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Congress is taking UFOs more seriously, but many questions remain

Shattering stigma is the first step, lawmakers suggest

“One of Congress' concerns is that the executive branch … has been sweeping concerns about UAPs under the rug,” Chairman André Carson, D-Ind., said at a House Intelligence subcommittee hearing Tuesday.
“One of Congress' concerns is that the executive branch … has been sweeping concerns about UAPs under the rug,” Chairman André Carson, D-Ind., said at a House Intelligence subcommittee hearing Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Unidentified flying objects were a punchline for years, but now Congress is taking these unexplained encounters more seriously. 

“For too long, the stigma associated with UAPs has gotten in the way of good intelligence analysis. Pilots avoided reporting, or were laughed at when they did,” said Rep. André Carson, D-Ind.

Carson presided Tuesday over the first public hearing of its kind in half a century, as a House Intelligence subcommittee heard testimony about so-called unidentified aerial phenomena. Lawmakers couldn’t resist a few cracks about science fiction, but for the most part, the tone was clinical and somber. 

No one scoffed about little green men or dismissed the whole thing as a crock. Instead, the idea of breaking through the “stigma” came up again and again. 

“UAP reports have been around for decades, and yet we haven’t had an orderly way for them to be reported — without stigma — and to be investigated. That needs to change,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif.

Two intelligence officials aimed to reassure lawmakers that the Pentagon wants to investigate sightings, not brush them aside. 

“We [have] spent considerable efforts engaging directly with our naval aviators and building relationships to help destigmatize the act of reporting sightings,” such as adding step-by-step instructions for reporting UAPs to cockpit kneeboards, said Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott W. Bray. 

Bray touted the recent work of his department’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, citing it as evidence of shifting attitudes. The task force’s database has grown to include 400 reported sightings, he said.

Both officials said they understand the public’s thirst to know more.

“We want to know what’s out there as much as you want to know what’s out there. We get the questions, not just from you — we get it from family, and we get them night and day, not just in committee hearings,” said Ronald S. Moultrie, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence and security, who admitted under friendly pressure from Carson that he enjoys some gripping science fiction every now and then and has even attended conventions.

But Carson said one of Congress’ concerns is that the executive branch has been “sweeping concerns about UAPs under the rug by focusing on events that can be explained and avoiding events that cannot be explained.”

That dynamic played out in the hearing itself, as the intelligence officials showed video footage of strangely blinking triangles. While the glowing shapes seem tantalizing, research teams were able to explain them — a trick of light through night-vision goggles and a camera made known aerial systems look otherworldly, the officials said.  

While the allure of “known unknowns” brought crowds of reporters and cameras to the Hill, there was little in the hearing to satisfy people who believe in extraterrestrial life. The witnesses made the case that documenting UAPs is critical to national security and stressed that much information must remain hidden from the public, since sightings could involve experimental aircraft developed by the United States or other countries.

After an hour and a half, the Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation Subcommittee took a recess and returned in a session closed to the public, so lawmakers could hear classified information.

Among the audience members streaming out of the hearing room was Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., who gave voice to the frustrations of those who want answers about life beyond Earth.

“We just got hosed, basically,” said Burchett, accusing the government of covering up information it should share with the public. 

“Why would they not have pilots in here discussing?” he asked, saying that the public deserves to hear from pilots who have seen UAPs firsthand.

The final frontier?

Sightings of unexplained lights by aviators date back to the early days of flight, but Congress hadn’t held a public hearing on the topic for decades. Back in 1966, then-House Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford vowed to investigate sightings in his home state of Michigan that Air Force officials described as swamp gas, according to The New York Times

In the days of the first “Star Trek” series, Congress faced a choice: investigate a possibly explainable phenomenon and possibly give validity to the paranormal, or ignore it and potentially give the perception of a government coverup. 

Two years later, witnesses appeared before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, which is now now called the Science, Space and Technology Committee. They pointed to the subject of UFOs as the very impediment to investigating them. 

“It is one of the difficulties of the problem we are talking about today that the scientific community, not just in the United States but on a world basis, has tended to discount and to regard as nonsense — the UFO problem,” James E. McDonald, a University of Arizona meteorologist, told the panel at the time. 

McDonald, alongside others including astronomer Carl Sagan, was clear: UFOs are real, but there’s a lack of information to find an explanation because “we have laughed them out of court.”

President Jimmy Carter, who reported seeing a UFO in 1969, two years before he became governor of Georgia, caught a little of that stigma too. By the mid-1970s, Carter “laughed off” the report on the campaign trail, according to The Washington Post.  

The mantle was taken up by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who often found himself the lone voice on Capitol Hill for taking UAPs seriously.

But as military technology and science has advanced, so has concern that the United States might be outpaced by rival countries developing superior systems. Worldly concerns have joined the otherworldly.

In last year’s defense bill, Congress called for establishing an office that tracks unidentified aerial phenomena. And in November, the Department of Defense announced the creation of the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The office is to “identify and attribute objects of interests” and to “assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.”

Burchett is not alone in hoping for further public hearings to air out the issue and hear directly from the aviators who have seen strange streaks of light or blinking objects with their own eyes.

“From my perspective, this is a benchmark moment for the public, who have been trying to acquire a greater sense of UFO transparency,” said Jeremy Corbell, an investigative filmmaker and artist who has been active on the scene for years. “These machines are somebody’s — we don’t know the intent, we don’t know their origin and we don’t know their capability.” 

Some lawmakers derided paranormal groups during Tuesday’s hearing, but few can argue that the public still has questions and much remains unexplained. Even military aviators themselves don’t have the full picture.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call last year, a pilot turned member of Congress shared that he had close ties to the so-called Tic Tac encounter, a 2004 incident that was reported by aviators on the Nimitz aircraft carrier. While he didn’t see anything directly, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., was airborne at the time.

“It was about 100 miles or so away from me, so I heard a lot of the communications going on,” Garcia said. “It was one of those things that you couldn’t believe it when you heard it.”

“The guys who actually saw it weren’t allowed to talk about it until just recently, so we couldn’t even ask questions,” he added.

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