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Senate panels are briefed on surveillance balloon and other floating objects

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who exactly has been sending flying objects over the United States, and what exactly is their purpose? We are not likely to answer those questions this morning, though we'll do the best we can. We do know the United States shot down one balloon that China admits to sending. As for other objects shot down in recent days, an actual news headline this week said, quote, "White House Rules Out Aliens." Not a headline I expected to see. But the United States has yet to say who is sending these objects. So Senator Mike Rounds joins us next. He's on the Senate Intelligence Committee and Armed Services Committee. So he's been getting briefings.

Senator, welcome back to the program.

MIKE ROUNDS: Well, good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you.

INSKEEP: What kind of information does the United States have about these things?

ROUNDS: Well, you basically just shared everything that we can talk about publicly. We do know that, you know, China has acknowledged that the balloon - to begin with - that it's a communications balloon, or it's a balloon designed to basically intercept and, you know, listen in on us, gather data. We're fairly certain about that. It's not a weather balloon. And it's one that could be steered to some degree but basically floats on the wind currents in that high-altitude area, above - designed, you know, to operate at about 60,000 feet, which basically, for the most part, is above most commercial flights. Other than that, we know that we have other objects, but we don't know where they're - you know, who the owners of those objects are.

INSKEEP: Do we know - or do you know - what the function was? To the extent that you can say publicly, did they appear to have any capability of any kind?

ROUNDS: At this point, we're really not talking about any other data that's been collected on those other objects and, in part, because anything that would be released right now would be basically best guesses. We haven't found the leftovers yet. We haven't found the debris yet.

INSKEEP: Right.

ROUNDS: Once we find the debris from where they've been shot down - and they're actively looking for it at this time in all of those locations. But what they want to do is - going to look at it and then be able to figure out where it came from, who was operating it and so forth.

INSKEEP: To the extent that you can say, do you believe the United States can effectively rewind the tape here, by which I mean go back through satellite imagery or radar readings from past days and trace an object back to its source?

ROUNDS: In some cases. Honestly, look; here's the deal with the balloon. They're very slow. And in many cases, the type of radars that we use are designed specifically and they're set up to catch high-speed items, items that - or that are a little bit larger or that are at different altitudes. If you got something which is really slow moving, it might have been, you know, similar to a flock of birds or a large bird. And a radar, in many cases, is designed to eliminate that type of background. So you can specifically identify those items that are moving at a higher speed, you know, things that we normally would consider something that could be threatening to our national defense.

And what they've been able to do is to go back into the radar data that they've got and basically take out some of the filters and look at other items. And in doing so, they've been able to identify these particular items that are up there that are very small in many cases, and they can look at them. And if you were looking at them normally, you might have thought they were something that was natural. It might have been a very large bird or something like that. And so you would have phased those out. So that's one of the reasons why we're now seeing these items - you know, a whole lot of them in a very short period of time. We've simply enhanced the capability or taken out some of the filters that eliminate some of these items that are very slow moving.

INSKEEP: Oh, that raises another interesting question. Juliette Kayyem, an analyst, former security official, wrote in The Atlantic that these objects likely have been coming all the time. It could be that this is a phenomenon that's years old, but now we're noticing more because we've dialed up surveillance. Do you think that's right?

ROUNDS: We can't rule that out. At this stage, we can't rule that out. Whether this is information - whether it's benign in nature or whether it's simply, you know, semi-commercial operations that have been floating around for a while from someplace else in the world - we just simply don't know where they were coming from at this point. We really need to find the debris, and then we can basically, you know, learn where they're coming from.

INSKEEP: In about 10 seconds, is this keeping you up at night?

ROUNDS: Not really. I think it's really good that we're identifying the need to be able to enhance our radar. That might mean that we're going to need more capable radars in the future. Clearly, we have to stay on that part of our game.

INSKEEP: South Dakota Republican Senator Mike Rounds. Always a pleasure. Thank you so much.

ROUNDS: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.