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Sen. Michael Bennet on why he's in favor of a TikTok ban

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start with the dramatic confrontation between the U.S. and China over that giant balloon discovered floating at high altitude over the U.S. last week. If you recall, China says it was just a weather balloon inadvertently blown off course. The Biden administration says China was using it for surveillance and shot it down yesterday. And the administration canceled - or rather postponed - a planned visit to Beijing by the U.S. secretary of state. Earlier today, Beijing criticized the shootdown, calling it an overreaction. And the Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing, quote, "reserves the right to make further responses if necessary," unquote. We're going to hear now from Senator Michael Bennet, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's a Democrat from Colorado, and he's with us now. Bennet, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL BENNET: Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you think China might actually retaliate in some way?

BENNET: Well, I think they might try to find some way to retaliate. But I think the idea that they said this is an overreaction is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, imagine what Chinese would - the Chinese would have done if this had been an American balloon wandering over mainland China. So I think the Biden administration has done the appropriate thing, and we'll have to see if they retaliate.

MARTIN: Can I briefly ask you about the mission itself? As you've no doubt seen, some of your Republican colleagues are saying the administration waited too long. They should have acted right away. Politics aside, there is an argument that by waiting to shoot down the balloon until it was over the ocean, the U.S. may have undermined its chances of finding out what the intelligence mechanisms on the payload actually were. Is that fair?

BENNET: I think putting politics aside, all of us are going to have a responsibility to look and see what the intelligence shows us. I'm on the Intelligence Committee, and I'm looking forward, hopefully, to being briefed this week about what our folks have found. I have no doubt that the intelligence community, along with DOD, had a point of view about what the optimal recovery would look like for the United States. I'm sure they shared that with the president, and I'd be very surprised if he didn't act in accordance with that. So let's see what the intelligence tells us.

MARTIN: So, as you know, the secretary of state, quote-unquote, "indefinitely postponed" his trip to China this week. Would it be fair to say that one reason the administration postponed the trip, besides making a statement of disapproval, was that they didn't want him and his delegation on China's territory knowing they were going to shoot down the balloon? But having said all that, isn't the time to talk when you're having a serious disagreement?

BENNET: I think that, yeah, pulling this down was exactly the right thing to do. And I'm - you know, I'm glad Tony Blinken had been planning on going there. I think it's important for us to continue to have high-level discussions with the Chinese. But this affair with the balloon is just another reckless and unacceptable move by China. I think the administration needs to be very clear that this is absolutely unacceptable. And one way of doing that is by pulling down our diplomatic engagement. We can obviously put it back up later when tempers have cooled.

MARTIN: So let's turn to TikTok because that's why we initially reached out to you - actually called you earlier in the week before this whole thing, you know, surfaced. This week, you joined calls from other lawmakers to ban it from Apple - from the Apple and the Google app stores. TikTok has more than 100 million users in the U.S., and it's owned by China, as we said. What worries you the most about TikTok?

BENNET: Well, what worries me the most about TikTok is that it - over a hundred million Americans are using it 80 minutes or 82 minutes a day. That's roughly three hours a week. And the obligations of TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, under Chinese law requires it, at a moment's notice, when Beijing asks for it - demands it - to share any data that it has acquired on the site. And I think that that could force TikTok to surrender sensitive data from Americans, tweak its algorithm to advance the interests of the Chinese Com Party. And I think that's bad for the United States.

China is pursuing a China-first policy by any means necessary, licit or illicit. And the question for the United States, I think, whether it's about TikTok or anything else, is whether we're content to be collateral damage. And I think instead, we should be offering a compelling alternative to the Chinese model. And there's not a reason for us to be allowing Beijing to broadcast TikTok to a third of our population - our entire population.

MARTIN: So...

BENNET: Think about - sorry, go ahead.

MARTIN: No, I was going to say in advance of our conversation with you, we called TikTok because you've made your point of view on this public. Earlier, we talked to Michael Beckerman. He's vice president of public policy at TikTok. And I'll just play what he said to us about the user data issue.

MICHAEL BECKERMAN: We've said time and time again that we would not share Americans' user data with the Chinese government. We have to comply with U.S. law. There has been examples for other companies where Americans' user data has been taken and shared with foreign governments. I mean, these things have happened with other companies and been proven. This has not come up with us.

MARTIN: I presume they've made this argument to you and other lawmakers as well. Why don't you buy that?

BENNET: I just think - I mean, there's no reason at all that we should believe that statement when we know that ByteDance is subject to Chinese law that tells that parent company of TikTok that it has to surrender whatever data it asks for. And I'd rather we be safe than sorry here.

MARTIN: And they say that they have tightened their security protocols. He says that America's - Americans' data would be stored securely in the U.S. with access protocols that are tighter than any existing app or tech company at the moment. He says that they've been working on this. A number of states have already moved to ban TikTok from, say, public employees' phones, et cetera. I presume they've shared this information with you, as well. You don't buy it?

BENNET: Well, there's a reason this is being banned by public employees' phones, you know, from the federal government to state governments all over - across the country. And I think it's because people have been briefed on the same things that we've seen on the intelligence community, which is that we're very worried about what Beijing might ultimately do with this data. And I'm obviously willing to consider, and I'm sure anybody else would be, what changes they would want (inaudible) to try to make the United States feel secure about its presence in our country. But so far, we haven't seen that.

And let me just go back to the balloon for a second, Michel, and ask you or our - your listeners to consider whether or not, in a billion years, we could imagine that the Chinese Communist Party sitting there in Beijing would ever allow the United States to broadcast anything across the entire country of mainland China. And the answer to that is obviously no.

MARTIN: That was Senator Michael Bennet. He's a Democrat of Colorado. He's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Benet, thanks so much for your time.

BENNET: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.