The mysterious downing of three unidentified flying objects over the weekend has renewed attention on an issue that Congress has become increasingly interested in over the last few years: the presence of UFOs, also known as unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs).
Since 2020, a growing chorus of both Democrats and Republicans have emphasized the need to study and track UAPs, which can include everything from drones to other unknown aerial items, as a potential national security threat. Those calls have only grown louder after the military shot down the latest objects, which were detected in US airspace after a Chinese surveillance balloon was identified in early February. At this point, the White House has said that it doesn’t believe the unidentified objects have extraterrestrial origins.
Lawmakers’ scrutiny of UAPs burst into public view in 2022. Last May, the House held the first hearing that it’s had in 50 years on the issue, featuring testimony from military officials who presented video and images that service members have captured of different aerial objects. Past reports of UAPs have included sightings of objects that have “unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities,” raising questions about whether they could have extraterrestrial ties, though officials say they haven’t found evidence of such connections.
Over time, Congress’s focus on UAPs has become more mainstream as lawmakers like former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed to make it a priority. In 2007, Reid helped secure $22 million in funding for a Pentagon program to study UFOs and UAPs, dubbed the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
Since then, lawmakers including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) have spearheaded policies that set up a new office administered by the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to further bolster this effort. Now, this office — deemed the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (ARRO) — is tasked with publishing an annual report and providing lawmakers with two classified briefings per year.
An unclassified report from ODNI and AARO was released in January 2023 and indicated that the US government is investigating more than 360 new sightings of UAPs, about half had unremarkable explanations. These included objects that were determined to be balloons, debris, and drones. Officials were still looking into the objects that remained unexplained, however.
“I’ve been sounding the alarm on this issue since I chaired the first open hearing on unidentified aerial phenomena in 50 years,” Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN) told Vox in a statement. “In January, an unclassified report was released to the public based on these findings. The main takeaway was that we must continue studying and investigating these sightings.”
Congress has demanded more information on UAPs in recent years
There’s been a big congressional push for more information about UAPs ever since the Pentagon released three videos of rapidly moving UFOs in April 2020. These clips were published by the New York Times in 2017 and 2018 but weren’t verified by the Defense Department until later.
Lawmakers’ focus has stemmed from concerns about competition and surveillance from foreign adversaries as well as a broader interest in understanding the source of these objects, including whether they could be extraterrestrial in nature.
After the videos were publicized, Congress called for a report from ODNI on sightings of UAPs. A report released in June 2021, examining incidents between 2004 and 2021, indicated that there were 143 instances of unexplained aerial phenomena that ODNI was investigating — including a handful that potentially involved unique technological capabilities.
“Of those, 21 reports, involving 18 episodes, possibly demonstrated technological know-how unknown to the United States, such as objects moving without observable propulsion or with rapid acceleration that is believed to be beyond the capabilities of Russia, China or other terrestrial nations,” the New York Times’s Julian E. Barnes reported.
Following the 2021 report, a group composed of defense and intelligence officials, called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG), was established to examine the presence of such phenomena in “special-use air space,” which includes airspace near military bases. In 2021, Congress approved the amendment establishing an office focusing on UAPs and setting up reporting requirements as part of the annual defense bill. That body, ARRO, has taken over the work of AOIMSG, and is intended to help streamline information sharing between DOD and ODNI.
In addition to the January 2023 report, lawmakers also received classified briefings that began in May 2022, which are intended to document the progress that has been made in detecting and tracking down the origins of UAPs. A House subcommittee also held a landmark public hearing on the issue last May.
In that hearing, Naval Intelligence Deputy Director Scott Bray said the military had yet to find anything “non terrestrial in origin,” and that while most reports of UAPs could ultimately be explained, there were aerial phenomena they were still trying to figure out. For example, during the panel, officials also shared images and video of some of the sightings, including one of an orb taken through an aircraft window, which they could not provide an explanation for.
The developments in Congress have made people, including pilots and other members of the military, more open to discussing UAPs and destigmatized the idea of reporting on them.
“Importantly, this effort has reduced the stigma around reporting, enabling service members to come forward without having to fear negative repercussions on their careers,” Gillibrand told Vox in a statement. In an August 2022 interview, Gillibrand also said the UAP office was in the process of gaining access to archival data and working with the private sector to get more information on past incidents.
Such updates follow years of Reid calling on Congress to focus on this subject. The office that he helped fund at the Pentagon studied reports of unidentified flying objects including run-ins with military aircraft. It was later replaced by another task force, called the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, dedicated to the issue. Then, as now, there’s a lot that lawmakers still hope to learn about UAPs, their origins, and what purposes they serve.
“There’s still a great deal we don’t understand,” Reid wrote in a 2021 New York Times op-ed. “I believe it’s crucial to lead with the science when studying U.F.O.s.”