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How the government started taking UFOs seriously

The USS Russell and the USS Omaha captured video appearing to show UFOs flying, hovering and splashing into the ocean. (Video: Jeremy Corbell)

The truth is still out there — or at least we think it might be.

A government report due to Congress as soon as this month will not provide a definitive explanation for scores of incidents in which unidentified aerial phenomena have been spotted in the sky, officials said Thursday. The report, some details of which were first described by the New York Times, will not offer any firm conclusions surrounding flying objects repeatedly detected by military pilots and others in recent years, The Washington Post reported.

Though the report on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs in Pentagon parlance, but commonly called UFOs) finds no proof of extraterrestrial activity, the government’s findings did not rule out such activity.

On May 17, Congress held a hearing on UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), better known as UFOs. Here's why. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Report does not confirm, or rule out, UFOs in unexplained aerial events

The news is the latest in what has been a stretch of renewed openness in the United States on the possibility of whether unknown life-forms could be stopping by Earth to see what all the buzz is about. The belief that we might not be alone has risen from the pages of science-fiction books and blockbuster movies to the halls of government and intelligence agencies. A bipartisan political committee, UFOPac, has even called on Washington to give the public answers.

So, how did we get here? What’s up with Washington taking UAP seriously now? While the government’s recent interest in UAP might feel fresh, it actually started 14 years and three administrations ago, with a Senate majority leader and an idea that his aides thought was, well, crazy.

From former president Barack Obama to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), here's what lawmakers have said about UFOs in the past. (Video: The Washington Post)

‘Nothing but trouble’

Harry M. Reid had a risky ask for two of his Senate colleagues in 2007: The Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader at the time, told colleagues who controlled funding for supersecret Pentagon operations that he wanted the military to investigate UFOs.

Reid, who had been interested in UAP since the 1990s, was convinced to look into the topic further when a Defense Intelligence Agency official wanted to visit a Utah ranch owned by Robert Bigelow, a wealthy acquaintance in the motel industry. Bigelow, a UAP enthusiast, had told Reid about a number of perceived paranormal events.

How UFO sightings went from joke to national security worry in Washington

As The Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald wrote, it only took about 10 minutes for Reid to persuade Senate colleagues Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), to support $22 million in funding for the Pentagon to start the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a small, secret effort to investigate UFOs. Reid recalled to The Post last month that Stevens, who died in 2010, was an easy sell because of his time as an Air Force pilot in World War II, where he allegedly saw an object that did not appear to be a plane that mimicked his movements in the air.

Cases of unidentified aerial phenomena in Southern California, Chicago and England had popped up in the news around the time of the secret program. Reid, who took on the first official government effort to study UAP in decades, said time has proven it was the right decision.

“Everyone told me this would cause me nothing but trouble,” said Reid, whose state of Nevada is home of the military’s top-secret Area 51 test site, a central attraction of sorts for UFO hunters. “But I wasn’t afraid of it.”

Government admits it has studied UAP

After decades of the government telling the nation that Area 51 did not exist and that the United States had no official interest in UAP or aliens, the Pentagon confirmed in 2017 that the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program backed by Reid was indeed real.

However, that confirmation by the Defense Department came five years after funding ended for the program which was in place to investigate episodes brought to officials by service members.

“It was determined that there were other, higher-priority issues that merited funding, and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change,” Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson said in a statement in 2017.

The government admits it studies UFOs. So about those Area 51 conspiracy theories …

The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. explained at the time that the government’s admission was like pouring kerosene on conspiracy theories: “The admission — and the fact that the government spent $22 million on UFO research — gives any out-there theory a patina of credibility,” he wrote.

The Post's Cleve R. Wootson Jr. explains why a 2017 admission from the government was like pouring kerosene on UFO conspiracy theories. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Trump-era covid relief bill brings about UAP report

While President Donald Trump was in the middle of his failed effort to reverse the election result last year, he unexpectedly signed a gargantuan $2.3 trillion appropriations package to help give millions of Americans relief from the coronavirus pandemic and avert a government shutdown. But a provision in the bill signed by Trump did something else: Ordering that the director of national intelligence work with the defense secretary on a report detailing everything the government knows about UAP.

The provision came months after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that while the prospect that something otherworldly is behind the flying objects does not concern him, he was focused as much on the idea that a U.S. adversary could be making secret technological advances.

“The bottom line is if there are things flying over your military bases and you don’t know what they are because they aren’t yours and they are exhibiting — potentially — technologies that you don’t have at your own disposal, that to me is a national-security risk and one that we should be looking into,” Rubio said to CBS4 News in Miami last July.

There were several incidents for the report: A series of unidentified objects recorded baffled pilots, military and intelligence officials for years, and Navy officials have come forward with several unexplained incidents. In one 2015 video recorded by an F/A-18 Super Hornet, a tracked UAP powers through wind recorded at more than 130 mph. The pilots are heard discussing its possible origins before it oscillates like a top.

“It’s rotating!” one pilot says in bewilderment.

An F/A-18 Super Hornet military jet captured this infrared video from several miles away of an unidentified flying object moving at high speed. (Video: To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science)

Former intelligence director John Ratcliffe declared that the report would be big when it is finally made public.

“Frankly, there are a lot more sightings than have been made public,” Ratcliffe said to Fox News in March.

‘I’m actually being serious here’

The mainstream interest for UAP, and the shift from conspiracy theory to congressional inquiry, comes on the heels of “60 Minutes” airing footage of infrared video of UAPs taken by military aircraft. In the same story, Ryan Graves, a retired Navy pilot, said he and other pilots had similar sightings every day for several years.

“Every day,” Graves said in an interview that aired last month. “Every day for at least a couple years.”

For some Navy pilots, UFO sightings were an ordinary event: ‘Every day for at least a couple years’

Rubio, who had previously called UAP a national security risk, went further by saying the stigma surrounding the topic should not “keep us from having an answer to a very fundamental question.”

Former president Barack Obama echoed that sentiment a day later to CBS late-night host James Corden.

“What is true — and I’m actually being serious here — is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are,” Obama said.

What else could they be?

The wealth of videos and photos of unexplained aircraft have been collected from military pilots because the encounters have been so close to them, including one encounter in 2014 that nearly resulted in a collision.

While it is certainly possible extraterrestrials are interested in learning more about human fighter jets, other parties closer to home would have similar desires.

One unsettling explanation is that UAP captured on video were developed by adversary governments, such as China or Russia, and employ technology unfamiliar to the Pentagon, said a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report findings are not yet public.

The Pentagon task force assigned to analyze UAP is frequently challenged by data collection because pilots often do not know where the objects will be seen and aircraft may not have the right sensors to collect imagery or signatures, another defense official said. Some UAP are too slow or small for hardware designed to track other jets.

Other data collection methods exist, such as satellite imagery, but answers thus far have proved elusive.

“We are talking about objects … that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain, movements that are hard to replicate, that we don’t have the technology for or are traveling at speeds that exceed the sound barrier without a sonic boom,” Ratcliffe said in March.

Ideally, U.S. spy agencies and military surveillance keep tabs on technology developments by adversarial governments so they can match their capabilities or find ways to defeat them.

But if the Defense Department determines adversaries have trolled U.S. coastlines unchallenged for years, powered by unknown technology, it would amount to one of the biggest intelligence failures in U.S. history.

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