant replay” function when monitoring events in cities. These experiments were part of something dubbed “Operation COLD STAR” that, according to Motherboard, “never really ended.”
At the time of the operation’s reveal, resident debbie downer Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the balloons, “We do not think that American cities should be subject to wide-area surveillance in which every vehicle could be tracked wherever they go…it’s disturbing to hear that these tests are being carried out, by the military no less.”
Whatever, Jay! Killing personal privacy in the U.S. seems like a small price to pay for a 6 percent improvement in drug interdictions!
Another memorable incident in this department took place in 2015, when the U.S. military somehow lost control of one of its spy balloons, which then sauntered drunkenly over the skies of Pennsylvania at low altitudes until it became tangled up in some power lines and caused a power outage for some 35,000 people.
To avoid future international rancor and potentially bring China and the U.S. back together, I submit that we should all just agree that we love balloons. We love them floating high above us, beautiful and mysterious (and potentially rigged with facial recognition). We love them when they monitor our enemies. We love them at birthday parties. Are they a little bit unnerving? Sure! But, as we’ve just acknowledged, we’re all in this together. Mostly, I want us all to acknowledge that we love balloons so that we can also agree to STFU about them. Because with everything going on in the world today, I really don’t think I can handle another “balloon news cycle.”