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U.S. Military Shoots Down Chinese Spy Balloon; U.S. Official: Recovery Effort of Chinese Spy Balloon Underway; Biden Ordered Balloon Shot Down "As Soon as Possible" When Briefed Wednesday; Northeast Thawing Out After Life-Threatening Cold Spell. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired February 04, 2023 - 21:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Welcome to our viewers here in United States and around the world. This is a special edition of "THE SITUATION ROOM."

And happening now, residents in and round Myrtle Beach, South Carolina are being told to not - repeat - not collect debris from a downed Chinese spy balloon. That comes as we're getting one of the best looks yet at the shoot out of the balloon.

U.S. fighter jets fired a single missile to crash the surveillance craft this afternoon. Right now, military crews are scrambling to try to recover as much of the wreckage as possible. Most of it sits in 47 feet of water.

Also new tonight China is delivering a very angry response to what the United States did today. Let's get the latest. Go to the Pentagon first, our correspondent Oren Lieberman is joining us right now. Oren, walk us through what's next?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The recovery effort is already underway. When this operation was in the planning, part of what was on the ground or on the water were Navy and Coast Guard vessels ready to jump in and essentially begin the recovery effort.

And there are two parts to this. The first is already underway with the security perimeter established around, essentially, the debris from this balloon that's floating on the water. And it is quite spread out. A senior defense official said earlier today that its spread out over seven miles of water. So that in and of itself will take some effort.

But a large chunk of that has also sunk in as you just mentioned 47 feet of water. For that they need to salvage vessel that should arrive in the next couple of days. And that will be a whole different operation, going underwater with unmanned vessels, with Navy divers to bring that up. All of this has the potential to contain incredibly valuable intelligence and technology from the Chinese. And that's why this is such an important operation and such a delicate operation.

This dramatic video of the missile taking down the balloon it then fell, this payload that's about three school buses long from 60,000 feet high, so nearly 12 miles up in the sky. Impacted the water were almost certainly would have had a tremendous force there. So now it's a question of trying to find everything, trying to bring it up. And then the much more difficult work of going through it and seeing what intelligence can be gleaned from it. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, a very important development, indeed. Oren Lieberman at the Pentagon. Thank you very much. From the Pentagon, let's head over to the White House. CNN White House Correspondent Arlette Saenz is joining us right now.

What are you learning? What are you hearing tonight? Arlette?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, President Biden made clear today that he ordered his military leaders to shoot down this plane on Wednesday, saying that he wanted that shot down as soon as possible. Of course, there were all those deliberations about shooting down balloon --excuse me, as I said played earlier.

But all those deliberations in what the President had been advised was that shooting it down over the ground would possibly pose a threat to American lives. So that is why they waited until it transited out over to water off of the East Coast. Now President Biden was on Air Force One as this operation was underway. And here's what he had to tell reporters shortly after he landed in Maryland.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible. They decided without doing damage to anyone on the ground. They decided that the best time to do that was it got over water outside - within our - within 12 mile limit. They successfully took it down and I want to complement our aviators who did it. And we'll have more to report on this a little later. Thank you.

REPORTER: Mr. President what do you say about China?

REPORTER: You were saying the recommendation from your - it was from your national security...

BIDEN: I told them to shoot it down.

REPORTER: On Wednesday.

BIDEN: On Wednesday.

REPORTER: But the recommendation from--

BIDEN: They said to me, let's wait till the safest place to do it.


SAENZ: So the President they're laying out some of the considerations that were given to shooting down this device. But this comes as the President had faced quite a bit of criticism from Republicans for not taking action and trying to shoot it down sooner.

Of course, tonight here at the White House officials have been arguing that the way that the President dealt with this, waiting until it was out oversea was, quote, "the responsible action to take." They wanted to ensure that they were minimizing any threat to American lives.

Now, of course, this is all going to be a very difficult diplomatic foray that the White House now has to deal with, with China as this incident has certainly raised tensions with the country.

BLITZER: Arlette Saenz over at the White House for us. So if you get more, let us know Arlette. Thank you very much. Let's discuss what's going on with CNN Senior Political Commentator, former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who's joining us right now. Adam, thanks for joining us.

Now that this balloon is down, what are you hoping U.S. intelligence will learn once it's analyzed?

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think - I mean, it sounds like they were able to learn a lot even while this was transmitting. It sounds like they were able to block either some or all of the data collection, which I think can you know, go into feeding why they delayed shooting it down, because they saw it wasn't going to be huge national security risk at that moment.

But the hope is, you know, you're going to have a lot of wreckage, obviously. You're going to have a lot - you're not going to be able to like take any of this off and plug it into a thumb drive and see what's on it.


But through that you can see various technology, you'll be able to tell what sensors were on that. So what the - is that a camera? Is that something that can sniff out radioactive material? Can it collect microwaves? Can it collect radio communications? So that's the kind of thing they can see. And probably be able to deduct from that if this is advanced technology? Is this something that we knew they had or whatever?

So it seems like, at least kind of the initial reports is that China is actually the losing country in terms of the data exchange here.

BLITZER: Yes. Because the U.S. will learn a lot from analyzing what was inside that balloon and what it was capable of actually doing. Adam, once the U.S. intelligence community gathers all the information on this balloon - I ask this to you as a former member of Congress, how much do you think the intelligence community, the FBI should actually share with Congress?

KINZINGER: Well, I think they should share some of the top lines. I don't think they need to go into things like what was the technology, you can kind of be a little vague about that. You know, there's a lot of that information that you simply don't want to get out. And so I think that's going to be important. Congress has an oversight role here. Congress has a lot of questions. What I think, Wolf, is pretty sad, and I was a big advocate for shooting this thing down. But as the time went on, I'm like, maybe they've been able to hinder something for them to make that decision to wait. The number of members of Congress - you have a right to criticize the President in this, and frankly, that's their job to do it, if they think he made the wrong decision.

But the number of people that I saw tweeting and making statements, basically saying this is proof that the world's laughing at us. The U.S. military is the worst military in the world, basically, to paraphrase, that to me is extremely disappointing.

That in a moment of, you know, somewhat crisis here, the knee jerk reaction of some of my colleagues was to see this as an opportunity to go after President Biden politically. Disagree with him all you want. But when you start speaking down to the U.S. military, I got to tell you, we're still the best in the world by far.

BLITZER: Yes. We certainly are. Do you agree, Congressman with some Republican lawmakers who say the balloon should have been shot down soon - as soon as it first appeared over the United States, as it was going over Montana, for example, a pretty sparsely populated area. Shouldn't have been shot down there.

KINZINGER: So look, if we hadn't been able to block the signals - if we - if basically, they were pulling important national security stuff from that, absolutely, we should have shot it down. And I'm going to tell you, if this happens, again, I'm - you know, somewhat certain, I guess, I would not be surprised if we shoot it down a lot earlier. It is.

Anytime you fly over a sparsely populated state, you realize that there's just not a lot of people out there. It's got a lot of land. And so - but my guess is the Pentagon knew that they were able to at least mitigate some of the damage being done here. And at that point, you can make the decision then to shoot it down over the water.

And probably the water is a better place for preserving, preserving some of those parts. Of course, it's still going to hit with impact, it's still going to shatter. But my guess is it may help preserve it versus just lying there on the ground.

BLITZER: We shall see. What concerns you most, Adam, about this brazen effort by China to send this huge, huge balloon over the continental United States?

KINZINGER: Well, it looks like it's a country that's not a superpower that's trying to play superpower. And so the concern about it - I don't think this incident is going to lead the U.S. and China fighting each other. But it, obviously, shows that - you know, look, China is not this, you know, undefeatable country that I think people thought Russia was, for instance, even.

But it shows that they can make bad calculations, they can assume we're going to do one thing when we may do another. That's the concern is when we deal with this kind of delicate dance in Asia right now, that somebody, namely China, in this case, is going to under predict what we're going to do, and we may find ourselves then in a exchange of fire.

BLITZER: I wonder if you are worried about Chinese reaction to what has happened today? Do you see reprisals from Beijing diplomatic or otherwise, for that matter?

KINZINGER: They may feign it, but we have every right to shoot this thing down. And I think, you know, in his quiet of his falling asleep thoughts, you know, President Xi knows that this - that we had every right to shoot this thing down.

So I don't think this will escalate. They'll make some, you know, very verbose kind of words out there and everything else. But I think the message is clear here. And I think our response should be that do it again, we'll shoot it down again. And definitely you will lose in this exchange.

BLITZER: You think the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made the right decision by postponing his trip? He was supposed to be in China, right away.

KINZINGER: Yes, I certainly think so. This is a - this is a brazen violation of U.S. sovereignty. And I think it's important to note, because I'm still seeing people say, well what's the difference between this and the satellite? Massive differences between what a balloon can get and a satellite can get. It can loiter. It has different sensors, it can pull up different information.

I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. I don't think you shouldn't be in a hurry to reschedule it, though, you know, we have to keep up some version of talking. But yes, you can't have anything like this happen and let it go without being, at least, concerned of.


BLITZER: So where do the U.S.- Chinese relations go from here?

KINZINGER: Well, look, we're in a bad spot. I mean, it's very clear that China has, as I said earlier, this idea that they're a superpower, they can be a superpower. They're not a country that's capable of that right now, when it comes to their economy, even their military, their command structure. So I think it's going to be a strained relationship.

Neither side wants to go to war. So I don't actually predict that happening necessarily anytime soon. But there's no doubt this has put a strain on it.

BLITZER: Adam Kinzinger thanks, as usual, for joining us. Appreciate it very much.

Right now Navy and Coast Guard ships are securing the area where this Chinese spy balloon went down. So what will happen when divers try to reach this destroyed balloon? And that should happen fairly soon. We have details that's coming up next.

Also ahead. The FAA and the U.S. Military worked together to close airspace over the Carolina Coast earlier this afternoon on very, very short notice. Stay with us. This is a special edition of "THE SITUATION ROOM."



BLITZER: U.S. Navy divers will assist as needed in recovering the Chinese surveillance balloon from the Atlantic Ocean after U.S. fighter jets shot it down earlier today. There are also unmanned vessels that can help retrieve it and bring it up to recover - to the recovery ship.

A senior U.S. military official says the debris is primarily in 47 feet of water off the coast of South Carolina. CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us. He's over at the magic wall for us. So Tom, walk us through where this balloon went down and how the recovery efforts may actually play out?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is the part they're really interested in, Wolf, that central part of the payload with a what looked like solar arrays on either side. When this thing was taken down, you could clearly see that part, the part they're interested in, dropping away in what seems to be intact.

Now from the altitude where it was, more than 60,000 feet, we don't know the mass. But if the mass was that of a car, or a couple of cars, which a balloon like this could easily carry, it could have gone into the water at 500 to 550 miles an hour, maybe more. That's just an estimate based on what we do know.

That means that when it hit somewhere here around Myrtle Beach, that it was like running into a concrete wall. It's going to be a tremendous impact when it hits, deforming breaking things, throwing things aside. It would not stay the way it was falling through the air.

What does that mean to the recovery? That means even though it's in 47 feet of water, which is tremendous. And even though they've got good weather for the next few days, which is another good break, they're going to have to go down first and do a basic assessment of what condition it is in, where all the pieces are.

Let's find out what the bottom is like here. There's lot of this embedded down here where they have to dig it up and then slowly they have to come up with the plan. What is most important to bring up? What are they most have to keep the way it is so they can see it in relation to other things, and then how will they do it? This is very delicate work. It takes time.

They think this will be a fairly fast operation, not something that would go on for weeks, but it will still take time to bring it all up safely and preserve the evidence. Look at this as if it's an underwater crime scene, Wolf. That's how they have to treat it. If they want to get all the evidence they think they can find.

BLITZER: Yes, they want to get that evidence and get to quickly, and learn exactly what the Chinese were up to. Tom Foreman, thank you very, very much.

Joining us now CNN Military Analyst, the retired U.S. Air Force, Colonel Cedric Leighton. Colonel, thank you so much for joining us. So this amazing video tonight as U.S. Air Force fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base shot down with a single missile this spy balloon. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just shot it. See smoke coming from it.


BLITZER: All right. Colonel talk to me about the kind of training these pilots undergo to make such a targeted shot, deflating the balloon, but apparently leaving its payload what was inside the balloon untouched.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, it's pretty amazing when you watch this video, isn't it, Wolf? And just so the training that these pilots undergo is really significant.

They, you know, go for about a year and a half of what's called undergraduate pilot training when they first come into the Air Force and first get their commissions. And then after that they specialize in their particular airframes.

Most of the pilots that are flying the F-22 have flown another airframe before that, so they will have had experience with another type of airplane. But the types of skills that they acquire in these kinds of situations are then honed in places like Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where they have the fighter weapons school.

And so these kinds of tactics are really essential, not only to warfighting, but to really precise operations like this. And the targeting piece of this from the pilot, to the weapon, the Sidewinder missile, in this case, to the actual target. That really speaks to the precision that it you know, is very evident in these cases. And it speaks to the precision of the U.S. weapons systems that are available to us.

BLITZER: I'm a former Pentagon correspondent, I've covered the U.S. military for a long time. I don't remember when U.S. fighter jets were downing, shooting down balloons, do you?

LEIGHTON: Yes, that's a very rare occurrence. I mean, you can go back to World War I and probably a little bit of World War II to find a few instances like this in the history of airpower. But I this is something that in the modern age, you never expect to see this.

But what it really tells us is that the adversaries that we have can use a variety of weapons. Some of those weapons are unexpected weapons, some of them are you know, old fashioned in a sense like these balloons are. But these weapons systems or these intelligence platforms, they can be used in many, many ways and we have to really understand what the enemy is or the adversary is up to and adapt our tactics and our techniques to whatever platform they might be using.


BLITZER: A senior US defense official says the balloon was assessed as having limited value from an intelligence collection perspective, Colonel. So what are your guesses as to what its actual purpose was? Why did China launch this huge balloon across the Continental United States?

LEIGHTON: So there's several possibilities. I used to work in collection management operations. And what that means is you pick with the type of collection asset that you need in order to go after a particular intelligence target. So what may have happened is, is that the Chinese use may have had an outage, they may have felt they needed a gap filler in order to cover the particular intelligence requirement that they had for their forces is.

So what could happen is they could do - put balloons in place of satellites to do this. And the types of intelligence that they would be using, Wolf, would include imagery intelligence, which is kind of hard to do, in some cases, from a platform like balloon, but also signals intelligence. And they would be able to collect data in various frequency spectrum like UHF VHF, cell phone, communications, those are the kinds of things that would be important from a military perspective.

And they could also be sampling the environment, the signals environment, and the terrain. So there are a lot of different things that could be a part of their menu, if you will, of things that they were interested in. And a balloon was perhaps one way in which they could find out what they're missing, find out what other things they need to augment in terms of other intelligence collection capabilities.

And those areas were the ones that they needed to, they felt to cover. And in essence, it was also a provocation.

BLITZER: China's foreign ministry has expressed outrage towards the United States for shooting down this balloon. But if the U.S. launched a huge balloon like this over China, I wonder if you agree with, China would have shot it down right away?

LEIGHTON: Oh, yes, in a heartbeat, Wolf. They would have done that. Any other country, you know, pick North Korea, pick, you know, any country in Asia, any country in Europe, if they had the capability to shoot it down, they would shoot it down.

And we have to keep in mind that there are countries, however, that do not have the capability to shoot these platforms down. The countries in Latin America may find it difficult to take down balloon that is over their airspace right now. So that is something that we'll have to keep in mind as this develops and the Chinese perhaps use this one - this system once again.

BLITZER: Colonel Cedric Leighton, as usual, thank you very much for joining us. So what might the United States learn from the debris of this Chinese balloon? Two experts standing by to join me. They will explain. Stay with us. This is a special edition of "THE SITUATION ROOM."



BLITZER: We're now just getting new video into the situation room. Look at this, showing the Chinese spy balloon being shot down over the Carolina coast earlier this afternoon. It got quite a reaction from those on the ground who are watching.

The wreckage found and recovered from the Chinese spy balloon shot down into the Atlantic will now be taken to an FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia for analysis. A senior U.S. defense official tells CNN, the FBI will be working with the Defense Department and counterintelligence authority.

CNN's Josh Campbell, he is a former FBI Supervisory Special Agent. He's joining us right now. So Josh, first of all, what will investigators be looking for specifically?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is what's called the damage assessment phase, basically trying to determine was there a threat to U.S. national security that was posed by this intelligence collection platform. And the FBI, you know, there is no better agency out there that can look at and recreate a device, assuming that it actually survived that shoot down. So there'll be looking at that.

And you know, when a lot of people think about the FBI, they think about DNA analysis, forensic analysis, firearm analysis, there's actually an entire division at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, it's called the Operational Technology Division. I worked with them when I was an agent, these are the technical wizards. We would have a problem set, we would want to devise some type of way to collect intelligence in a particular way, these are the tech wizards that would create those devices.

When we were overseas, we would capture a particular device, take it to this team for exploitation. So it makes sense to me that this is the team that would be looking at, trying to determine what this was and see if it stands up to scrutiny. You know, the Chinese have said that this was a meteorological assessment platform, we'll see if that actually ends up being the case.

Finally, I think it's worth pointing out, Wolf, also that although the FBI, you know, they will be leading this, they will be in their location, this will be a multi-agency effort. I think that's because the Intelligence Committee almost certainly understands that, unlike a lot of intelligence operations, this is a very public incident.

We've all seen this for ourselves, in these images, we've heard calls from lawmakers for accountability. And so you don't often see the CIA and NSA out there very publicly, it makes sense to me why the FBI might try to take on that role, assuming there is some type of public report. But it certainly makes sense to me that this would be the entity where that analysis and scrutiny of this device would take place.

BLITZER: So clearly, the debris will go to Quantico to the FBI labs there, The FBI labs there are much more sophisticated, shall we say, then the labs that might be at Langley Air Force Base, also in Virginia?

CAMPBELL: That's right. When you think about the Air Force piece, their job was to finish this target, which they did. It looks like they for all intents and purposes, it was mission accomplished, to blow this thing out of the sky. We know there was a question about whether this would be done earlier, there was a lot of calls for you know, why didn't the Biden Administration do this earlier? Obviously, that could have caused great risk to people who are on the ground.

You know, I'm no balloon experts. There been a lot of balloon experts that have surfaced, newly minted in the last few days. But I can tell you that all of us can - know for ourselves that something falling out of the sky could pose a threat to people who are on the ground. And so it makes sense why they waited to take it down to where they did.

Now we'll wait for the U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard to actually recover that device. And as you mentioned that then moves into the investigative phase, to the analysis phase, to try and determine what this thing was.


We don't yet know, we've seen the video of this thing being shot down. We don't know whether the actual intelligence apparatus that was attached to this balloon will - actually survive not only the shoot down, but also falling to the water.

But assuming it did, if the investigators are able to actually look at that and recreate that, that could then, you know, answer a lot of important questions. Not only what this device was, but you know, assuming that this was something that was sophisticated in nature, perhaps that could be an intelligence goldmine for the U.S. intelligence community as well about the Chinese government's tactics, their techniques and their capabilities. We'll have to wait and see.

I think, you know, there will be a calculus, Wolf, about what actually the FBI or the intelligence community divulges. They will have to make that calculus. This was something that was so sensitive in nature that maybe they don't want to, you know, lay all of their cards out. But we'll have to wait and see what they came up with.

I think that we'll hear something from them about what they find. They can't just go, you know, radio silence with all of this public scrutiny and interest. But we'll wait and see what these analysts at Quantico come up with, Wolf. BLITZER: Good point. Josh Campbell, thank you very, very much. Joining us now for more is CNN National Security Analyst Shawn Turner. Shawn, before this balloon was shot down, the military and the FAA, they worked together to close the airspace over the Carolina coast. So what do you make of how civilian and military aviation authorities were able to coordinate so much of this?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. Well, Wolf, you know, this was absolutely critical in terms of the coordination. You know, as Josh had said, in the last segment, when the analysis was done as to the best time to shoot this balloon down, the FBI, the intelligence community, the Department of Defense would have looked at a number of key factors.

Those factors have everything to do with a threat to civilians on the ground, But they also would have taken a hard look at the degree to which they could recover this balloon and make absolutely sure that they could do some analysis here to fully understand what the Chinese were trying to do.

You know, Wolf, it's actually not that unusual for agencies like the FAA, and others to work closely with the intelligence community and with Department of Defense in situations like this. We don't get to exercise those kinds of relationships very often. But in this case, at least in this case, it looks like that coordination worked quite well. And the right decision was made to wait to shoot this balloon down until it was over the water.

BLITZER: Yes. Just to prevent damage to individuals or property on the ground in the United States. Right now, salvage crews are working together to debris in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina, then all that debris will go to an FBI lab for multiple intelligence agencies to analyze. What are they going to be looking for, Shawn, or hoping not to find specifically?

TURNER: Yes. Well, Wolf, you know, it's important at first, you know, you'll realize that in terms of what they're looking for, the intelligence community started looking for information about what this balloon was doing even before it was shut down.

You know, there's been a lot of talk about the importance of shooting this balloon down quickly. But when that came to the President, one of the first things the intelligence community would have been talking about is whether or not there was an opportunity to collect intelligence and better understand China's tradecraft, even before this was shut down.

When the decision was made to shoot this balloon down, what they'll be looking at now is, they'll be looking - taking a hard look at the various components to determine what China was trying to collect. They'll be looking to see whether or not there's any new technology that we were not previously aware of.

They'll also be taking a hard look at the control mechanism for this balloon. It's unclear to us at this point, why and how this balloon ended up over us airspace. They'll want to know whether or not this is something that just sort of went errant and they lost control of it, or whether this was deliberate.

And then to the degree that they can understand the devices that are there, that will help us understand how other devices that China is using may work. So you know, this could potentially be a treasure trove of information, Wolf. But as Josh said in the last segment, we simply won't know until that analysis is done.

BLITZER: All right. China says the United States was quote, "overreacting" by shooting down this balloon, and seriously - this is China, seriously violating international practice. Does that kind of response from China concern you?

TURNER: It does, Wolf. I mean, look, the Chinese had to say something to try to save face here. They got caught spying on the United States. And it took them some time to come up with a story. But they've come up with a story and decided to go on the offensive here. But make no mistake. This is a situation in which even as diplomatic relations with China, we're sort of getting to a point where our conversations were happening again, China made a terrible miscalculation here, and this will have a significant impact on diplomatic relations going forward.

No one buys this story. And I think the Chinese know that, but they are doing what nation states do when they get caught spying, going on the offensive. But this certainly is not going to sit well on our diplomatic channels. And I think that this is going to change the nature of those discussions that the United States is planning to have with China in the future.


BLITZER: Because, China, as you know, is still standing very firmly with its claim that this was just a research balloon, studying the weather. If the intelligence community completes its investigation, and confirms something nefarious, which I assume they will, what does that mean moving forward as far as tensions between the United States and China?

TURNER: Yes. Well, it's very straightforward, Wolf. If this - this is determined to be a spy balloon, and it's almost certain that it will be determined to be some sort of apparatus to spy on the United States, the tensions between the United States, which have already been in recent months and years at a fever pitch, are going to rise. It is going to get more tense.

Now, I think that behind the scenes, even as this balloon is been shot out of the sky, and even as we're collecting the debris, behind the scenes, the State Department is working to talk to the Chinese and to fully understand outside of the public eye what happened here. And so while we may see those tensions overflowing in the public, it's important for people to know that behind the scenes that they still be - they will still try to work together and try to figure out a way to get diplomatic relationships back - the diplomatic relationship back on track.

But it's going to be challenging, Wolf. This does not help that relationship at all. And I think at some point, the Chinese are going to have to step forward and going to have to acknowledge the reality of this situation. And the reality is, they got caught trying to spy on the United States.

BLITZER: Yes. Shawn Turner, thank you very, very much for that analysis. We'll have more on China's statement about the balloon. Coming up, we'll have a live report from Hong Kong. Stay with us. This is a special edition of "THE SITUATION ROOM."



BLITZER: China, tonight, not pleased after the United States shot down its surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina. CNN's Marc Stewart is joining us live from Hong Kong right now. So what is China saying, Marc?

MARC STEWART, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the tone of this response has been changing over the last 24, 48 hours. Let me just back up real briefly to Friday when this began to unravel. China was almost apologetic using words such as "regret," which is very rare to hear from the Chinese government.

But now the response that we are getting to the shoot down of the suspected spy balloon, it is firm, it is forceful and very unforgiving. Let me read you just a portion of this paragraph long statement.

"China expresses its strong dissatisfaction and protest against the U.S. use of force to attack civilian unmanned aircraft. The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the U.S. side, after verification, that the airship is for civilian use and entered the U.S. due to force majeure," a French phrase meaning uncontrolled circumstance. "It was completely an accident." It goes on to say that, "It will take necessary reactions."

So this is now moving from a diplomatic tone to one that is much more aggressive. And the backdrop of this also can't be ignored. In just about a week ago, we were planning for what may have been the first visit of a secretary state to China in six years. Antony Blinken was planning on this visit, to talk about diplomacy and talk about some of the big issues where perhaps there would be some common ground.

But now we are in a much different situation. And the U.S. is going to be very anxious to see what more China says in the next 24 hours. I think I mentioned to you last hour, Wolf, the government typically has a briefing in the afternoon. It'll be Monday afternoon, when will be the quickest. We'll hear from them. So perhaps we'll get a better idea, at least on the public stage, what the Chinese government is thinking.

BLITZER: We shall find out. Marc Stewart, thank you very, very much. Let's get right to Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois right now. He's the Ranking Member on the New House Select Committee on China. Congressman, first of all, what's your reaction to the downing of this Chinese spy balloon?

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): I think President Biden did exactly what he needed to do, which was - once the risk of any property damage or damage to human lives was out of the way, he took it down over the ocean. And now we get to salvage it and determine exactly whether it was a weather balloon, or whether it was a surveillance balloon, which is what we all suspect and believe to be the case at this point.

BLITZER: You're the ranking Democratic member of this new China Select Committee in the House of Representatives. What will your Committee do about this flight over the United States by this huge Chinese balloon?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think that it just reminds us of the of the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party, and that's the reason for the formation of the Committee. You know, basically, we know that they are military, technological, national security threats.

And of course, this particular balloon - the balloon reminded us that these threats exist, that the Chinese Communist Party is aggressive, and that they are, unfortunately, committing surveillance and violations of our own national sovereignty, not to mention, violations of the national sovereignty of so many of their neighbors, including Taiwan and others.

BLITZER: The White House is making the case, as you know, Congressman, that President Biden took what the White House Calls responsible action by waiting to shoot down this huge Chinese spy balloon. Do you agree with that assessment? Or should the U.S. have knocked this balloon out of the sky on day one as soon as it crossed into us airspace?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: No, I think he did exactly the right thing, which is, you know, first of all, the threat of its collection capabilities were severely mitigated, I think through countermeasures that we've taken to jam their electronics and so forth. But there was a threat of a large debrief field.

And also they wanted to probably collect on the balloon, as it was on his journey, to learn as much as possible about his capabilities. And then finally, when people and property were out of harm's way, to take it down. So I think it was it was exactly the right course.


BLITZER: Your colleague, Congressman Mike Quigley told CNN earlier today that it just did not make sense for China to send a spy balloon over the United States, especially right now. What do you think?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, we're going to find out very soon, the nature of this spy balloon. We'll know the who, what, when, where and how, hopefully, related to that balloon once we salvage the technology. But at the end of the day, I think that probably there were actors within the Chinese Communist Party who continued with their aggressive surveillance. And it's not even clear whether the left and the right hands knew what they were doing in terms of the Chinese foreign ministry, and others knowing about this. Of course, if they did, it would really question the sincerity of their diplomatic overtures, Wolf. You know, I think that Chairman Xi, would - you know, we just have to really question, you know, how eager he is to solve our diplomatic issues, and to do so in a responsible way.

BLITZER: And the Chinese must have known that as soon as a huge balloon like this crosses into U.S. airspace, the United States would know that right away, it was not going to be any secret cross over of the United States.

The Pentagon, as you know, flatly denied the Chinese government's claim that the balloon was serving some sort of civilian research purpose, like weather, for example. How do you expect this situation to impact tensions with China? Right now, tensions are pretty high, because of Taiwan already.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I have to say to that particular claim that it's a weather balloon is a George Santos style Whopper, Wolf. I don't think anybody anyone believes that. And I think, you know, I think that we're going to find out very soon, exactly the truth behind this surveillance equipment once they salvage and examine it.

I particularly think that the Chinese are going to have some explaining to do, and they're going to have to own up to it. But regardless, it doesn't decrease tensions, Wolf, if anything, it just keeps them at the state they are at and maybe worsens them.

But for the sake of all of us, we're going to continue to uncover the facts behind the CCP's threats to us, on the Committee, counter them, and then hopefully, come back another day to diplomatically resolve our disputes with the CCP even as we work with our friends and allies and partners in the region, on our collective mutual defense.

BLITZER: You're also on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman. How worried should we be about some sort of actual military confrontation emerging in the next months or years between the United States and China?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, as you know, CIA Director Burns said the other day, that Chairman Xi has instructed the People's Liberation Army to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027, and so that is a very short timeline, that's just four years away. And I think that we have to realize that we cannot have in Taiwan, what has happened with Ukraine, that is a criminal invasion of Ukraine. We can't have that happening in East Asia with Taiwan.

And so that's why it's all the more reason to me, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, to work with our colleagues to make sure that the Ukrainians prevail, because I think that Chairman Xi is watching that conflict very carefully.

And then secondly, we have to work with our Taiwan partners and friends in the region to make sure that they are adequately supplied for their own self-defense. It's not only legally bound on us to do so under the Taiwan Relations Act, but it's the right thing to do and the smart thing to do as well.

BLITZER: Yes. And the other day, a top U.S. Air Force General publicly stated that he thought the U.S. and China would be in conflict by 2025. We hope that doesn't happen. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, as usual, thank you so much.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: A bitter deep freeze this weekend sets a new U.S. record for wind chill. How low did it go? The answer that's coming up next on this special edition of "THE SITUATION ROOM."



BLITZER: Now to the other big story we're following tonight, the arctic blast of winter, now loosening its grip on the Northeast here in the United States, but not before shattering records. The wind chill - get this, in Mount Washington, New Hampshire plunged to 108 below zero last night. That's a new U.S. record.

Other parts of the region suffered through similar bitter cold before warming up a bit this afternoon. CNN has exclusive new reporting that raises real questions about security - also, this is another important story - security protocols at the United States Supreme Court.

Sources now say some justices have used personal email accounts for sensitive work documents rather than secure servers, and burn bags, which hold sensitive documents meant to be destroyed were routinely left open and unattended in hallways.

CNN's Ariane de Vogue has more of the security lapses that were not made public in the courts report on the Dobbs decision leak investigation.


ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: CNN has learned that long before the leak of that draft opinion, security protocols, when it came to documents at the Supreme Court were very lax. Now that could have led to the leak or at the very least it hindered the investigation into the leak.

For example, several of the justices, over the years, sometimes they would put sensitive information into personal emails, that information belonged on secure servers. And the person who told me this wasn't suggesting that that meant that justices had leaked a draft copy of an opinion. But at the very least, it showed that the justices themselves weren't setting a good example to the chambers, to their employees about how to deal with sensitive documents.


Another issue concern so called BURN bags, these are bags where you put sensitive information and that they're later burned or shredded. At the Supreme Court, they're taken down to the basement, these bags, put into a locked bin and then later picked up by a shredding company.

But a source told me the problem with this is that there was no uniform policy in chambers about how to deal with these. So one chamber, for instance, sometimes they would be stapled close, sometimes the bags would pile up under the desk, but sometimes they would be left in the hallway pick up. And the problem with that is these hallways, of course, were nonpublic, but this is no way to deal with sensitive information.

In her report, the marshal of the Supreme Court, she laid out a lot of security recommendations here. And Chief Justice John Roberts said that he's going to launch a review into how documents are handled. But for this particular leak that so rocked to the court in the nation all this comes too late.

Ariane de Vogue, CNN, Washington.

BLITZER: Ariane, thank you very much. And to our viewers. Thanks very much for joining me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." We'll have an update on the Chinese spy balloon being shot down just two hours from now.

And for more coverage tune in tomorrow morning, CNN This Morning - Weekend with Mr. Walker and Boris Sanchez. That starts at 6:00 a.m. Eastern. Thanks very much for watching Good night.