He added that the intelligence community later determined the thefts took place using “additional means of collection.”
The Department of Defense first discussed Trump-era flights on Saturday, shortly after an F-22 fighter shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina. Republicans had for several days blamed the Biden administration for its handling of the incident, but a senior DoD official noted on Saturday that robberies had also taken place under the previous administration.
The remark caused an uproar in Republican circles, with several former Trump officials denying the incidents on Sunday, saying they never received military briefings.
“We were never told, we never heard of it,” former national security adviser Robert O’Brien told POLITICO.
During meetings with reporters, VanHerck also explained why the military did not shoot down the balloon last week before it began its seven-day journey over the United States and Canada.
“I felt that this balloon posed no physical military threat to North America, that’s under my NORAD hat,” he said. “And therefore, I could not act immediately because it did not demonstrate a hostile act or hostile intent.”
VanHerck’s news comes as members of Congress are demanding additional information from the Pentagon, both on previous balloon incursions and the current administration’s handling of the latest flight.
representing Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said in an interview Monday that the Pentagon told him the military had in fact tracked eight such incidents, though the timing of those flights is unclear.
“I had a conversation with someone on the Joint Chiefs who used the number eight,” Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Monday.
Two of the Trump-era incidents occurred in Florida and one in Texas, Department of Defense officials told Waltz separately by phone Sunday. Officials declined to provide details of other incidents, he said, including under whose administration they occurred.
Since last week, administration officials have held a series of briefings for members of Congress and staff. Staff of “Gang of Eight” lawmakers received a classified briefing on Thursday, followed by a briefing for national security committee staff on Friday.
Before the balloon was shot down on Saturday, the Pentagon briefed the chairmen and top members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and Defense Committees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, and followed up with a post-surgery briefing, a White House spokesperson said.
At a separate briefing on Sunday, representatives from the Secretary of Defense’s office read an opening statement about the three incidents in Florida and Texas, but did not respond to questions, Waltz said. They also did not release details about the nature or size of the balloons, or whether the incidents were reported to the chain of command.
Waltz said he spoke separately with a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told him similar incidents had happened eight times.
Senior Biden administration officials have since said the information was uncovered after the previous administration left and have offered to brief former officials on the new intelligence.
However, O’Brien said Monday afternoon he had not been contacted about possible briefings.
Waltz said he was unhappy with the briefing he received on Sunday and is requesting additional information from the Pentagon.
“You can’t just say our airspace has been repeatedly violated and not give us details,” he said.
The developments come as the military begins work to recover balloon debris from waters off the East Coast.
A Navy landing ship, the USS Carter Hall, is near where the balloon crashed off South Carolina and is collecting and categorizing the debris, VanHerck said. The USNS Pathfinder, an oceanographic survey vessel, is also working to produce a map of the balloon’s debris field. He noted that rough seas hampered recovery operations on Sunday.
Meanwhile, forces trained in unexploded ordnance disposal traveled to the site in a rigid-hulled inflatable boat this morning and will deploy unmanned underwater vehicles equipped with side-scan sonar to locate the debris.
The military is concerned that the remnants of the balloon’s payload may contain explosives or hazardous materials, and wants to ensure site security, VanHerck said. The balloon was up to 200 feet tall, with an airliner-sized payload that weighed “over a few thousand pounds”.