In unexpected twist, Matt Gaetz deflates GOP's attack on Biden over China spy balloon
Rep. Matt Gaetz / Shutterstock.

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) is a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump and a fierce critic of President Joe Biden. But during a House hearing on Tuesday, his line of questioning contradicted talking points made by both Trump and his fellow Republicans about China’s spy balloon.

The U.S. military shot down the alleged spy balloon off the Atlantic coast on Saturday.

The craft spent several days flying over North America before it was targeted off the coast of the southeastern state of South Carolina with a missile fired from an F-22 plane, Pentagon officials said, falling into relatively shallow water just 47 feet (14 meters) deep.

Republicans have attacked the Biden administration for waiting a week to shoot down the balloon after it was first detected, claiming it allowed the Chinese to gather intelligence.

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During Tuesday's House Armed Services Committee hearing, Gaetz led a series of questioning with Retired Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., a military subject matter expert on intelligence defense, blocking foreign threats as well as sudden strategic initiatives and responses to combat major unprovoked attacks.

The GOP congressman suggested that the balloon was unlikely to be able collect valuable intelligence after being detected.

"We have the capability to block the information from the balloon back to China don't we?" Gaetz asked Harris.

Harris confirmed the military's ability to block transmissions from the spy balloon.

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Gaetz also discussed the importance of the U.S. not falling into the Chinese provocation.

"It sort of begs the question, was this a big psy-op?" the congressman remarked. "Was this an effort by China to see how we would react to something like this? ... It may have been an effort to see how we would react, how we wouldn't react, and then try to use that to inform their decision-making."

The balloon first entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28, Pentagon officials told reporters Saturday, before drifting over Canada and then back into the United States days later.

It was not the first time in recent history such an aircraft had flown over US territory, the senior defense official said, though this was the longest time one had spent in the country. Three balloons were spotted during Donald Trump's presidency and another one earlier in the Biden administration.

Biden told reporters he had on Wednesday ordered the craft shot down "as soon as possible."

"They decided -- without doing damage to anyone on the ground... that the best time to do that was as it got over water," Biden said.

According to the senior defense official, the military determined the airship was not a major threat to the United States during its flight, and "the surveillance balloon's overflight of US territory was of intelligence value to us," he added, without providing details.

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With additional reporting by AFP