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The US Congress takes UFOs seriously: ‘Sightings are not rare or isolated’

Three witnesses, who testified Wednesday, denounced that commercial and military pilots suffer ‘reprisals’ for sharing their experiences. Lawmakers from both parties have called on the Pentagon to end secrecy on the subject

Ovnis Estados Unidos
The three witnesses at Wednesday's congressional hearing on UFOs are sworn in: from left, Ryan Graves, David Grusch and David Fravor.JIM LO SCALZO (EFE)
Iker Seisdedos

This Wednesday, UFOs landed at the U.S. Capitol again. Members of the House Oversight Committee’s Homeland Security, Border and Foreign Affairs subcommittee heard “courageous” accounts from three witnesses about their experiences with unidentified flying objects: David Grusch, a former Air Force intelligence officer who claims the Pentagon is in possession of alien spacecraft remains; David Fravor, a retired Navy commander; and Ryan Graves, an ex-Navy pilot.

The idea behind the hearing — the first in a series — was to force the Pentagon to release the classified information it has on the matter to “blow the lid off,” as Republican Congressman Tim Burchett of Tennessee put it; he has been one of the most active congresspeople on the issue. “We can’t trust a government that doesn’t trust its citizens,” Burchett said. His colleague Glenn Grothman (R-Wisconsin), the chairman of the subcommittee, said that the hearings seek to end “wild speculation about the nature of UFOs, which benefits no one, on the basis of facts.”

After the congressmen’s introductory remarks, witnesses took the floor to narrate their encounters with UFOs (unidentified flying objects). However, in this era of renewed interest in these unexplained phenomena, the term used to refer to them has also been changed to combat taboos: the U.S. government and legislators prefer to call them “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP).

Graves fired away. “As we’re talking, our sky is full of UAPs, the existence of which is underreported. Sightings are not rare or isolated. They are routine. The stigma of UAPs is real, and it poses a powerful challenge to national security,” he argued at the beginning of his written statement.

He said that it all began in 2014, when he was an F-18 pilot. During a flight departing from the East Coast off Virginia Beach, he saw a “dark gray or black cube inside a transparent sphere that came within 50 feet of the aircraft leading the flotilla. We estimated it was between 1.6 and three meters in diameter. Soon, these encounters became so frequent that we discussed the risk of encountering UAP as part of flight preparation.” In response to a question from Grothman, Graves then provided a solution that those at the hearing also seek: “Allow pilots, both military and commercial, to report what they see without fear of reprisal.”

Government secrecy

For his part, Grusch said that the ideals of “truth and transparency” led him to become a whistleblower (a buzzword in recent years in Washington), after 14 years in the intelligence services and the Pentagon’s UAP program, created in 2020. The following year, he started to pull the loose thread “after learning of troubling reports from multiple colleagues and respected and credentialed active and retired military personnel that made it clear that the government is operating in secret on this issue, without congressional oversight.” That decision, he said, led him to feel he had “put his life on the line. And certainly, there have been colleagues of mine who have faced brutal administrative retaliation for speaking out,” the whistleblower added, claiming that only 5% of sightings are reported for those reasons.

Robert Garcia, a Democratic representative from California — who requested that the committee approach the matter with an “open mind” — asked Grusch if he believed that the government had any UAPs in its possession. Grusch replied, “Absolutely, yes, I had it confirmed to me by 40 witnesses over four years.” Garcia then asked, “And do you know where they might be?” The witness responded, “I know, and that’s how I reported it to the proper authorities.” Grusch did not share that information at the hearing.

UFO sightings skyrocket
An image from a 2015 Department of Defense video showing an object soaring through the clouds. US DEPARTAMENT OF DEFENCE

Fravor, the third speaker, recalled that day in 2004 when he participated in training maneuvers as a Strike Fighter pilot off the coast of San Diego. At one point, a controller told them that the mission had to be aborted because for a couple of weeks they had been encountering ordnance that descended like lightning from 80,000 to 20,000 feet and stayed at that altitude for hours. Then, Fravor recounted, a white object appeared “moving very abruptly over the water, like a ping-pong ball.” He admitted that “I’m not a UFO fan, but I will tell you that what I saw for a period of five minutes, is something I’ve never seen, before or since. It was incredible technology.” He also warned that he does not believe such technology is “within the reach of any country on the face of the Earth.”

Third hearing

Wednesday’s hearing was the third held in the House of Representatives or the Senate on the issue after half a century of not addressing the topic. At the April Senate hearing, Sean Kirkpatrick, the director of the office in charge of sightings, explained that the government was reviewing more than 650 potential UAP cases then. He added, “Of those, we’ve prioritized about half of them as anomalous and of interesting value, and now we have to review them and ask ourselves: how many have the makings of truth?”

A milestone on the road of UFOs to mainstream public discourse occurred in 2017, with the publication of a New York Times article — quoted repeatedly during Wednesday’s hearing — that reported that the Department of Defense had an advanced aerospace threat identification program in place, launched at the initiative of late Democratic Nevada Senator Harry Reid. That state is home to Area 51, a secret military base and pop culture icon synonymous with conspiracy theories about aliens, UFOs and alleged covert government operations to hide evidence of extraterrestrial life from the world.

Two years later, the conversation (and the demand for answers) went mainstream among some Washington lawmakers. And in 2020, the Pentagon released a series of previously classified videos of pilots involved in three separate incidents between 2004 and 2015, in which UFO encounters appeared to be observed. At the time, U.S. intelligence said that while there was no evidence of extraterrestrial activity associated with those objects, they did not categorically rule it out either.

El globo chino que cruzó Estados Unidos
The Chinese balloon that crossed the United States in February of this year. Chad Fish (AP)

This July, Senators Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York) introduced a bill to require the government to report all UFO sightings to a review board that would have the authority to declassify the information. This effort responds to a widespread desire, the congressman said on Wednesday. Far-right Congresswoman Anna Paulina Luna (R-Florida) cited a survey that says that 68% of Americans believe that the government is hiding something. She added: “It is unacceptable that Americans continue to be led to believe that this is not happening or that it is not possible that there are other intelligent forms of life beyond humans.”

The U.S. aerospace agency, NASA, also set up a 16-person multidisciplinary independent task force to study these phenomena in depth. It concluded that, in most cases, a lack of quality data prevents them from delving deeper.

In the United States, the memory of the incident in which a Chinese balloon crossed the skies of the country from one end to the other in February, a flyover broadcast live by the news networks, is still fresh. According to the State Department, the balloon was equipped with antennas capable of detecting and intercepting communications signals and other instruments atypical of a meteorological device, as Beijing described it. Washington maintained that it was in fact a spy balloon, and diplomatic tensions rose between the two superpowers. Eventually, the balloon was shot down, but in the weeks of paranoia following the incident, there were reports of sightings of several objects of an unknown nature. Grothman told the Capitol hearing that the episode represented proof that the U.S. government “is not prepared for these events.”

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Sobre la firma

Iker Seisdedos
Es corresponsal de EL PAÍS en Washington. Licenciado en Derecho Económico por la Universidad de Deusto y máster de Periodismo UAM / EL PAÍS, trabaja en el diario desde 2004, casi siempre vinculado al área cultural. Tras su paso por las secciones El Viajero, Tentaciones y El País Semanal, ha sido redactor jefe de Domingo, Ideas, Cultura y Babelia.

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