Late/Early Weekend Open Thread: Balloons and Betrayals

As I think I may have mentioned once, I’ve become a big fan of Google Trends as a way to chart what is preoccupying the public at a given moment. So let’s take a look at a couple of different topics from this year:

January saw a big spike in interest in classified documents. February has been disproportionately about balloons.

(And yes, I’ve gone back for a year and more. These spikes are both “best in category.”)

What interests me in both of these topics is that, for all the ink and pixels spent on both, people seem to overlook the obvious.

Why did China send at least that initial balloon into upper North American territory? It seems to have involved “signals intelligence” (you know it as eavesdropping), which one can easily imagine is easier and more productive from 40,000 feet in the stratosphere than from satellite orbit — something that eluded most commenters back on February 3, when cable news went bananas over balloons. (The difference between CNN — panicking people with guests demanding to “shoot it down now!” — and MSNBC, which had some nicely measured panel discussions on what might be happening and why, has rarely been more clear. But what seemed to be lost on the “why” of the moment was what was possibly gained by testing the U.S.’s stratospheric monitoring and defenses this way: mostly, it revealed what the US was and was not likely to do in such a situation. And, frankly, for other powers, once can imagine that that is worth noting.

It was also worth it for the U.S. to let the line play out and see where things were headed. Yes, China might have got some good signals intelligence for a week or so, but for the U.S. got a much greater prize — capture of the balloon itself and a good look at what technology it contained. Waiting until it passed over land, but not until it passed outside of U.S. jurisdiction (or easy salvage depth) seemed like a perfect move. (And let’s be frank: if it had been shot down over Montana and a falling piece of debris has so much as wounded one bison, we would never have heard the end of it from Congressional Republicans.) It seems much easier to salvage something in relatively shallow water than after it hits a some flat or rocky ground — so this approach obviously made sense in retrospect as well.

But having shot one down, we’re now shooting several down, which raises a question in my mind: is this about seeing how much money China (or whoever) can get us to spend on some actually pretty expensive deployment of aircraft and use of missiles? Yes, this is a nice training exercise, I suppose, but it’s an expensive one as well. Could our global opponents really put a dent into our economy by having us send up so many aircraft and (essentially) waste so much ordnance? I think it’s more likely today that I would have thought it was in January.

As, yes, January. Classified documents month, before balloons.

Exactly one photo from our archives tied together the two themes of this Weekend Open Thread.

Obviously we’ve seen a rising amount of interest in classified documents — especially once President Biden got into the picture. That has led to a lot of stories pointing out the differences between what Trump did and what Biden did — and I don’t think I need to delineate the differences between Biden’s coming clean immediately after his “oopsie” and Trump claiming rightful ownership and battling for more than a year over documents that had been deliberately stolen and hidden in Trump’s spectacularly insecure abode and club. But most of the pieces that I read and viewed somehow missed the most significant difference between the situations: what were they going to do with those documents?

Biden, Pence, Obama, Bush, whoever — weren’t going to do anything with them.

With Trump, though, we literally had to be scared that he had nuclear secrets and was going to do something with them: monetize them. That a nice term, in this case, for sell them to hostile foreign powers — more likely Russia than China — along with information about our secret agents in Moscow and elsewhere.

Step back and think about it. The only thing more startling than our having had a President whom we seriously couldn’t trust with national secrets is that that President is seriously being considered the likely Republican nominee next year.

Let’s retrieve a couple of items that have been sucked deep into the national memory hole:

(1) Trump was hoping to build a name-braded luxury hotel in Moscow, if he could get permission — and while it may strike some of us as insane that anyone could put their own income about the security interests of their country, Trump was just the narcissistic sociopath for that job. Part of the blame here belongs with the Democratic Congress, which (so as to … not confuse the public?) chose not to bring an article of impeachment against Trump for his violations of the Emoluments Clause, which addresses gifts or payments by foreign powers.

(2) Trump had a conversation with Vladimir Putin that was only attended by one translator — from Putin’s side — and in which no notes were taken. No one else was in the room where it happened — whatever “it” was, and “it” could surely not have been anything good. Do we even remember this anymore? (I don’t even recall it even coming up in the 2020 election.) The standards practice with such high-level meetings is that the President is accompanied by someone from the State Department (or some such) and that someone who attended would take notes for the national intelligence community. Do we know even now what was said at this meeting, what else might have been transpired between the two leaders, and how it has been allowed to just lie there for so long since?

If there has ever been anything that called for a Congressional investigation, this plotting between an aspiring tyrant representing our country and someone who had already achieved that status in our most worrisome enemy was it. With Trump on the verge of announcing his candidacy, this should be flung back into his face, from every quarter of the media, for the next 20 months.

But it won’t happen — because if we can’t even have the real difference between what Biden and Trump have done with classified documents at the forefront of our consciousness when discussing them, how can we rouse ourselves to uncover the truth behind a situation where our President was, quite literally, consorting with our biggest enemy?

This is your Weekend Open Thread, a day early or five days late, take your pick. Talk about that or anything else you want to talk about, within reasonable bounds of decency and decorum.

[Vern’s contribution, found on FB]

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)