By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican U.S. lawmakers on Sunday criticized President Joe Biden for waiting days to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated over the United States, accusing him of showing weakness toward China and initially trying to keep the breach of U.S. airspace undisclosed.
A U.S. Air Force fighter jet on Saturday shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it first entered U.S. airspace near Alaska, triggering a dramatic spying saga that has further strained American-Chinese relations.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday the U.S. military was able to collect "valuable" intelligence by studying the balloon, and that three other Chinese surveillance balloons had transited the United States during Donald Trump's administration - a disclosure the Republican former president denied.
"We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States," said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the chain of small islands that arc off the coast of mainland Alaska.
Cotton told the "Fox News Sunday" program that he believed Biden had waited to disclose the penetration of U.S. airspace because he wanted to salvage Secretary of State Antony Blinken's planned diplomatic trip to Beijing, which ultimately was postponed.
"I think part of it is the president's reluctance to take any action that would be viewed as provocative or confrontational towards the Chinese communists," Cotton added.
Biden said on Saturday he issued an order on Wednesday to down the balloon after it crossed into Montana, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to protect civilians from debris crashing to Earth from nearly twice the altitude of commercial air traffic.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said of the Republican criticisms: "they are premature and they are political."
The Defense Department in the coming week will brief the Senate on the suspected Chinese spy balloon and Chinese surveillance, Schumer told a news conference on Sunday.
NUCLEAR MISSILE SITES
Republican Representative Mike Turner, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the panel also was set to receive a briefing on the spy balloon this week, though the exact timing has not been determined.
Turner said the balloon traveled unhindered over sensitive U.S. nuclear missile sites, and that he believed China was using it "to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defense systems."
"The president has allowed this to go across our most sensitive sites and wasn't even going to tell the American public if you hadn't broken the story," Turner told NBC's "Meet the Press" program. "There was no attempt to notify Congress, no attempt to put together the Gang of Eight (a bipartisan group of congressional leaders). I think this administration lacks urgency."
Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the ABC News program "This Week" that he would ask administration officials what future preparations have been made to prevent such an incident.
Rubio also said China was trying to send a message that it could enter U.S. airspace, adding that he doubted that the balloon's debris would be of much intelligence value.
Trump on Sunday disputed Austin's statement that Chinese government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly three times during his presidency.
"China had too much respect for 'TRUMP' for this to have happened, and it NEVER did," Trump wrote on social media.
Speaking on Fox News Channel's "Sunday Morning Futures" show, Trump's former director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also denied such balloon incidents.
China on Sunday condemned the U.S. action against what Beijing called an airship used for meteorological and other scientific purposes that had strayed into U.S. airspace "completely accidentally" - claims rejected by U.S. officials.
"China had clearly asked the U.S. to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner," China's foreign ministry said in a statement. "The U.S. had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting."
(Reporting by David Lawder, Kanishka Singh, and Gram Slattery in Washington and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)