White House spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday the intelligence community is "considering as a leading explanation" that the three objects shot down over the weekend "could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose."
But Kirby told reporters the U.S. is still not able to call them anything other than "objects" at this point, adding that officials are "pretty comfortable" ruling out the objects belonged to the U.S. government.
Objects flying over Alaska, Canada and the waters off Michigan were taken down by U.S. fighter jets on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The shootdowns came less than a week after a Chinese spy balloon flew over the continental U.S. for several days before being taken down over the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.S. has still not recovered the three "objects" shot down by the military over the weekend, officials said Tuesday, as details remain scarce on what the objects are or where they came from.
"We're calling them objects because that's the best description we have right now," Kirby told ABC's George Stephanopoulos Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Kirby said the objects fell in "pretty remote locations" and "it could take us a while to reach the debris, yet alone collect it and analyze it."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also confirmed the U.S. had not been able to retrieve the objects as they are in "difficult terrain."
"We'll get them eventually. It will take some time to recover those," Austin said during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, where Austin met with NATO allies ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The defense secretary said the first missile strike to down the object over Lake Huron on Sunday missed.
"First shot missed, second shot hit," Austin said, adding the first missile "landed harmlessly in the water."
"We're very careful to make sure those shots are safe," he said as he detailed some of the decision-making behind the takedowns. "That's the guidance from the president: shoot it down, make sure we minimize collateral damage and we preserve the safety of the American people."
As for where the objects came from, or what they are, Kirby had few new details as he appeared on GMA, though he reiterated that they didn't have any maneuvering capabilities and were "much smaller" than the Chinese spy balloon.
All senators received a classified briefing Tuesday on the China spy balloon and the three other shoot-down incidents. Senators said briefers were short on details about what the three objects were, and many said much of what they learned behind closed doors is already in the public domain.
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., emerged from the briefing calling on President Joe Biden to tell the public what he knows.
"We walked out of a meeting like this, and so much of what we've been told is classified ... but the president can get in front of America and tell them firsthand that we're safe, that everybody's going to be okay, that we've got this under control, but America needs a strong leader to step forward," Marshall said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also said "the American people need and deserve to know more" and that "a lot of the information" shared with lawmakers could be told to the American people without harming national security.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told reporters after the briefing that it was clear the objects posed no immediate harm to Americans on the ground.
"No one has to worry about that," Schumer said.
But, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said what he called contradictory statements from the administration pose a problem: "On the one hand, the administration is saying we don't yet know what these last three objects are, and we don't want to characterize them until we recover them. But on the other hand, it wasn't a threat. Both of those things can't be true."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and other GOP senators said the issue of unidentified aerial objects flying in U.S. airspace "is not new."
"The most important question we have to answer now is, what are these things? Who sent them here? And what are they doing here? The only way you're gonna get answers to that is not just to retrieve whatever is left of them, but to understand how it compares to the hundreds of other similar cases," Rubio said.
Kirby said Tuesday the U.S. is catching all these objects now because adjustments were made to radar parameters following the Chinese spy balloon incursion, and that Beijing has boosted its use of balloons in recent years.
"They have ramped up their abilities," he said. "And then because of this spy balloon, we changed some of the radar parameters, particularly over the northern part of our northern hemisphere, and it is possible that in part because of tweaking the radar sensitivities, we are simply seeing more objects right now."
China has accused the U.S. of sending at least 10 balloons into their airspace since the start of 2022. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press briefing on Monday that it wasn't "uncommon for U.S. balloons to frequently take the opportunity to carry out close-up reconnaissance against China."
Kirby denied that on GMA, stating: "We do not deploy surveillance balloons over China."
But when asked by Stephanopoulos if we spy over China, Kirby wouldn't answer and only repeated that the U.S. doesn't deploy balloons over China.