Remarkable legislative progress has been made in the last fifteen years. In 2007, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev) worked with Senator’s Ted Stevens (R-Ak) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hi) to get a small appropriation into the Pentagon budget for a five-year program studying Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP). This short-lived program began the process that eventually led to greater scrutiny. On December 16, 2017, the New York Times and Politico revealed three videos of military encounters made available through this UAP program. The release of FLIR, Gimbal, and GOFAST naval aviation videos called into question a long-term public policy of deliberate ignorance. Around the same time, members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and Select Committees on Intelligence were becoming impatient with the overall Pentagon nonchalance about UAP. The lack of confidence in the Pentagon/Intelligence Community (IC) narrative led the Senate Intel Committee to pose specific questions about UAP. In June 2020, Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla) requested, in Committee Comments, a report about UAP from the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) within 180 days of the passage of the fiscal year 2021 intelligence bill. The responsive report, Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (Report or Preliminary Assessment), raised more questions than it answered. The six-page Report contained little information about the one hundred and forty-four reports submitted during the study period of November 2004 to March 2021. Most of these reports were visual sightings, made by Navy aviators after a 2019 reporting program was started. The majority of the sightings were confirmed by other electronic data. The Report was supposed to be followed by an update on September 23, 2021, which never materialized, becoming an indicator of future intransigence. However, the Preliminary Assessment stimulated new legislation that formalized a Pentagon UAP study program, that was intended to require more exacting congressional standards for UAP study.
The DoD/IC reaction to these new requirements was to restrict the information flow to Congress and the public. In May 2022, a subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held the first public hearing on UAP in over fifty years. The unclassified portion of the hearing demonstrated a continuation of DoD’s “slow walking” of UAP information. Testimony demonstrated that the Pentagon was only focused on military incidents beginning in November 2004. This narrow time focus was coupled with an emphasis on cases that have mundane explanations. As subcommittee chair, Representative André Carson (D-In), correctly pointed out, the Pentagon’s focus was on “low hanging fruit” rather than the most problematic cases. Regardless of the source of UAP, the failure to devote significant resources to review incidents that posed the greatest potential threat to our military forces was disappointing to members who serve on national security congressional committees. Soon after this hearing, the House and Senate national security committees proposed a second round of legislation meant to force the DoD and IC to expand UAP study efforts, including what we could learn from the past about a phenomenon that has been studied by the military since World War II. Now adopted, this new round of legislation is intended to break down the reticence of the DoD/IC to answer questions about the most worrying aspects of UAP. The congressional goal was to shed light on the threat potential of these mysterious objects.
After the introduction of the second round of legislation, the Pentagon/IC response has been to delay the issuance of the first mandated Annual UAP report to Congress and publicly confirm that no further sighting videos will be made public like the 2017 declassified videos. From an outsider’s perspective, these steps have a historic quality to them. As anonymous Pentagon officials quietly talk to the traditional Pentagon press corps about the contents prior to publication, the news reports spin the first Annual Report’s contents of the “soon to be issued” report as having mostly mundane explanations for UAP incidents that will disappoint UFO “enthusiasts”. These anonymously sourced news reports harken us back to a past when UFO reports were derided by Defense Department officials and the subject was considered taboo. The June 2021 Preliminary Assessment discussed that the “stigma” around UAP reporting was a hinderance to UAP study. At the same time, the Pentagon seemingly continues this “debunking” policy that was established by the 1953 CIA Robertson Panel.
Meanwhile, a core, bipartisan group of legislators has held together to rachet up legislative pressure to find answers about whether the phenomenon poses a serious threat to the United States. While many UAP are probably manmade drones, there are others which have flight characteristics that cannot be explained as Chinese military drones. Despite best legislative efforts, this congressional group appears to struggle to get the DoD and IC to take the matter seriously. This bipartisan effort, in a time of partisan rancor, is an amazing story in and of itself. The question is whether this core group can overcome long term entrenched interests and continue to seek answers about a serious potential threat to the homeland.
With a second round of legislative proposals adopted in the waning days of the 117th Congress, the core group of national security experts is trying to gain the upper hand in this perplexing battle with the agencies that they oversee. This legislation requires the Pentagon and the intelligence community to gather information about secrecy agreements that prevent UAP witnesses from speaking about their experiences. Also, new UAP-related whistleblower protections will protect those personnel who wish to talk about their UAP-related experiences without retaliation by their superiors. The legislation will also mandate a GAO review of the IC efforts to study UAP since January 1945, including “any efforts to obfuscate, manipulate public opinion, hide, or otherwise provide incorrect unclassified or classified information about unidentified anomalous phenomena or related activities.”
Each of these provisions will open up new avenues of study. They will add to other efforts conducted by the DoD Inspector General into the Department’s approach to UAP and the recent NASA announcement of a parallel study using unclassified sources, including private satellite data. These efforts will compliment congressional efforts which, for the most part, have taken place behind closed doors. Due to the nature of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees’ subject matter, classified sessions are the main way these important committees get things done. However, while this process works for most issues, it has created an environment that is less than transparent.
While secrecy is necessary for national security issues, such as hypersonic missiles or integration of artificial intelligence into the military, the UAP issue has elements about it that could have a much bigger impact on the public than other traditional military/intelligence weapons debates. Even within Congress, military/intelligence debates are centered around the recommendations of national security committee members. Most details about these issues are gathered by members of each party who have security clearances that make them privy to key information about a particular national security issue. Other members of Congress look to the expertise of national security committee members whom they trust, usually from their own party. This gives these members an outsized influence with fellow members of Congress who rely on their expertise gathered in classified settings. The national security oversight process also leads to a greater comradery among members of these committees. This helps them reach consensus more often than in other policy areas.
These typical advantages that usually benefit the national security committee members are more likely to be tested on the UAP issue because of the potential consequences of their discoveries. With the adoption of the latest reforms to the UAP program, Congress should have more access to information on an issue that still has several potentially difficult or dangerous outcomes. Each potential outcome will need to eventually be shared with the American people. How this process unfolds will determine how the public accepts what they are told about the phenomenon. Each possible outcome must have groundwork laid out for the public to have confidence in the ultimate findings of these various studies and congressional oversight.
Looking at the possible outcomes of the UAP investigation, there are three broad possibilities. First, after investigations are complete, including congressional oversight review, the result could be that there is nothing to see. Sightings could be attributed to mistaken identity, faulty sensors, or natural phenomenon. Second, UAP could primarily be the product of a terrestrial ally or adversary. Secret programs that have had massive technological breakthroughs could be the source of this mystery. Third, the phenomenon, at its core, could be caused by non-terrestrial actors of unknown origin. Given the predisposition of the public, none of these options will have widespread acceptance by the American people unless the public feels it is part of the process.
Polling on this issue, although rare, indicates that the American people are evenly divided on the cause of UAP. A YouGov poll taken between September 9-12, 2022, shows that 34% of the public believes UFOs are controlled by non-terrestrial entities; 32% believe they have natural explanations; and 34% do not know the source. Considering the polling margin of error, the public is evenly split on the issue. In a 1996 Newsweek poll, only 20% believed that UFOs are controlled by aliens. The 2022 poll is a significant increase in those who believe a non-terrestrial source.
Another YouGov poll taken in July 2020 with over 8,000 respondents shows that 56% of the public believes that the government is hiding information about UFOs. 22% believed the government would tell the public if aliens were involved, while the same percentage (22%) did not know. In other words, more than half the public in a survey with a relatively large sample size and small margin of error (+/- 3%), do not trust the government to be honest about the subject.
These numbers do not bode well for public acceptance, if announced after most of the congressional efforts are a closed-door process. Since national security issues are discussed mostly in classified settings, the current process is typical for a military/intelligence issue. However, the UAP oversight process is about more than just a threat determination. It also touches and concerns the possibility of non-terrestrial life visiting our planet.
Of the three possible outcomes, each has its challenges. If, after a thorough, bipartisan oversight review, it turns out that misidentifications, sensor errors, and natural phenomenon solves all cases. Mundane answers might be found for what originally appeared to be mysterious. As long as a strong, bipartisan majority are convinced that there is no threat, steps must be taken to convince the apparent majority of the country that nothing is being hidden. This will require public hearings and detailed explanations of evidence from typical cases explained by highly credible witnesses. A repeat of the poorly presented video evidence at the May 2022 House Intel Subcommittee hearing will reinforce the widely held belief that the government is hiding something. When a finding that there is nothing to see here is made by the congressional national security committees, care must be taken to present the evidence to educate the public. This will require public hearings and use of typical “sources and methods” in a manner that confirms the findings. If the process isn’t reasonably transparent, Congress will be added to the list of government institutions that the public believes is covering the “truth” up.
The second possible outcome is that the source of UAP is a terrestrial adversary or ally. Regardless of the terrestrial source, the public will wonder at what point in time was the advanced technology discovered by the U.S. If possessed by an ally, the question will become how this country acquired the technology. Our response will likely require extensive expenditures and/or foreign policy concessions to gain access. If they are the product of an adversary, the search for a defense and/or expedited research to acquire the same technology will become our highest priority. Each policy alternative will require considerable support from the public for these efforts. Keeping them in the dark will make this task more difficult.
Finally, a determination that the source of UAP is non-terrestrial raises the biggest questions, needing the broadest public support. There will be diplomatic, military, intelligence, and related questions, demanding our unity to confront. Normal inter-party skirmishes will hamper this process. Having an acclimatization period, mainly through regular public hearings throughout the process, will bring this new reality home in a less abrupt manner. Once this finding is made, the focus of congressional and administration efforts should be focused on future policies and expenditures, not solely focused on blame games about who was at fault for intelligence failures. While past policies, be they de jure or de facto, can shed light on how to handle present issues, the main focus should be formulation of policy responses to deal with the source(s) of UAP. This effort cannot be bogged down in partisan bickering, especially if some or all of these forces are deemed a threat. Public hearings, prepared in a bipartisan manner, must be held to acclimatize the public to this new reality.
Assuming the September 2022 YouGov poll about the source of UAP is roughly accurate, two-thirds of the American people will need to adapt their preconceptions about the phenomenon, regardless of the source. If there is evidence that the intelligence community manipulated public opinion about UAP, it is likely that the first issue the public will want to address is this past conduct. While such conduct will need to be addressed to avoid future use of psychological warfare on the American people, the challenges presented will require the main focus be on addressing the new challenges we will face. This will require a forward-looking oversight process that includes respecting the right of citizens to understand the challenges we face. In a democratic republic, the public must be privy, to the extent it is feasible, to enough information that allows them to be informed citizens. Anything less will look more like another attempt to manipulate the public. It will also betray our trust in the democratic process.
The current approach of the core committees offers us hope that the process will help the public understand. While not all of the national security committee members come from the same perspective, the current bipartisan approach to the issue is the key element for reassuring the public that the evidence that is publicly presented is an accurate reflection of the data on hand. Any hint that there is a predetermined outcome, as has been done in the past, will undermine public confidence. Based on the member comments at the May 2022 House Intel subcommittee hearing, there is a wide variety of opinions about the phenomenon. This diversity of opinions is a positive development. Studies have shown that group decisions have a higher likelihood of success if a broader variety of opinions are included. Because of divergent opinions, the process may take longer, but studies show that the decision-making process has a greater chance of success. The public will also have more confidence in the outcome when they see how divergent opinions can lead to an evidence-based determination. Decisions that are made on incomplete data or based on preconceived notions that do not match the data are more likely to fail.
The second round of legislation approved in December 2022 will give Congress more control of the information that is relevant but currently being withheld. The gathering of UAP-related secrecy agreements will be a fertile source of information. Even prior to the “slow walking” that the DoD and IC take to gather this information, persons forced to sign these agreements can come forward, alerting their congressional representatives of the details that led to the signing of these agreements. If congressional oversight investigators learn from those who signed secrecy agreements, they can use that information to learn about incidents that have not been made available to Congress. The whistleblower protections will make it easier for those who are concerned about offering testimony that might affect their career or assuage those who are worried it might affect their government pension. After appropriate vetting by staff and committee members, those that come forward can serve as witnesses in private and public settings. Acceptance of this information from those directly affected by the secrecy policy will further incentivize the DoD and IC to comply with the legislative requirements to cooperate with the UAP program.
The hearing process has many recent models to follow. Perhaps the recent January 6th Hearings could provide some guidance. The theme of each hearing was well defined. The mixture of live and mixed media held the attention of the audience. The method of questioning was less adversarial than traditional congressional hearing procedure and easier to follow. These presentation methods would be more likely to occur in a truly bipartisan/collaborative process.
Putting together as many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle as is necessary to convey to the country, and perhaps the world, a sense of what is at issue. A well-designed public hearing process would be a vital element to a successful public discussion of the phenomenon, and its implications. Congressional interest in the UAP issue started when its members were doing their constitutional duty to protect the United States against all threats. It was not a course intended to gain political advantage, especially considering the lingering “stigma” about the subject matter. In pursuing a serious, potential threat, Congress may reveal one of the most momentous discoveries of mankind. This is a revelation that is on the horizon regardless of whether Congress discloses the discoveries it is making.
There are many ways that this discovery will come to light. First, from our space-based sensors, we will soon know if there is life in the Universe. The probable discovery of non-terrestrial life visiting Earth could also follow. It could become apparent through a variety of sources. Leaked material, foreign disclosure, an undeniable UAP display, or as a consequence of our space program are all possibilities. There are many more. The downside to allowing this issue emerging to an unprepared public is the true inability to predict public reaction or the demigods that will inevitably rise to profit from a haphazard revelation. Openness at the front end of the first serious UAP/UFO inquiry in the eighty years will substantially lessen negative public reaction.
The House and Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees must step out their safe, classified environment, and include the American people in the process. A process that remains behind closed doors on an issue of this potential magnitude will risk leaving the public uninformed and suspicious of legitimate factual determinations. The typical closed-door process will sow the seeds for demigods to reap the harvest. The possibility of a 21st Century “Red Scare” is very real and would be detrimental to the development of sound public policy responses to the implications of the phenomenon. On the other hand, an open, bipartisan process can bring along the citizenry and help them adjust. A well-constructed public hearing process could bring evidence into the public that reflect the evidence-based conclusions developed through vetting by national security congressional staff and committee members. Also, it adds regular Americans to the process. Hardly a novel concept in a democracy.