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How Right-Wing Bullshit Created the Great Balloon Caper

The media needs to get better at halting the GOP’s evidence-free assertions in their tracks.

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
House Oversight Commitee Chairman James Comer

In 2013, the police department of Grants Pass, Oregon, got a tip that a man named Curtis Croft was growing marijuana in his backyard. The cops went to check it out. By which I do not mean that they went to his house. Instead, they checked Google Earth. Sure enough, the four-month-old image showed neat rows of something abloom in the Croft backyard. They raided the place and found 94 pot plants.

That was a decade ago. Imagine how things have changed now. Today, the Capella-2 satellite can image an object as small as about two feet square.* Capella, a private Silicon Valley company run by a gentleman named Payam Banazadeh, who went to the University of Texas at Austin and cut his teeth at NASA, calls itself the leader in something called Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR for short) and works with U.S. national security officials and others around the globe. If you’ve seen a radar image on the news of an airfield in Ukraine that Russia tried to level, it may well have been a Capella image.

Oh, and speaking of Ukraine—two Lockheed Martin satellites have been hovering 22,000 miles above Ukraine and Russia for years keeping an eye on things. It was reported at the time of the shooting down of that Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014 that the event was likely caught by one of those satellites and seen at Buckley Air Base in Colorado, where the images are processed. And that, too, was nearly a decade ago.

In other words: Nearly every government in the world, if it wants to spend the money, can spy on you, me, your mother—anybody. If there’s a high-ranking Al Qaeda lieutenant having a cappuccino in a Riyadh café, we can watch him, and if he lingers there long enough, doing his crossword or whatever, we can send a drone to take him out.

China can do the same. China uses satellite surveillance against many of its own subjects, notably the Uighurs, but it can spy on almost anyone in the United States it wants to and has been able to for years. So what is the big deal about that balloon? And the new object that we shot down off the coast of Alaska last Friday? And the third downing over the weekend, this time in Canadian air space (taken out by a U.S. F-22)? And Sunday, a fourth, over Lake Huron?

OK—if this involves space aliens, even I will admit it’s a big deal. But otherwise—who cares? I want you to hazard a guess as to how many spy satellites are circling the Earth right now. I’ll reveal the answer at the end of this column. And you’ll agree, I’m pretty sure, that one stupid balloon and whatever these other things were aren’t a hill of beans.

I understand why people are interested in this. It’s something your average person never thinks about and because China—sorry, CHINA!—is so scary, it’s become a huge story.

But the biggest reason these balloons have been shoved into our news hole is simply because the right wants it that way. You know—the way they raised such a ruckus when Donald Trump, as president, tweeted a satellite photograph of an Iranian launch pad (he declassified it with his mind, and no, Republicans were not outraged). And because they want to use any excuse they can to try to make Joe Biden look weak and befuddled, which is a constant motif of theirs—you know, like the way he looked so befuddled when he owned his GOP catcallers over Social Security and Medicare at the State of the Union.

It’s a trope the modern right has employed since the Newt Gingrich era: They know they can make irresponsible and evidence-free assertions to the media, confident that reporters will reflexively respond, “Well, if a Congressman says it, it must be true, or at least some version of true,” and because reporters love conflict. And when Democrats are inevitably drawn into the story, their attempts to put the story right reads as a denial. And that’s when the damage is done; the right knows that a news story headlined “Democrat X denied today …” is great for them.

Gingrich perfected this move. One of the more infamous examples was his “allegation” that up to one-quarter of Bill Clinton’s White House staffers were drug abusers. It was 1994, and Gingrich had recently acknowledged that he’d smoked pot as a grad student. That was sort of a big deal in 1994, believe it or not, especially for a Republican—although of course the right-wing base, then as now, managed to find a way to excuse behavior in a Republican that would repulse them if a Democrat did it. Still, he felt he had to turn the tables, so he went on Meet the Press and said: “My point is you’ve got, scattered throughout this administration, counterculture people. I had a senior law enforcement official tell me that in his judgment, up to a quarter of the White House staff, when they first came in, had used drugs in the last four or five years.”

First of all, note the total dodginess of the statement. A senior law enforcement official could be thousands of people—including a whole array of folks who, if you actually knew their identity, wouldn’t impress you much. The allegation is also ridiculously broad: It includes any staffer who might have smoked a single joint in the previous half-decade. That may well have been true! But Gingrich knew well that his words would quickly be shorthanded by others to “one-quarter of Clinton aides are dope fiends.” What he was really trying to do, on the basis of no evidence beyond hearsay (if indeed he was telling the truth about that, which is a coin toss at best), was what he said in his first sentence: to persuade middle America that Democrats were drug-addled hippies.

And so, last week, House oversight chairman James Comer, who is beginning to stand out as one of the looniest members of the House GOP caucus, which is really saying something, went on Fox News, natch, to conjecture: “My concern is that the federal government doesn’t know what’s in that balloon. Is that bioweapons in that balloon? Did that balloon take off from Wuhan? We don’t know anything about that balloon.”

I’ll give him this—that last sentence is certainly true, particularly with regard to Comer himself. Later in the week, he showed the poor judgment of going on CNN, where an actual journalist, Kaitlan Collins, committed some actual journalism and grilled him on what evidence he had to back up that allegation. He finally acknowledged that he had none.

Look—when a spy balloon floats over the country, we should do something. And we did! We shot it down on the president’s order! As for when it and where it was downed, despite right-wing complaints that Biden should have moved sooner, that was the military’s call.

So, we’re being watched. We need to protect our airspace. But I trust the Pentagon to know the difference between a spy plane and a craft that might do actual harm. The $800 billion a year ought to be buying us at least that.

And the answer to my question above is that there are roughly 5,465 spy satellites circling our little orb, surveilling every inch of the globe every second of every day.* If some guy steals some lady’s parking space on Chester Street in Maysville, Kentucky, and China wants to know about it, it will. People need to get a grip on reality. And the media needs to follow Collins’s example and stop seeking “conflict” by chasing evidence-free Republican allegations.

* This article originally misstated the capabilities of the Capella-2 satellite and misnumbered the number of spy satellites.