Closer encounters: How UFOs became a target for US intelligence again

·7-min read

A hotly anticipated US government report on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) was released on Friday. After decades of mysterious reported sightings, the Pentagon had too little data to accurately determine the nature of these flying objects. But the fact that the report even exists is a marvel in itself, dating back to events from 1947.

While Doctor Who, The X-Files and ET fuel our imaginations with the possibility of alien life on earth, they remain works of fiction. But the nine-page report on UFOs, released by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Pentagon last Friday, is very much real.  

The document discloses 144 observations of what the government calls “unidentified aerial phenomenon” (UAP) dating all the way back to 2004, most of which were reported by US Navy personnel. Mysterious flying objects, described in the report as a “potential threat” to US national security, were said to “probably lack a single explanation”.

Although the nature of these UFOs is still unknown, the document’s publication is a climactic moment in the decades spent analysing sightings. The US military has been tracking, deflecting and debunking observations of UFOs and “flying saucers” since the 1950s.

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The truth is still out there

Bizarrely enough, efforts to disclose intelligence on UFOs wouldn’t have been possible without Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic. In December 2020, just before leaving the White House, Trump signed a $2.3 trillion (€1.9tn) coronavirus relief bill into law. The bill included a clause ordering the US Department of Defense to tell Congress everything they knew about UFOs. And they had six months to do so.  

The news ignited excitement among alien enthusiasts, eagerly waiting for the report to be released. But to their dismay, there was little evidence to confirm or deny any intergalactic visitations. Possible explanations for UAP included birds, drones, atmospheric phenomena like ice crystals, innovative developments by US government entities and unchartered technologies by adversaries such as Russia or China. However, the report clearly stated a “lack [of] sufficient information” in its dataset “to attribute incidents to specific explanations”.

Only one of the reported sightings was fully accounted for. Classified as airborne clutter, it was identified “with high confidence” as a large, deflating balloon. “The others remain unexplained,” the report said.

There is still hope for enthusiasts, though. In the next three months, the Pentagon will develop a new strategy for collecting and tracking information on potential sightings.

“It is critical that the United States maintain operations security and safety at DoD ranges,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks wrote in a memo released on Friday. “To this end, it is equally critical that all US military aircrews or government personnel report whenever aircraft or other devices interfere with military training. This includes the observation and reporting of UAPs.”

UFOs: a bipartisan fascination

But a lack of conclusive evidence is precisely what could fuel more theories of otherworldly visitations, to which the US government is clearly not immune. The surprising decision to publish the report was described by the BBC as “a cultural shift that saw the US military and US political leadership go from extra-terrestrial-sceptic to ET-curious”.

In fact, UFOs have become a rare unifying topic across political lines. “After this last year, it’s kind of nice to see something that’s bipartisan,” Robert Powell, an executive board member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, told the Washington Post.

On the left, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff John Podesta and former Democratic Senate leader Harry M. Reid all expressed an interest in researching unidentified aerial phenomenon. Former President Barack Obama also chimed in, acknowledging in May 2021 that “there’s footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are”.

In the search for greater transparency, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee Marco Rubio said in May that despite the “stigma on Capitol Hill” resulting in “giggles” from his colleagues, the issue was worth investigating. He was joined by Fox news host Tucker Carlson, who referred to UFOs as a “very big issue”.  

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From the margins to the centre-stage

Often relegated to fringe, unscientific and even conspiratorial theories reserved for “ufologists”, it’s the first time since the 1950s that the topic has been taken seriously by the US government. After the pilot of a small plane reported seeing several “saucer-like” objects flying near Mount Rainier in Washington state in a 1947 newspaper headline, ordinary citizens followed suit. Sightings of “flying saucers” started exploding in numbers.

In the summer of that same year, theories circulated that an alien spacecraft had crashed near a military site in Roswell, New Mexico. US military officials visited the crash site and said they found remnants of a crashed weather balloon, but their findings weren’t enough to quell what had already become a national sensation.  

Because of the Cold War, the US military wasn’t as worried about coming face to face with an alien as it was about discovering a Soviet machine more technically advanced than their own. So in 1953, a CIA advisory panel of experts was formed to officially investigate unidentified flying objects, saying they posed a potential threat to national security.

In a lengthy investigation on the relationship between UFOs and the Pentagon published by the New Yorker magazine in April 2021, journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote: “The Cold War made it crucial that the US government be perceived to have full control over its airspace.”

What ensued was a vast media campaign in the 1960s, orchestrated by the US government to try to dissuade the population from tracking down “flying saucers”. For a period of about 40 years, the US government was entirely silent on the issue. This never stopped ufologists from pilgrimaging across the “Extraterrestrial Highway” in the Nevada desert to Area 51, a US Air Force facility said to host an alien spacecraft that has become a popular tourist destination.

Later on in 2017, the New York Times published an article about the Pentagon’s mysterious UFO programme and the subject came back into the limelight. The article explained that sightings had frequently come from the US military itself, shattering the myth that the government considered civilian reports to be nonsense spewed by conspiracy theorists.

Since then, US media outlets have been able to access several videos and audio recordings of US Air Force pilots who have come face to face with unidentifiable objects flying at supersonic speeds, their movements hard to replicate.

Playing politics with Blink-182

Months before the report on UAP was ordered by Trump, the US Department of Defense formally released three Navy videos showing unidentified aerial phenomena blurrily moving against dark backdrops. Unintentionally stoking ufologists hopes that extra-terrestrial life exists, the Pentagon’s intention was to “clear up any misconceptions”.

The videos were first released between December 2017 and March 2018 by To The Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences, a private company co-founded by former Blink-182 member Tom DeLonge.

As to the question of why UFOs are coming back into the spotlight now, many speculate it could be tied to tense US-Russia relations. Just like in the beginning of the Cold War, the US once again feels its military and technological superiority is under threat.

David Clarke, an associate professor at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, told the Washington Post: “My sort of view of this is UFOs are a product of the Cold War.” He said he found it “interesting that UFOs should once again come into public prominence” as they have today.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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