Here’s What I Learned as the U.S. Government’s UFO Hunter

Carl Sagan popularized the maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This advice should not be optional for policy makers. In today’s world of misinformation, conspiracy driven decision-making and sensationalist-dominated governance, our capacity for rational, evidence-based critical thinking is eroding, with deleterious consequences for our ability to effectively deal with multiplying challenges of ever increasing complexity.

As director of the Department of Defense’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), charged by Congress in 2022 to help bring science-based clarity and resolution to the long-standing mystery surrounding credible observations of unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP), also known as UFOs, I experienced this erosion up close and personal. And it was one factor in my decision to step down from my position last December. After painstakingly assembling a team of highly talented and motivated personnel and working with them to develop a rational, systematic and science-based strategy to investigate these phenomena, our efforts were ultimately overwhelmed by sensational but unsupported claims that ignored contradictory evidence yet captured the attention of policy makers and the public, driving legislative battles and dominating the public narrative.

The result of this whirlwind of tall tales, fabrication and secondhand or thirdhand retellings of the same, was a social media frenzy and a significant amount of congressional and executive time and energy spent on investigating these so-called claims—as if we didn’t have anything better to do.

The conspiracists’ story goes something like this: The U.S. has been hiding and attempting to reverse engineer as many as 12 UAP/UFOs from as early as the 1960s and perhaps earlier. This great cover-up and conspiracy failed to produce any salient results, and consequently the effort was abandoned to some private sector defense contractors to continue the work. Sometime later, the story continues, those private sector contractors wanted to bring the whole program back under U.S. government (USG) auspices. Apparently, the CIA stopped this supposed transfer back to the USG. All of this is without substantiating evidence, but, alas, belief in a statement is directly proportional to the volume in which it is transmitted and the number of times it is repeated, not the actual facts.

During a full-scale, year-long investigation of this story (which has been told and retold by a small group of interconnected believers and others with possibly less than honest intentions—none of whom have firsthand accounts of any of this), AARO discovered a few things, and none were about aliens.

First, no record exists of any president or living DOD or intelligence community leader knowing about this alleged program, nor any congressional committee having such knowledge. This should speak volumes if this case were following typical procedure because it is inconceivable that a program of such import would not ever have been briefed to the 50 to 100 people at the top of the USG over the decades of its existence.

Second, this narrative has been simmering for years and is largely an outgrowth of a former program at the DOD’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which was heavily influenced by a group of individuals associated with businessman and longtime ufologist Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace. In 2009 then senator Harry Reid asked the secretary of defense (SECDEF) to set up a SAP (special access program) to protect the alleged UAP/UFO material that AATIP proponents believed the USG was hiding. The SECDEF declined to do so after a review by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSDI), and DIA concluded that not only did no such material exist, but taxpayer money was being inappropriately spent on paranormal research at Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. This is well documented in open sources, particularly in records available on DIA’s electronic FOIA Reading Room. After the negative response by SECDEF, Senator Reid then enlisted the help of then senator Joseph Lieberman to request that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set up an SAP for the same purpose. The administrative SAP proposal package was informed by the same individuals who had been associated with AATIP. AARO’s archival research has located the administrative proposal for the DHS SAP, complete with the participants, which has been declassified and is being reviewed for public release.

Finally, the key purveyors of this narrative have known one another for decades. In the early 2000s several members of this small group also participated in a study, erroneously characterized (by the same participants) as having been sponsored by the White House, on the possible societal impact of disclosing the existence of extraterrestrials to the public, with the authenticity of the abovementioned concealed government program taken as its baseline assumption. The think tank in question was a “futures” enterprise that often worked on fringe studies, and many of the individuals involved with the study also worked for Bigelow Aerospace in support of the AATIP program.

AARO thoroughly investigated these claims as part of its congressionally mandated mission to not only technically evaluate contemporary UAP observations but also review historical accounts going back to the 1940s. One of my last acts before retiring was to sign AARO’s Historical Record Report Volume 1, which is currently being prepared for delivery to Congress and the public. The report demonstrates that many of the circulating allegations described above derive from inadvertent or unauthorized disclosures of legitimate U.S. programs or related R&D that have nothing to do with extraterrestrial issues or technology. Some are misrepresentations, and some derive from pure, unsupported beliefs. In many respects, the narrative is a textbook example of circular reporting, with each person relaying what they heard, but the information often ultimately being sourced to the same small group of individuals.

The operational mission Congress has assigned AARO is important. Accumulating observations by highly trained U.S. military and other credible personnel of unidentified anomalous phenomena at or near sensitive national security areas and activities calls for a serious effort to understand what’s going on. Simply put, “unidentified” is unacceptable, particularly in these times of heightened geopolitical tension. Part of the problem we face today, however, is that the modern media cycle drives stories faster than sound research, science and peer review time lines can validate them. More worrisome is the willingness of some to make judgments and take actions on these stories without having seen or even requested supporting evidence, an omission that is all the more problematic when the claims are so extraordinary. Some members of Congress prefer to opine about aliens to the press rather than get an evidence-based briefing on the matter. Members have a responsibility to exhibit critical thinking skills instead of seeking the spotlight. As of the time of my departure, none, let me repeat, none of the conspiracy-minded “whistleblowers” in the public eye had elected to come to AARO to provide their “evidence” and statement for the record despite numerous invitations. Anyone that would rather be sensationalist in the public eye than bring their evidence to the one organization established in law with all of the legal process and security framework established to protect them, their privacy, and the information and to investigate and report out findings is suspect.

I can assure you as its former director that AARO is unwaveringly committed to harnessing science and technology to bring unprecedented clarity to these fascinating, important, and stubborn mysteries and to do so with maximum transparency. Its talented staff and team of supporting scientists are at this very moment striving in collaboration with the armed forces, intelligence community, government agencies, national laboratories, scientific community, academic community—and soon the general public—to collect and analyze hard, measurable data—i.e., extraordinary evidence—in this heretofore eyewitness-rich but data-poor field. The AARO team will go wherever the data takes it, without fail, and will not be swayed by any attempts to influence its findings otherwise. Science cannot be left on the side of the road in the mad dash to uncover some great conspiracy. Carl Sagan would expect no less, and neither should the American people.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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