Who knows?

David Niven lifted the title of his best-selling memoir The Moon’s a Balloon from the poem “who knows if the moon’s a balloon” by e.e. cummings. This is the poem:

who knows if the moon’s
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky–filled with pretty people?
( and if you and I should

get into it,if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
why then
we’d go up higher with all the pretty people

than houses and steeples and clouds:
go sailing
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody’s ever visited,where

Spring)and everyone’s
in love and flowers pick themselves.

If you know cummings at all, you know that the use of the lower case and the unconventional spacing are all [sic].

The poem comes to mind in connection with yesterday’s on-the-record Pentagon press conference conducted by Air Force Brigadier General and Pentagon spokesman Patrick Ryder. In response to questions General Ryder discussed “a larger Chinese surveillance balloon program,” of which the balloon shot down last weekend was a part. The Pentagon has posted a transcript of General Ryder’s briefing here. Other unnamed officials have also discussed the program with the Washington Post and the the New York Times.

In a sense we are to be grateful for last week’s episode: “[T]his last week provided the United States with a unique opportunity to learn a lot more about the Chinese surveillance balloon program, all information that will help us to continue to strengthen our ability to track these kinds of objects.” To borrow a pungent bureaucratic phrase that the Pentagon has applied to the balloon episode, what we have here is an “awareness gap,” or a “domain awareness gap.” That is a phrase that goes right to the top and deserves wider application to the Biden administration.

The Times covers General Ryder’s briefing in the story “China Sends Spy Balloons Over Military Sites Worldwide, U.S. Officials Say.” The substance of General Ryder’s briefing was more or less previewed Tuesday night in the Washington Post story “Chinese balloon part of vast aerial surveillance program, U.S. says.” CNN provides an accessible version in a story posted here.

For some reason the Biden administration kept the Chinese spy balloon that transited the United States a secret. It was discovered and publicized by Montana citizen Chase Doak. According to leaks last week, the administration intended to keep the story under wraps (“on the down-low”) so that Secretary of State Antony Blinken could keep his scheduled appointment with Beijing over the weekend.

“Intelligence officials” now believe that the balloon was part of a global Chinese surveillance effort that is designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world. Although only discovered or “assessed” courtesy of last week’s events, the Chinese surveillance program is a relatively big deal. American “officials” are briefing friendly countries around the world on the program.

These stories are vague on the precise timing of the discovery of China’s program, although the gist seems to be that we owe it all to our own surveillance of the balloon that crossed the country last week (starting in Alaska on January 28). General Ryder addressed the question of timing this way yesterday: “I don’t have a specific date to provide you in terms of when the intelligence community developed this other than to say it’s been in the last couple of years that we’ve been able to do the analysis and look at these objects and determine which has built the body of knowledge available to us. So again, as I mentioned, as this object approached U.S. airspace, NORAD NORTHCOM knew what it was and tracked it.”

That sounds like a big deal that deserves to be followed up in connection with last week’s events. As for the rest, in the words of e.e. cummings, who knows?

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