How Political Dynamics Shape UAP Study By James P. Lough

Over the past five years, the UAP issue has become an integral part of the political process. Despite being a fringe subject for decades, it is now having its moment in the sun. As with most public policy issues, it has had positive and negative developments. Overall, those interested in changing historic polices are in the ascendency. Whether this momentum leads to permanent change largely depends on many factors. How the change advocates, in Congress and the public, handle this difficult transition will help determine the ultimate outcome.

On the other side, those trying to preserve the status quo are using methods out of an old playbook to keep control of the issue. At the same time, grass roots UAP study advocates are participating in an uncoordinated social media campaign, that has some negative aspects. In Congress, the bipartisan approach to the study of UAP is threatened by a new player, that may wish to wrest control of the issue away from national security committees. Each of these challenges threaten to disrupt the current efforts of Congress to understand this potentially threatening mystery.

When historians look back, they will probably write that the outcome was preordained. However, today, some advocating changes are subject to the emotional rise and fall of their own preconceived notions and biases about government and the phenomenon itself. Negative efforts to bring about change may actually delay or prevent progress. In today’s social media environment, public opinion can shift quickly against those perceived in a negative light. Changing public policy can often be determined by how the public understands the motives of those advocating change. Care must be taken to make sure these change advocates are perceived in a positive light by the vast majority of the public. If they are viewed as zealots whose arguments are based on emotion and not logic, their cause could be derailed. Insurgent ideas bear a heavy burden, especially when the ideas compete with a firmly entrenched political order. Ideas whose time has come often must wait much longer than expected to be implemented if their proponents are perceived negatively. In public policy, bold changes usually take time. To paraphrase Max Planck, “science advances one funeral at a time.” The same can be said about political change.

This debate is unique in many ways. It did not arise through grass roots advocacy. It arose due to the concerns of a small group of elected officials who, through classified briefings, learned of disturbing and unexplained incidents. Most of the reports are corroborated by sensor data that was obtained by the use of “sources and methods” that are generally not available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While the Pentagon releases quality videos of aerial incidents involving China or Russia, the same cannot be said of UAP videos. Their rare release follows no pattern and is usually based on the circumstances of the moment. Since classified information has led to historic bipartisan legislation, the parameters of the debate are taking place with the public largely unaware of its potential implications.

Against this backdrop, Congress has to deal with pushback from a largely uncooperative bureaucracy. All parties recognize that the “stigma” surrounding the subject has been an impediment to progress. This “stigma” still colors the way that most look at efforts to publicly advocate for change. Inside government, this “stigma” has led to meritorious whistleblower complaints. However, for most in Congress, the UAP issue is not a top priority. Elected officials must juggle multiple public policy concerns on behalf of constituents. The UAP issue is seldom a top priority for members of Congress who are not cleared for highly classified UAP information. To put the issue in a political perspective, UAP is a single issue that does not have a single-issue voting constituency. Yet, most members of Congress have voted two years in a row for UAP legislation based on recommendations of a small, bipartisan group of national security committee members. They are poised to approve a third consecutive round of UAP legislation this year.

This support is based on faith in members who are privy to classified information. If the majority of Congress lose faith in these recommendations, support for UAP study could disappear quickly. There are some visible signs that could negatively impact the pace of progress to date.

Congress faces a challenge from within its own ranks. Even though UAP legislation did not recognize it as an “appropriate” committee to receive UAP classified information, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee is about to become the thirteenth congressional committee to have oversight for UAP-related issues. If the new entry’s role is not restricted, it could disrupt bipartisan efforts of the national security committees who are statutorily authorized to provide oversight about the challenges from the source(s) of UAP.

Under current legislative proposals, House Oversight is tasked to review a new UAP records release process to declassify past UFO records. The process is much like the one used by Congress to govern the John F. Kennedy Assassination records process. As long as this new entry into the UAP process is limited to this role, it will have no role in the currently classified search for the source(s) of UAP. However, if there is any expansion of the House Oversight role beyond current legislative proposals, this new entry into UAP-related oversight will have the long-term effect of making a significant portion of citizens doubt congressional conclusions. Regardless of which party is in control of the government, a partisan approach to determination of the source(s), capabilities and intent of UAP will decrease broad-based political support for UAP study. Any expansion of House Oversight’s role into the national security aspects of UAP will create long-term problems for public acceptance about the broader implications of UAP. Keeping House Oversight’s focus on release of records is imperative to the integrity of the national security process.  

At present, there are still massive challenges ahead that require congressional unity. Congress is trying to change the status quo. This status quo excludes Congress from the decision making process. Delaying tactics by those who still maintain control are their best hope to put the genie back in the bottle. These tactics have largely worked in the past. After the 1952 Flying Saucer Wave, the 1960s Condon Committee, and the 1990s revelations about the Roswell Crash, a strong, organized pushback allowed the Air Force to weather these storms and take the subject out of the public eye. Today’s efforts by the Department of Defense (DoD), intelligence community (IC), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) appear to be following the same playbook. Delaying the matter until public interest has died down is done by providing explanations that do not always fit the facts, but providing enough cover to satisfy those who only take a cursory look at the matter. This strategy has less sway today in official circles than past efforts. For example, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently wrote to the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) complaining about the delays in implementing the UAP law. History has taught us about how delaying efforts and controlled studies can be used to alter the outcomes by using what appears on the surface to be a neutral approach.

In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the help of the Air Force, was able to bury quality evidence from a spike in UFO cases, including restricted airspace over Washington D.C. To reassure those in high levels of government, a panel of physicists authored a classified report, selectively circulated within the government. Using the authority of this group of distinguished scientists, a carefully controlled presentation resulted in the dismissal of quality evidence and, with it, the entire subject matter. For example, as part of the CIA’s Robertson Panel presentation, two films of UFOs were shown. One was taken by a naval photographer, Warrant Officer D.C. Newhouse. He had been transferred and was driving his family to his new assignment in Oregon when he took the 16mm movie in Tremonton, Utah. The Naval Photographic Laboratory spent over one-thousand hours analyzing the home movie and concluded that it showed multiple structured objects. The Robertson Panel, with the support of the Air Force and CIA, viewed the film a couple of times and concluded that it was a flock of seagulls. Both photographers claimed their films were returned with significant portions edited out.

The current public version of the 16mm Tremonton film shows multiple glowing objects at a distance. According to Delbert Newhouse, the “frames of the movie showing a single UFO moving away over the horizon were missing when the film was returned.”  The missing footage would have helped establish the distance and speed of the object that would have helped with its analysis. Famed CIA photo analyst Arthur Lundahl saw the Newhouse film while a civilian naval employee. He participated in the analysis dismissed by the scientific panel. Arthur Lundahl, soon after the Robertson Panel met, was hired by the CIA to set up its first photo interpretive laboratory. Lundahl waited until after retirement from the CIA to speak about the Tremonton Film. He was quoted as saying: “I’ve seen a genuine film of UFOs that, as a photo analyst, I believe could not have been faked.”[1] He was hired by the CIA soon after the Robertson Panel determined he could not tell a UFO from a seagull. Later, in 1961, his photo interpretive skills were good enough to play a crucial role for President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  

Today, the same differences developed between the Navy and the IC as in 1953. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had requested a UAP report from the now defunct Navy UAP Task Force. As a result, the June 2021 Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena was prepared for the Senate Intel Committee. In its unclassified version, the Navy Report was only able to identify one out of 144 cases. The single identified object was a “deflating balloon.” Most of these reports were visual sightings, made by Navy aviators after a 2019 reporting program had started. It also revealed 11 instances of near misses of military aircraft. 80 of the 144 reports were monitored by multiple sensors in addition to trained eye witnesses. 18 of the incidents, in 21 reports, showed highly unusual flight characteristics.    

After its formation, the DoD’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) issued its first annual report on UAP, over two months after its statutory deadline. It was the first report after the Navy’s UAP Task Force was disbanded. The 2022 AARO Annual Report painted a much different picture than the 2021 Preliminary Assessment by the Navy’s UAP Task Force.

In the AARO-issued 2022 Annual Report, 195 reports had unremarkable explanations with 26 drones, 163 balloons and 6 reports of debris characterized as “clutter”. Out of 366 reports in the 2022 Annual Report, 53% were identified as mundane objects. 119 cases mentioned in the 2022 Annual Report were from the same reporting period as the 2021 Navy Report. AARO was able to increase the identified rate from 0.7% to 53%, with no explanation for the change. While the number of reports in 2021 showing anomalous flight characteristics (advanced technology) was over 14.5% of reports, AARO had reduced the unknowns to around 1%.  

No post-issuance press conference was held to explain these discrepancies. To date, AARO has had no comment on the reason for the abrupt change. As concerning, AARO never explained how many cases were near misses. More time was spent on explainable cases with no effort to discuss the core anomalous performance cases that were the reason for congressional interest. At the first NASA UAP group meeting, AARO’s Sean Kirkpatrick claimed that only a “small percentage” (+/-1%) of cases displayed anomalous behavior. However, AARO has done little to explain to Congress or the public what is being done to understand these concerning cases. If you eliminate these cases, there is nothing to worry about. How these cases were reduced to near insignificance is a mystery in itself.

In a manner similar to previous studies (1953 Robertson Panel & 1968 Condon Commission), the bulk of AARO’s effort was spent on the non-threatening cases. The change in approach from the Navy’s UAP Task Force to the Pentagon’s AARO is apparent but unexplained. Either pilots are more confused by balloons, drones and clutter in the second reporting period or a major change in analyses was undertaken. These cases were reported before the DoD changed sensor settings to locate smaller objects during the February 2023 Chinese Balloon Incident. So, sensor adjustments are not a likely cause of the drastic change in the data analysis.

The unacknowledged analysis change by AARO is reminiscent of the differing approaches in 1953 by the Naval Photo Interpretive Laboratory and the Air Force/CIA. The Navy analyzed data using subject specific experts and spending over a thousand hours of time to review the evidence filmed by a professional photographer. The CIA panel, although highly qualified scientists, were not subject matter experts in photographic analysis. The five physicists on the 1953 CIA Robertson Panel further concluded that the UFO reports had more to do with psychological flaws in the general population. The Robertson Panel opined that the gullibility of the public amounted to “a threat to the … body politic”, even though none of the five physicists had expertise in mass psychology.

For example, today’s NASA study has similar flaws that do not address the issues concerning Congress. The study will use only unclassified, publicly available information. It will not use past information held by NASA. Astronauts will not be interviewed. Previous accumulated flight data will not be assessed. At its first meeting, Associate Administrator Dr. Nicky Fox stated that no classified records would be used because of the “sources and methods” used to collect them. This blanket statement ignores the fact that many classified records are subject to release if the “sources and methods” of collection can be redacted from the material. For instance, many high quality UAP photographs can have sensitive information removed, allowing the redacted copy to be declassified. By not asking for redacted copies of evidence of anomalous objects, NASA is intentionally limiting the evidence it can consider. NASA is also apparently slowing down the search for life in the Universe based on how it allocates time for use of the Webb Telescope. For example, time was allocated for the Webb Telescope to look at the Trappist-1 System for signs of life. Instead of looking at the planets in the “habitable zone”, the first search for life was to look at Trappist-1’s closest planet, outside of the habitable zone. They were looking for life on a planet located in a similar position as Mercury in our solar system. NASA was delaying a search of legitimate candidates by spending valuable telescope time confirming the obvious. This approach to the subject of other life in the Universe fits within NASA’s search methods for UAP. Ignoring evidence within its own organization while looking at evidence in places unlikely to contribute our knowledge base on non-terrestrial life or sources of UAP.

Overall, the efforts of Congress to understand a potential threat to our military are being undermined by the agencies legally required to adhere to laws adopted by Congress. These delays are reminiscent of methods used in previous eras. Here, the delays in implementation and the failure to follow the strict requirements established by Congress are particularly concerning when they involve a program that will sunset at the end of 2026. Delaying implementation will raise the likelihood that the intent of Congress will be thwarted.

In the last five years, Congress has made more progress towards understanding this phenomenon than any time in the last eighty years. These efforts must be publicly supported. There have been two rounds of UAP legislation to move the study along, with a third ongoing. It is unusual for Congress to adopt two rounds of legislation on the same subject in a two-year legislative cycle (117th Congress), let alone third round in the 118th Congress. The second round was necessary because of the foot dragging that slowed implementation. Now, there are outward signs that the legislative efforts are paying dividends. With the new whistleblower provisions, witnesses are starting to come forward to explain what Congress has not been told about UAP. Congress must continue to search for answers, no matter where they lead. Also, the whistleblower program will continue to help Congress find out what has been hidden. It is highly likely that more personnel will go through the formal whistleblower process.

One recent case involves a whistleblower who filed a complaint with the Intelligence Community Inspector General. He claims under penalty of perjury that the intelligence community punished him for looking into programs related to UAP research. The IC Inspector General found the complaint both “credible” and “urgent”. The IC Inspector General forwarded it to the appropriate congressional intelligence committees. At a minimum, the House and Senate Committees on Intelligence should hold confidential hearings into the substance of the complaint. Further steps will likely include staff sight visits to implicated facilities and interviews with percipient witnesses. By law, these congressional investigators are already cleared to perform investigations in these highly classified locations. Further steps will be taken by committee membership as appropriate, possibly up to and including televised public hearings.

Unless the current atmosphere in Congress changes, this whistleblower complaint will be followed by others. The action of the IC Inspector General on a subject as controversial as retaliation for researching UAP issues will help convince other potential witnesses to use the whistleblower process. This would help us learn more about the capability of these craft and the intent of their operators. If a hidden program has/had some illegal activities occurring, program personnel would be wise to come forward now before formal investigations begin. Regardless of whether the witness participated in illegal activities, it would be to the person’s benefit to be an active player in explaining how the program operated. Cooperation is consistent with the new UAP legislation and, in some cases, a mandatory duty.

Whistleblower complaints can change the nature of UAP investigations. It could answer the threshold question about the source of UAP. Studies like the NASA unclassified information review would become moot. AARO would move to the next phase of investigation to learn about UAP controllers’ intentions. Much of the concerning conduct of the various programs looking into UAP would become a minor concern, as these impediments would largely fall away. A bedrock of our constitutional form of government is civilian control of national defense. Whistleblower complaints could help restore the civilian control required by our Constitution. Resistance from this point forward should be met with punitive measures and sanctions.

These developments would not have occurred without broad bipartisan support in Congress. Maintaining that cooperation is a key element to giving the public enough information to help them make informed voting decisions about the direction we should follow on this important issue.

For the public to be fully involved in the process will take some time. A whistleblower is entitled to privacy during the administrative process. An investigation of a highly classified program, be it legal or not, will take time. The elected officials will also need time to digest this information in a classified setting before they can make informed decisions on declassification. During this next phase, there are still potential impediments that could delay or prevent further progress. The largest threat is still the lack of cooperation from the defense and intelligence communities. However, there are also potential threats from outside of the DoD, IC, NASA and their private contractors. One potential impediment could come from threats to the orderly process of the government investigation. Another could come from the loss of the bipartisan cooperation that has led to today’s progress.

There are already signs of threats to the governing process. At the May 31, 2023, NASA UAP hearing, threats to the process were front and center. As part of the initial presentations, Associate NASA Administrator Dr. Nicky Fox expressed concern over threats directed at members of the NASA study panel. Later during a presentation by AARO Director Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick, he confirmed that AARO personnel were also receiving threats. Whether or not these threats are criminally actionable, they raise concerns about their impact on the government study of UAP. Threats have an impact on the democratic process. The impact could be subtle, contributing to the implicit bias that many scientists feel towards the study of UAP. Since the NASA study will not have access to classified information, it will need to rely, in part, upon credibility determinations of witness observations. Seeing advocates of a non-terrestrial source of UAP as zealots who will physically threaten those who do not accept their views will taint the investigation. There is historical precedent for use of psychological explanations about UAP issues. In 1953, the Robertson Panel used psychological explanations to dismiss the bulk of UFO sightings. Physicists, with no psychological training, claimed that the public was prone to psychological influence that made UFOs a dangerous area of study. In the late 1960s, the Air Force Condon Commission Study used psychologists to look for psychological causes of sightings. This emphasis caused many physical scientists to resign from the study for failing to consider the actual evidence before looking first for psychological causes to denigrate witnesses who came forward.

For those elements of our government that want to push back on progress towards understanding UAP, changing the narrative to focus on the “dangerous zealots” is a likely tactic. People who will threaten to get their way will lower public support for UAP study. They will also drive a wedge between members of Congress who support UAP study and those on the committees that are privy to the evidence. Members of Congress are unlikely to defend a program that will require them to address this threatening conduct.  A continuation of this disturbing activity will hurt the very cause that persons who make these threats want pursued. Those in the UAP advocacy community need to condemn this disturbing conduct. It is counterproductive and can be used to paint a subject that struggles to gain public acceptance as dangerous. The bipartisan success to date is threatened by those who make threats in the name of progress.

Another recent threat to the bipartisan progress could come from Congress itself. House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer has announced his committee’s intent to hold hearings on UAP. On the surface, this may be seen as a positive development. Yet, the introduction of the House Oversight Committee into the UAP debate could raise several challenges, depending on the new committee’s role.

First, while the House Oversight and Accountability Committee generally has broad jurisdiction over governmental affairs, Congress has specifically limited oversight of UAP investigation to twelve committees, six in the House and six in the Senate.[2] In Volume 50, United States Code, Section 3373(n)(1), the UAP legislation defines the “appropriate congressional committees” who can receive classified information about UAP issues. During the 117th Congress, the House voted twice to pass this special jurisdictional restriction. The current Chair of the House Oversight Committee voted twice to approve this limitation.

There were several purposes for this legislation. The “appropriate” committees were those that already had jurisdiction to oversee the issues being considered in the UAP investigation. The legislation considered that these twelve committees have the clearance authority to hear the evidence. Each has been handling some portion of the oversight needs, with the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees carrying the largest share of the responsibilities due to the military and intelligence history in dealing with the phenomenon. The Oversight Committee does not have these necessary attributes, making any inquiry by House Oversight a slow, tortuous process.

Now that House Oversight is about to be authorized to begin their own inquiry, the scope of their areas of inquiry raises concerns about their role. Based on current proposals pending before Congress, their role will be limited to overseeing the records declassifications process. If House Oversight expands its investigation beyond this limited role, it will conflict with existing House committees currently authorized under the UAP laws. (50 U.S.C. §3373 et. seq.)  The core committees spending the most time on the national security aspects of UAP are the four Armed Services and Intelligence Committees. Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Mike Turner (R-OH) have worked on the issue for years in a bipartisan manner. Having chosen these Chairs, House leadership should trust their judgment. There does not seem to be a need for another committee studying the national security aspects, especially one not cleared for national security matters. The duplication of effort would likely slow down a process that has already been delayed through bureaucratic intransigence. Especially with the December 31, 2026 end of the study approaching.  

A longer-term problem will also arise if the House Oversight Committee seeks to compete with the national security committees about the source of UAP and their impact. There is a demonstrated history in the 118th Congress of partisan conduct led by the House Oversight Committee. The national security committees currently handling the subject have a track record of bipartisanship. This has been the lynchpin of their progress to date. Adding House Oversight to the UAP national security oversight/investigation mix will add a committee with no background in the subject matter, without appropriate clearances, that do not have the trust of a broad swath of the American public.

Why is it important to keep the current investigation limited to national security committees? The UAP subject matter could lead to some of the most revelatory discoveries in the history of our nation. Many may be hard to accept by the American People. A YouGov poll taken between September 9-12, 2022, about the possibility of non-terrestrial life visiting this planet found that the public was evenly split. Roughly, one-third felt these visits were already occurring, one-third did not believe, and one-third did not know. Any congressional findings will have to convince two-thirds of the public that the official answer is correct. Any suspicions about the result could have significant consequences. Because of its partisan reputation, it would lead to a substantial portion of the public to not believing what the House Oversight Committee finds, especially if it conflicts with the core national security committee findings.

The insertion of a committee with a partisan track record, regardless of the party, could hamstring coming policy discussions about dealing with the source(s) of these craft, whether terrestrial or non-terrestrial. There is no one political party that has dealt with this problem. Past activities on the subject have been handled while both parties held the White House. Misinformation or a misunderstanding of the basic facts, many that may stay hidden behind classified walls, could lead to confusion and a public who will see the UAP issue through a partisan lens. One Oversight Committee member has already publicly stated that he believes the source of these objects may be “demons” that could turn humans into “charcoal briquettes”. At present, the UAP law starts from a scientific basis. Injecting theology into the discussion will surely divide the country further and hamper progress. Having Congress make any theological conclusion intrudes upon the right of citizens to draw their own theological interpretation, if any.

The House has six committees with varying degrees of involvement. Adding House Oversight for more than oversight on the UAP records declassification process could undermine congressional findings and conclusions about UAP capabilities and intent. Both the involvement of a committee not designated in bipartisan UAP-study legislation could return sensationalism to a subject that has already been controversial for at least seventy years. With disturbing acknowledgements of threats being hurled at personnel studying UAP, the addition of a committee that has been the center of the largest divide between the two governing parties will add more doubt to any evidence-based findings developed by Congress. Either problem has the potential of derailing the best chance this country has ever had to understand the phenomenon. When Congress is already pursuing a bipartisan UAP program oversight and fighting strong headwinds from the bureaucracy, it does not need other problems. Especially in a program that only has three years to go. The current bipartisan approach looking for an evidence-based answer to this mystery is the best chance we have to solve the problem, whatever it entails. Let us hope this search continues unimpeded by bureaucratic roadblocks, harassment or partisanship.  

[1]; Michael David Hall and Wendy Ann Conners, “Captain Edward J. Ruppelt: Summer of the Saucers-1952” Rose Press International (2000), p. 133.

[2] The House Armed Services, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, Science, Space, & Technology, and Appropriations Committees serve various oversight functions based on their expertise and classification access status. In the Senate, the Armed Services, Intelligence, Foreign Relations, Homeland Security, Commerce, Science, & Transportation and Appropriations were also singled out in UAP legislation to conduct this inquiry.

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