Up, Up and Away in Xi’s Beautiful Balloon

Another working Saturday for Gretchen and me, although she, having completed her administrative duties and all of my consultation bookings in jig time, only needed to stay through noon. She got paid for the whole day, of course. I, on the other hand, had to remain in the office until six-thirty, dispensing advice to all and sundry Beltway insiders of every stripe. And despite the virtually snowless winter we have had here in Washington so far, it finally got cold enough to notice – for a place south of the Mason-Dixon Line, that is. It never went above freezing the whole day. For the denizens of the Chesapeake Bay area, that’s a vicious cold snap, and yes, I can hear the folks up North in places like Vermont laughing about what they would probably regard as a nice spring day. But hey, it’s not like this is San Diego or something here in DC, we have the usual four seasons – unlike California, which has four seasons too, but with a typical West Coast twist: their four seasons are drought, fire, flood and mud slide. And as an added bonus in the Golden State, it’s earthquake season out there all year round. Gee whiz, look at all the fun we’re missing on the Atlantic Seaboard. Shucks.
So, it finally being cold enough here in the Nation’s Capital for me to notice, after work I sought the warmth of a Macallan 18 at the Round Robin Bar, after which I decided that a Botanist martini with Lillet Blanc and a lemon twist would make a nice encore. While I was waiting for the bartender to make it (stirred, not shaken – say what you will about Ian Fleming’s prolix and jejune spy novels, the man knew absolutely nothing about cocktails, take it from the son a famous New York City bartender), two congressional staffers, also relaxing after a long Saturday’s work, ensconced themselves on the two seats at the bar immediately to my left.
I knew both of them. There was Fenster, who works for Chuck Shumer, and Dickens, who works for Mitch McConnell. At this point, for the benefit of my many international readers, I should explain: Shumer is a Democrat and McConnell is a Republican, and they are both members of the notorious Gang of Eight (ironically named after Chairman Mao’s infamous Gang of Four – mocking our adversaries is a venerable American tradition), an exclusive group of elite congressional cognoscenti who are privileged to be briefed by the Executive Branch on matters of national security. Despite the extreme partisan differences between their bosses, these two, whom I know fairly well as clients functioning on the behalf of those two senators, are long time buddies. They both attended Choate and later Yale, where they were both members of the same fraternity (although neither of them had enough pull to get into Skull and Bones). Now they both work on Capitol Hill for senators on “either side of the aisle,” a divide that, while appearing to most citizens of the United States be a yawning chasm these days, is, to the likes of them, more or less some sort of cosmic joke. Seated as I was, and figuring they had chosen their own locations because the bar ended to Dickens’ left and they knew me, and thus felt safe to express themselves freely, I had no choice but to overhear them.
“I say, they did the right thing shooting it down!” Fenster insisted as they completed their drink orders, obviously continuing an ongoing conversation.
“Yes, but they should have shot it down when it was over the Aleutian Islands!” Dickens japed. “Instead, Biden let it float all over some of our most important nuclear military sites. What was the point of nailing the damn thing when it was out over the South Carolina coast after it had already completed a surveillance sweep of the entire country?”
“It was disabled,” Fenster responded, “We were jamming it the entire time. And besides, it wasn’t safe to shoot down over populated areas.”
“A likely story,” Dickens shot back. “Just the kind of thing I’d expect to hear from Biden. You call Montana a ‘populated area?’ If that junk hooked up under the balloon fell out of the sky there, the only population in danger of being hit by it consists antelope and prairie dogs. And I have a feeling the new Republican House is going to investigate just how effective that ‘jamming’ was, if there was actually anything like that actually going on.”
“Aw, come off it,” Fenster objected. “Joe Biden could rescue a drowning child from a rip tide on Rehoboth Beach and Marjorie Taylor Greene would claim the kid is a crisis actor and House Republicans would launch an investigation into Biden’s qualifications as a life guard. And you know as well as I do, Biden ordered the balloon shot down as soon as he was briefed on the incursion into US air space. It was DOD who advised him that it was better to wait until it was in a safe position to shoot it down, and they did an excellent job – the air-to-air missile strike dropped the balloon inside our territorial waters and brought the balloon’s payload down in only forty-seven feet of it. Navy divers are retrieving the Chinese spy tech right now, and it’s in much better shape for counterintelligence examination than if it had crashed into the ground somewhere in Montana, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t tell me,” Dickens needled, “that the United States doesn’t look weak and indecisive, dithering around for a week while a Chinese spy balloon pokes its chopsticks into our secret military business!
Their drinks arrived. Appalling: Fenster had ordered a Captain Morgan and Coke; Dickens a Red Bull and Smirnoff vodka. At the Round Robin, no less, where Mark Twain and Henry Clay drank bourbon with branch water. If they were tourists, I could understand, but… oh well. The decline of civilization proceeds apace everywhere, I suppose.
“Hah!” came Fenster’s supercilious rejoinder. “If it’s image you’re worried about, I’d say the world is laughing at the Chinese! Either their technology is so primitive they can’t keep their weather balloons out of other nations’ territories, or their intelligence capability is so lame they have to resort to a transparent ruse like that in order to get information on our defense radar and internal encrypted communications capabilities. And not only do we both know, there’s absolutely no reason for the US or any other member of the Five Eyes to resort to that kind of comic antics to collect the very same intelligence on the Chinese, any reasonably astute observer in the rest of the world can readily figure that out for themselves, too.”
At that point, Dickens leaned over in front of Fenster and beckoned. “Hey! Collins! What do you think?”
“Think about what?” I inquired, using my most insouciantly innocent tone.
“Don’t give me that,” Dickens chided. “We both know damn well what good listener you are.”
“Oh,” I relented, “you mean, what do I think about that Chinese high altitude balloon that was doing the grand tour of United States military installations for the last week or so, the one we just used to demonstrate our formidable air power and territorial dominance by shooting down around two-thirty this afternoon?”
“Yeah, yeah, that one,” Dickens impatiently confirmed. “What’s your take on it?”
“It’s buffoonery,” I opined.
“Buffoonery?” Fenster echoed, clearly puzzled. “Theirs or ours?”
“Mostly theirs,” I remarked, “and, over the last few days, a certain amount of ours, too. But yes, buffoonery – ridiculous, absurd behavior that is nonetheless amusing.”
“Amusing?” Dickens repeated in a demanding tone. “What do you mean, ‘amusing?’”
“Well,” I clarified, “most certainly not intentionally so, but I would tend to agree with Fenster here, it’s the Chinese who look absolutely foolish; like when the Soviets ran a spy submarine aground in Sweden and had to bear the indignity of being a world laughingstock for their espionage ineptitude. But in this case, only more so, you see, because while the Russian spy submarine grounding was an accidental display of comic incompetence in the art of espionage, this Chinese balloon incident was obviously the result of intentional actions. And moreover, I would venture to assert their assumption that anyone, anywhere, would lend the least scintilla of credibility their cock-and-bull story about a ‘force majeure’ acting on a ‘weather balloon,’ betrays a childish naivete of truly astounding proportions. I suspect anyone who believes that would likewise be pleased to know the Chinese have an antique wall to sell them at a bargain price competitive with the current prevailing bids on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
“Okay,” Dickens allowed, “fair enough, the Chinese behaved like total idiots, and I gotta admit, that is pretty funny. So what are you suggesting, then? That we should just laugh it off?”
“Well,” I conceded, “we certainly could. But on the other hand, why not show them that we can be silly too, but not look like idiots? In fact, why not show them that we can be downright daffy ourselves, but nevertheless collect actual, useful intelligence about them and look positively clever doing it?”
“Really?” Fenster leaned over and slung his right arm around my shoulders. “And exactly what supreme Tomfoolery are you about to concoct this time?”
“Spy on the Chinese using birds,” I recommended.
“Birds?” Fenster repeated, shocked. “Did you say, ‘birds?’”
“Yes,” I assured him, “you heard me correctly.”
“Ohh… Kay… Right,” Dickens replied, taking a deep swig of his Red Bull and Smirnoff abomination and addressing Fenster, “You’ve got to admit, Tom’s on to something there! One preposterous espionage scheme definitely deserves another! By all means, enlighten us,” he continued, turning to me, “details, maestro, if you please!”
“There are four major bird migration routes through China,” I explained, “ranging across the entire country from the eastern sea to Tibet and Xinjiang. The migratory paths originate in Australia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Africa. There are literally hundreds of bird species involved in such migrations. The grey plover, for example, has four different migration routes that start in Australia and pass through China. The curlew sandpiper and eastern curlew both migrate from Australia each year to Arctic Russia where they breed, stopping off in China along the way. The greater sand plover migrates from Australia to Mongolia through northwestern China. The Indian kite migrates over the Himalayas from the Ganges river valley, then flies over western China to the central asian intersection of Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and China. What’s more, one of the flyways actually goes right over Beijing. And there are over fifty species using that particular path, comprising millions of birds, including large ones, such as cranes, which could be outfitted with quite a bit of miniaturized satellite communications-capable spy kit and not even notice it. Furthermore, the Red Crown crane migrates from Japan over all of eastern China; the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido provides a natural staging area for their spy missions. Even more intriguing, due to climate change caused by anthropogenic global warming, the distribution of the sandhill crane has extended to seventeen provinces in China, Japan and South Korea. Like all these migratory birds, sandhill cranes fly over the borders with impunity and in particular, sandhills are incredibly hard to spot, because they instinctively mix with five other indigenous Asian crane species that look similar, thus providing ideal natural cover for them as avian secret agents. And finally, migratory birds are already widely tracked with satellite telemetry, so there’s your demonstrated proof of concept. All we need to do is start outfitting selected species of migratory birds with suitable miniaturized satellite-capable spy equipment and we can use them to collect visual, audio, signal, chemical and biological intelligence from the air and on the ground, everywhere in China. With a little bit of clever design work, the attached devices will be virtually impossible to spot any further away than three or four meters – and try getting closer than three meters to a wild bird before it sees you and flies off. Attached to them, our spy devices will be carried into and out of China on hundreds of live mobile platforms spread over millions of square kilometers and hidden among tens of millions of other birds. The Chinese will go absolutely bonkers looking for them, and what do we care if they find a few? If we are sufficiently clever about manufacturing the devices, they won’t even be traceable to the United States. So when they do find the devices, we can simply deny we know anything about them, and the Chinese won’t be able to provide one single itoa of evidence to the contrary.”
“Amazing!” Fenster exclaimed.
“That? Idea?” Dickens gasped, incredulous, “You think that idea is amazing?”
“No,” Fenster told him, “I think that Collins being able to get all the way through a speech like that with two drinks in him and not flub a single line – that’s amazing. The idea… well… come to think of it, why the hell not?”
Dickens pondered for a moment while finishing off his Smirnoff and Red Bull. “Hmmm… okay, sure, why not? Like Collins says, it’s goofy, just like that stupid Chinese balloon, but it would make us look smart, because, after all, everybody would know we were behind it, but the Chinese wouldn’t be able to prove that, and the image of Chinese counterintelligence agents running all over the Middle Kingdom on a wild goose chase…”
“Crane chase,” Fenster interrupted with a chuckle.
“Right,” Dickens giggled, “what did you say, Collins, a ‘plover’ chase?”
“Snipe chase,” I volunteered.
“Snipes?” Fenster started snickering. “There are actually birds called ‘snipes?’”
“And they migrate over China,” I assured him.
“Forget about Chinese fire drills!” Dickens declared in the middle of a roaring laugh, nearly falling backwards off his chair, “Now we’re going to see The Great Chinese Snipe Hunt!”
“So,” I asked, “do you gentlemen find my plan to upstage the Chinese intelligence services in buffoonery sufficiently… featherbrained?
“Bartender!” Fenster shouted, pointing a me, “I’m buying this man a drink! What do you want, Collins?”
“A White Pelican,” I told the bartender, “Shaken, not stirred.”