The first congressional hearing on UFOs in decades offered little new or conclusive for anyone hoping for an announcement that the US government has been tracking technologically advanced extraterrestrial lifeforms, as intelligence officials told lawmakers they still weren’t sure what the unidentified objects seen by military pilots actually are.
But the hearing held on Tuesday before the US House Intelligence Committee's subcommittee on counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and counterproliferation did offer a new level of transparency on a topic often shrouded in secrecy and rumour.
“We want to know what's out there as much as you want to know what's out there,” US Undersecretary of Defence for Intelligence and Security Ronald Moultrie, who oversees a new Pentagon program investigating UFOs, told lawmakers. “We get the questions not just from you; we get them from family members and we get them night and day, not just in committee hearings. So finding what's out there is important.”
Mr Moultrie was joined by Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray, the pair offering the first public testimony before congress on the topic of UFOS — or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) in the new Pentagon lingo — since the 1970s. That’s when the US Air Force ended Project Blue Book, an investigation into UFOs that concluded the available evidence suggested UFOs were a national security threat, and did not represent advanced and/or extraterrestrial technology.
But in 2020, the Department of Defence set up a UAP task force within the Department of the Navy to investigate new UFO/UAP sightings by military pilots over training ranges. A report based on the work of that task force and published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in June 2021 also found insufficient evidence to conclude sightings represented aliens or advanced foreign adversaries, but did conclude that many of the sightings were real physical objects.
The report noted 143 UFO/UAP sightings since 2004 that were still unexplained.
“Since the early 2000s, we have seen an increasing number of unauthorized and or unidentified aircraft or objects in military control training areas, and training ranges and other designated airspace,” Mr Bray told lawmakers. “Reports of sightings are frequent and continuing.”
Congress made funding available in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget to create the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, which Moultrie oversees, within the Pentagon. The group has created processes by which military personnel can report sightings of UFOs/UAPs.
“We know that our service members have encountered unidentified aerial phenomena and because UAPs pose potential flight safety and general security risks, we are committed to a focus effort to determine their origins,” Mr Moultrie said. “Our goal is to eliminate the stigma by fully incorporating our operators and mission personnel into a standardized data gathering process. We believe that making UAP reporting a mission imperative will be instrumental to the effort’s success.”
That approach is already paying dividends. The number of unexplained UFO/UAP sightings the group is tracking has grown to 400 since the report was released last summer.
“The message is now clear. If you see something you need to report it, and the message has been received,” Mr Bray said. “In fact, recently, I received a call from a senior naval aviator with over 2,000 flight hours. He called me personally from the flight line after landing to talk about an encounter that he had just experienced.”
Both intelligence officials agreed with lawmakers that transparency with the public concerning UFOs/UAPs is important, and committed to making disclosures when possible. The key thing, they said, was ensuring that in revealing information about UFOs/UAPs, the US military did not provide terrestrial adversaries with classified information.
“What's really important for us to protect is how we know certain things,” he said. “Many [UFO/UAP sightings] are the result of some of our most sensitive sources and methods, and we'll use those things not just for this effort, but those same sources and methods are used to help protect us from adversaries and from others who might mean to do us harm. There aren't separate UAP sensors.”
For that reason, Tuesday’s hearing adjourned before midday so that the intelligence officials could brief the lawmakers in more detail in a classified briefing.
“For information that we have, when it does not involve sources and methods, and when we can with a reasonable degree of confidence determine that if it does not pose a foreign intelligence or national security threat, and it's within my authority to do so, I commit to declassifying that,” he said. “I believe very much in the transparency of this and we work very hard to balance that with our national security needs.”
But both Mr Bray and Mr Moultrie also asserted that even with classified information, the challenge facing the Pentagon’s new program is the fact that most UFO/UAP sightings provide scant information. In one video shown at the hearing, a spherical UFO/UAP could barely be seen when zooming past a military aircraft cockpit.
Determining which UFO/UAP sightings cannot be easily explained by aerial debris, such as Mylar balloons, weather phenomena, commercial or military drone aircraft or sensor artifacts, — common explanations in some cases — and just what lies behind the remaining, mysteries objects, will take time, according to Mr Bray.
“As a lifelong intelligence professional, I'm impatient. I want the immediate explanations for this as much as anyone else,” he told lawmakers. “However, understanding can take significant time and effort.”