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Essential Politics: Are we closer to understanding UFOs? What to know about the congressional report

Harry Reid
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2013.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

This is the June 2, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

In a time where Americans and their leaders agree on almost nothing, who would have thought UFOs would unite us?

The truth is out there and former President Obama, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and even former President Trump are interested.

UFOs were a political and cultural force in midcentury America and the ‘90s. Now, as we await a Pentagon report on the subject, they’re back in vogue, generating segments on “60 Minutes,” making their way into interviews with former presidents and trending across the internet.

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Here’s what you need to know, no tin foil hats required.

Why is everyone talking about UFOs right now?

Air and Space Magazine dubbed 2019 “the Year of UFOs,” but it may actually be 2021.

The Pentagon is expected to release a report this month on UFO sightings, the result of a program designed to record and investigate sightings by the U.S. military.

Defense officials and some lawmakers are publicly pushing for the release of information, including Rubio, the highest-ranking Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“We cannot allow the stigma of UFO’s to keep us from seriously investigating this. The forthcoming report is one step in that process, but it will not be the last,” he said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

Last year, the Defense Department declassified three videos of “unexplained aerial phenomena” — the government’s preferred term — recorded by the Navy. A “60 Minutes” segment on growing reports from the military community has also heightened interest.

But we probably wouldn’t be here without former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid is among the loudest voices calling for information on UFOs.

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In a bipartisan effort in 2007, he and late Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) secured $22 million in funding for the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Intelligence officials claimed it was disbanded in 2012, though former employees later told the New York Times that it was still operational through 2017.

In August 2020, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense David L. Norquist approved the establishment of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.

Meanwhile, Reid continues to give interviews about UFOs. “Congress should make this an ongoing program. I don’t think the report is going to tell us too much,” he told the Guardian in an interview published Tuesday. “I think they need to study it more and not just have one shot at it.”

What’s in the report?

Passed in December, the Intelligence Authorization Act for the 2021 fiscal year directs the task force to deliver a report to Congress within 180 days on collected reports, with information on how it will analyze and track future sightings. And that report must be unclassified.

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But it may not contain the validation some are looking for. While much of the program’s details remain classified as research is conducted, what has emerged indicates a growing military interest in UFOs as a national security threat.

They’re taking UFOs literally — unidentified flying objects that could have come from anywhere, such as another country. In other words, the threats they’re looking for are of the more terrestrial variety.

Still, new details might emerge about the events that have been reported. Military pilots describe erratic movements and lights that seem to defy physics, and aircraft shaped like a “Tic Tac.”

What’s different about 2021?

As with many conspiracy theories, UFO devotees have claimed for decades that government disclosure is imminent. The government has repeatedly dismissed discussion of UFOs.

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The Times’ archives and those of other papers are full of officials downplaying reports of sightings. Sincere believers in the extraterrestrial are framed as kooky punchlines across news, TV and film.

In 1977, NASA denied a request from President Carter — who said he had seen a UFO years earlier — to open a government investigation, calling the idea “wasteful and probably unproductive.”

The denial came after the Air Force shut down an investigative program called Project Blue Book in 1969, saying it uncovered little in two decades at “considerable expense,” according to an Associated Press story.

But there’s something different about this round of UFO mania. Now, it seems, Americans and their elected officials are on the same side (though President Biden has not indicated his stance). And the government has an actual deadline.

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It’s also not an unexpected resurgence in public interest: We’re in the midst of a national reckoning with what it means for something to be true, prompting new demand for disclosures about everything from policing to ballot counting.

Belief in conspiracies (many much more dangerous) surged during Trump’s presidency, aided in part by the president. He also introduced a space element, establishing the Space Force and the new task force.

Hollywood and internet culture have also helped resurrect the UFO in public imagination. The “Storm Area 51” meme, which began as a Facebook event page, went viral and ended with about 2,000 people gathering in the Nevada desert in 2019 to joke about “rescuing” aliens and taking pictures.

people wearing foil hats pose for a photo
Friends gather for photos on the perimeter fence at Area 51 near Rachel, Nev., on Sept. 20, 2019.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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What about aliens?

Americans love aliens. Perhaps you grew up watching a galaxy far, far away in “Star Wars” (1977), Sigourney Weaver fighting to survive in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) or Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” (1982).

Not your speed? Maybe you listened to Blink-182’s “Aliens Exist” (1999) or loved the 1964 cult holiday classic “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” or consider yourself a fan of “The X-Files,” a landmark in the our-government-is-hiding-aliens storytelling tradition.

There’s a story for every interest group and time period, often with a trademark flying saucer and an undercurrent of distrust in authority. But the more information that becomes public, the more it becomes clear that what a UFO is and whether extraterrestrial life exists are two distinct questions.

One pilot who disclosed his encounter told New York Magazine he worried about being linked to “the ‘little green men’ crazies that are out there.”

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But even that stigma is starting to give way.

Where it was once taboo to wonder about extraterrestrial life, Axios notes that NASA has since made it a public mission to determine where such life might exist. Look no further than NASA’s Perseverance rover, dispatched in February to search for water and microbes on Mars. A Chinese one joined it last month.

And if it doesn’t exist, companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are eager to make it happen.

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The view from Washington

— Biden traveled to Tulsa, Okla., on Tuesday to mark a shameful and largely forgotten part of American history, calling for racial reconciliation on the 100th anniversary of the violent destruction of the city’s thriving Black community by a white mob, Eli Stokols writes.

— Biden also announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would steer the administration’s efforts to bolster voting rights, a daunting and challenging task that Democrats and voting rights advocates say is urgent, writes Noah Bierman.

— Biden’s administration may be the most overtly pro-union in 70 years, write Bierman and David Lauter. But can he reverse labor’s long decline?

— The Supreme Court overturned a rule used by the 9th Circuit Court in California that presumed immigrants seeking asylum were telling the truth unless an immigration judge had made an “explicit” finding that they were not credible, David G. Savage reports.

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— The Biden administration dispatched Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to Costa Rica on Tuesday to take Central American officials to task on corruption in their countries and to examine how they can more efficiently block migration to the U.S. He could face a tough crowd, Tracy Wilkinson writes.

— The Biden administration will suspend Arctic refuge drilling rights sold in the final days of Trump’s presidency, pending a fresh look at the environmental impact.

— Texas Democrats pulled off a dramatic last-ditch walkout from the state House of Representatives on Sunday night to block passage of one of the most restrictive voting bills in the U.S. But it could still be resurrected in a special session.

The view from California

— A Northern California county has voted to rename Jim Crow Road after a debate over the racist implications of the name and accusations of “woke cancel culture,” Brittny Mejia reports.

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— From Taryn Luna: A historic California task force met for the first time Tuesday with the ultimate goal of recommending reparations for descendants of enslaved people and those affected by slavery.

— Democratic leaders of the California Legislature unveiled a state budget blueprint that would boost public schools and small businesses beyond the proposal made last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom, John Myers reports. It’s a move that is likely to set the stage for friendly but detailed negotiations.

— California lawmakers are considering legislation that would require hospitals, clinics and skilled nursing facilities to pay medical professionals $10,000 in “hero pay” for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Melody Gutierrez writes.

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