It’s Time to Talk About UFOs

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S1: A quick warning before we start, there’s a little spicy language in this episode. I just have to ask you, have you always been into aliens?

S2: Oh, yeah, for sure.

S1: When did that start?

S2: I mean, I’ve been fascinated by sci fi movies and this topic since I was a kid.

S1: It’s not every day that I get to talk to a very serious journalist in this case, Shane Harris from The Washington Post about aliens.

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S2: Maybe it starts with Ed. Yeah, I was born in seventy six. So it is sort of like my childhood, you know, a cinematic encounter, I guess you would say. But this is a general topic. Yeah. I’ve just generally sort of always been fascinated by it, but it’s only been recently that it intersected with what I write about for a living.

S1: Shane covers intelligence and national security for the post, and the reason that I’m asking him about something as sci fi as aliens besides fun is because of a new report from the director of National Intelligence, a report into what most of us call UFOs and what the military and serious people who study this stuff call UAP unidentified aerial phenomena. The report released late last week takes about 15 years of observations by military personnel, mostly pilots, and tries to classify what people saw when they couldn’t account for what they were seeing.

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S2: The kind of upshot of the report is we found no evidence that it’s extraterrestrial life. We also can’t rule it out. I mean, and to be clear, like the intelligence community is not trying to, like, raise the question of whether alien species have visited the earth. That’s not what this report is doing. But it was kind of remarkable to see the government even talking about, you know, unidentified aerial phenomenon UAP, as we have to call them now in such an open ended analytic way. It’s a very sober piece of analysis that they did. That was that was surprising in a sense.

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S1: Today on the show, Shane Harris takes us inside the government’s attempts to figure out what’s in the sky. It’s less a story of little green men and more one of military technology and mystery. I’m Lizzie O’Leary, and you’re listening to What Next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around. The UAP report, which was commissioned by Congress, is an attempt to document and explain lots of different things that have been observed flying around over the years, you can think of it as a catalogue of sorts of various times. A confusing object showed up on military cameras or sensors or when pilots saw something they couldn’t quite identify. It takes these incidents a hundred and forty plus of them and divides them into some subcategories. Walk me through this.

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S2: So, yeah, there’s five categories in these hundred forty four incidents. And all the incidents, by the way, were reported through government channels. So it’s, you know, it’s a pilot that saw something. It’s a sailor aboard a ship. That’s awesome.

S1: This is not Uncle Bob in his backyard with binoculars.

S2: Absolutely. These are not amateur reports. And importantly, they’re also not reports from commercial airline pilots, of which there have been many over the years. Nor are there reports from anyone in a foreign government of which there have notably been some over the years. So it says, OK, number one, it could be clutter, essentially a weather balloon, debris in the air, even in one case, a plastic bag. It could be a weather anomaly. So ice crystals, moisture in the air, something that is making a sensor believe that there’s an object there. But actually, it’s more a trick of the light. The third category is it could be US government developmental craft or something sponsored by like, let’s say, a company whose building, I don’t know, maybe a new kind of drone. A fourth category is it could be a foreign adversary technology. And the report actually says Russia and China have been developing more advanced aircraft systems in hypersonic technology. So aircraft that fly or object to fly very, very fast. And this kind of perplexing and sort of maddening category is other. And what could other be? Obviously, the mine goes right to what you think the other might be, but it’s not saying it’s aliens.

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S1: Not too long ago, it might have seemed surprising for the intelligence community to publish a report like this. The public only learned that the government was collecting this information in 2017 when The New York Times published a story on it.

S2: Yeah, there’s a whole suite of work I’m

S1: asking their reporting included video from a Navy jet of an object flying around in a pattern that was baffling to the pilots, because that’s what it’s a. I asked Shane why there had been such a sea change in the way the government talks about UAP.

S2: I think one thing that’s driving it is just the very large number of these encounters and these sightings. Also the fact that so many of them are being captured on film and in the case of the Times report, were then made public. So you’ve got this moment where these seemingly very Shane highly credible pilots that we can now see them reacting to this anomalous object. And their secret is like it’s no longer secret. That fact is out in the world. Right. This is categorically different than black and white photos or the weird grainy footage that somebody took with a camcorder of lights in the sky. This is a camera from inside, like a multimillion dollar fighter jet with professionals flying it. So you kind of can’t ignore it.

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S1: What did pilots see in some of these incidents?

S2: The most famous incident probably now that’s been documented and talked about by the pilots who were there was in 2004 where pilots who were attached to the USS carrier Nimitz had this encounter that has been described as the flying Tic-Tac. They were out flying over the ocean and they looked down and they saw what appeared to be white water on the surface of the ocean where the surface was troubled or roiling in some kind of a way. And as the pilots describe it, they looked down and kind of atop this spot in the water that’s moving. They see this object that they described as looking kind of like a capsule, which is where the flying Tic-Tac analogy comes from. And it was moving very erratically, seemingly very randomly over the surface of the water. And then as the I think it was the squadron leader in this case explained that he’s seeing this thing moving very quickly up and down, doing all kinds of things that a plane doesn’t do. It doesn’t appear to have wings. It doesn’t appear to have a propulsion system like a jet or a propeller. And then, as he describes it, it just disappears. And there’s been some reporting that it’s then picked up, you know, two seconds later, many, many miles away by the radar systems on the carrier. So these people are describing and the sensors are backing them up, some kind of physical object that appears to be moving at rates of speed and demonstrating aerodynamic properties and characteristics that don’t match what we understand as human technology. Right. It doesn’t do what a plane does. It doesn’t do what a drone does.

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S1: Yeah, there’s this part of the report that stood out to me and that you mentioned in some of your your articles were you talk about the flight characteristics here that these things are they’re stationary in in wind. They’re moving against the wind. They’re going really fast. And what I find so interesting is it’s just kind of flopped into the report. There’s no Y behind that. It’s just the what?

S2: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s the most intriguing part of the report, I think. And, you know, it’s almost as if they’ve they’ve they’ve gone out. They’ve seen this thing that very few people have ever seen before and they can’t explain it, but they don’t attempt to explain it. But when you mean when you read it and they use this you know, this language that, you know, just from the report, it even says appeared to remain stationary and winds aloft, moved against winds, manouver abruptly or move a considerable speed without discernible means of propulsion. It’s like this very technical way of describing something that you’re looking and saying this doesn’t operate under the normal laws of physics or aerodynamics. It’s this very clinical, technical way of describing something extraordinary and completely anomalous in the experience of these pilots.

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S1: Of course, people seeing something anomalous in the sky isn’t new. The US government has been thinking about and studying UAP and sometimes manipulating the public perception of them since the end of World War Two.

S2: Famously, in nineteen sixty nine, a study was published and formerly known as the Condon Committee, which was an Air Force funded effort out of the University of Colorado to basically try and apply some more scientific study to unidentified flying objects. This ultimately concludes that this is not an area worthy of scientific inquiry. A lot of people would argue that it kind of puts the stigma on UFO sightings, right? It’s sort of it says this is not a serious field of scientific study. At the same time, it’s not as though the government then for years is not aware of other sightings, but it doesn’t appear that there’s any really rigorous effort or even formal. At all to categorize them, it becomes almost kind of folklore even within the military and, you know, pilots who’ve talked about these things, even commercial pilots have seeing things out there talk about the reluctance to share those stories with people, even though they’ve all had them, because you’ll be looked at like you’re crazy or you’re a fool or you’re reaching for a conclusion that’s not supported by evidence and that that’s not behavior we like to see, certainly from scientists, but also from people who are trained to fly really expensive aircraft

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S1: in the Cold War era. The government did little to discourage fanciful stories about aliens because they served as cover when civilians accidentally spotted secret technology, most famously near Roswell, New Mexico. And Nevada is Area 51. The myths around those sightings fed the public appetite for spooky things and helped keep secrets secret.

S2: So in a sense, the government has an incentive for making you think this is all just, you know, spooky ghost stories and nonsense because it keeps you from asking questions about the actual supersonic jet and the stealth aircraft that the military is developing. So the stigma in some ways worked for the military and the intelligence community. But now what we’re finding from experts is that it’s very much working against them because there are clearly these sightings of objects that are not US government technology. And if people in the military are afraid to report them, then we’re not going to have good information to figure out what they are.

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S1: When we come back by the military sees UAP as a threat. When it comes to unknown phenomena in the sky, a lot of us think of aliens and crazy movie plot lines, but our national security apparatus is thinking more in terms of defense.

S2: They’re viewing these things as threats. I mean, these are objects in our airspace or next to our warships, next to our planes. And we don’t know what they are, which they may be hostile. They could be collecting information. If they’re a foreign government system, it could be collecting intelligence on us. So we need to know the military saying we got to know what these are and not make people feel like they’re crazy because they saw something.

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S1: I noticed in the report that there’s this little moment where they say, well, we we see them a lot. We encounter them a lot around military installations or around know if they talk about aircraft carriers, but basically Defense Department stuff. And they do allow that. That just might be where naval pilots are observing them. But but that to me was a little moment where I thought, like, oh, I might think this is cool stuff in the sky. The Navy see something scary, right?

S2: Exactly. They they see some aircraft in some instances performing these unbelievable feats next to carrier groups, next to ships with hundreds or thousands of people aboard. Very expensive military technology if they observe this. And it clearly had like Russian insignia on it. Right. They would react to that. Right. They would say, OK, we have to defend against whatever this threat is. It could be coming after us. It could be heading towards the United States. So they view that very much and they’re taking kind of an adversarial position towards this thing. So we see it and it’s really cool and it’s kind of inspiring. They see it and they say, is this something that’s trying to attack us? Is it collecting information on us or is it testing us in some way? If this is a foreign government advanced drone, is it being put up there to see how we react to it? What does the radar do? What did the sensors do? What’s the protocol

S1: if these are Russian Chinese hypersonic drones or what have you? Would would we even get a clear picture of that?

S2: Well, it’s a great question if we’re not getting a clear picture of it. One question is why? Like, let’s just pause for for sake of argument that the Russians or the Chinese have developed highly advanced craft that don’t look like normal planes, that move incredible speeds. Why have we not detected that until now? Why have they been able to keep that a secret? Or have they developed some way to evade our ability to sense it and to to detect it there, too? I mean, you could argue that that would be a pretty significant national security failure if we’ve invested all of this money in advanced weaponry of our own and advanced detection systems. But our adversaries have managed to build something that completely got past us that is more advanced than anything that we have and that defies our ability to characterize it in any kind of consistent or dependable way. That would be a really, really big deal and would speak to some major vulnerability or gap in our national security architecture

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S1: covering national security and intelligence. I want to know, like, how did your sources react to this?

S2: I think with this, a bit of befuddlement as well, but most people I’ve talked to on this look at these systems like the ones that really display the abnormal flight characteristics, as the report puts it, and they say like, this is not ours. We didn’t build this,

S1: not ours, meaning the U.S. government’s

S2: not ours, meaning that the US governments, the US government does not have the technology and the capability to build systems that accelerate to, you know, whatever, thousands of miles an hour or sit there and appear to hover in the wind with no sign of propulsion.

S1: And does Raytheon or are they saying this belongs to some other country, some other technological alignment?

S2: The people I’ve talked to who think that it could be a, you know, a manmade technology hold out the possibility that it is a Russian or a Chinese system that’s very advanced. They can’t understand, though, in the cases of the ones these 18 or so observed incidents that just defy all understanding of aerodynamics, how the Russians of the Chinese, frankly, could have built something even more advanced than our stuff. And maybe that speaks to a kind of American bias that we have the best technology. But based on everything we observe, we do. I mean, you know, if we haven’t built the sort of the hypersonic Tic-Tac, do we really think the Chinese built it? My sources are very skeptical of that. Now, there are incidents that have been reported where, let’s be clear, there are craft that look like they could be drones that aren’t moving at high rates of speed. They’re just loitering, but they’re staying aloft for an awfully long time and a lot longer and observed incidences than our drones would stay up there. So maybe the Chinese developed a more advanced battery system or if you know of more efficient engine there, too, that would be a pretty big gap in our understanding.

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S1: This report is only nine pages long and it’s unclassified. There is another version that is classified. Basically, the government is only telling us a little bit. What did you make of that?

S2: From talking to people who’ve seen the classified version of the report and from reading other reporting on that, it doesn’t seem like the classified version is like reaching a conclusion that they’re not sharing. I think what you’re going to find there probably is just more documentation about the individual incidents, but no particular answer. And what I made of this is that the intelligence community is being and the military are being very careful not to get ahead of themselves on this subject, because I think that would only undermine and potentially discredit the whole inquiry. Like if they just start trying to leap to conclusions about what this is without any really hard evidence of it, given the whole history of this pursuit and this area, they would then undermine something that they’re trying to get people to take seriously. So they would, in a sense, be kind of shooting themselves in the foot,

S1: even though at the same time had this amazing quote in your story from Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, former senator or former astronaut, he saw the classified version and said the hair stood up on the back of my neck. And as a citizen, as a taxpayer, I. I want to know more how how much should we get to know?

S2: Well, I think that it’s reasonable to think that the Americans should get to know a lot more if its adversary technology, if it’s Russian or Chinese, and there’s a legitimate national security reason to keep it a secret. OK, I guess we could have that argument. But why shouldn’t people have the right to know about these unidentified objects that are flying around doing these extraordinary things that are being observed, you know, frankly, by people who we pay our tax dollars to record these videos,

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S1: when will we know what this was? Is this you know, some further study comes out in a few years, or you and I are in a retirement home 40 years from now. And eventually things are declassified and we learn, you know, there was a supersonic Chinese drone or that we’re not alone in the universe.

S2: I think the answer to that question actually depends on how much the government is willing to fund more research into figuring out what these things are. Because I actually don’t think and maybe I’ll be proven wrong about this. I don’t think the ultimate kind of answer to what it is, is sitting someplace in a file like locked away in a vault, metaphorically, anyway, like I don’t think that there are five people in the government who actually know the answer. And so whether they intend to actually make a good faith effort to learn that or just kind of happily dwell in the mystery is really going to depend upon public pressure. And maybe this is kind of a way of getting us all more used to the idea about talking about this and not feeling silly or kind of ashamed.

S1: Shane Harris, thank you very much.

S2: It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me.

S1: Shane Harris reports on intelligence and national security for The Washington Post, and that is our show for today. TBD is produced by Ethan. Books were edited by Torie Bosch and Allison Benedict. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate podcasts. TBD is also part of the larger one next family. And it’s part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I want to recommend you go back and listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next? It answers a question that I’ve wondered for a while now. What exactly is Arizona Senator Kirsten Cinema’s deal? Mary Harris will be back in your ears on Tuesday after the long weekend. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.