Inside the U.F.O. Report – The New York Times

michael barbaro

From the New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

Today, after years of secretly investigating U.F.O.s, U.S. intelligence officials have released an unclassified report summarizing everything they found.

Kevin Roose spoke with our colleague, national security reporter Julian Barnes, about what we now know and whether this report settles anything.

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It’s Wednesday, June 30.

kevin roose

Julian. Greetings, fellow earthling.

julian barnes

Greetings. Greetings from planet Earth.

kevin roose

So last week, we got this long-awaited government report about U.F.O.s. And we’re going to get into the report, because I have a lot of questions about it, but first I just want to kind of acknowledge how strange and exciting it is that I am here talking to you, a reporter who covers U.S. intelligence agencies, about unidentified flying objects.

julian barnes

Yeah. Things have come a long way. But one little correction, Kevin. We don’t call them U.F.O.s anymore. They’re now called U.A.P.s, which stands for unidentified aerial phenomena.

kevin roose

Very fancy.

julian barnes

Very fancy.

kevin roose

But I actually don’t quite understand why this report really exists. Why was this published, and why was it published last week?

julian barnes

Well, back in 2017, my colleagues at The New York Times published an article that revealed the existence of a secret government program collecting and analyzing information involving U.F.O. sightings.

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The New York Times reported this weekend that the Pentagon has finally acknowledged the existence of a special program that investigated reports of U.F.O.s.

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The project was called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program.

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The program began in 2007 and ended five years later, but it’s —

julian barnes

Not only did the Times expose the existence of this shadowy program, but it also ultimately published three leaked videos of actual sightings by Navy pilots.

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New released video from 2015 shows an encounter between U.S. Navy pilots and some kind of unidentified flying object.

julian barnes

The first one was back from 2004. And it shows an object that’s white and oval, and it’s flying low over the ocean. It churns the water. It creates a disturbance.

The next set of videos come from this tour of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, which, in 2014 and 2015, was off the coast of Virginia and Florida. And there were a series of encounters between Navy pilots and a possible object.

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OK!

julian barnes

We have two videos.

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[INAUDIBLE]

julian barnes

The first of these shows an object zooming over the ocean waves. And we hear the pilots talking about it.

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[INAUDIBLE]

julian barnes

They’re questioning what they’re seeing, and one says, wow, what is that, man? Look at it fly.

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Oh my gosh, dude. Wow

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[INTERPOSING VOICES]

julian barnes

You hear the amazement in their voice. And there’s another video, too, with a strange object that’s flying against the wind.

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There’s a whole fleet of them, look on the SA. My gosh.

julian barnes

The pilots keep saying it’s a drone, but you can kind of sense that they’re uncertain about it.

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That’s not [INAUDIBLE] is it?

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[INAUDIBLE]

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But if there’s —

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Look at that thing.

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It’s rotating.

julian barnes

So these videos are out there in 2017 and 2019, and it caught the attention of the public, the Pentagon and the Congress. So in 2020, Congress demanded the government issue an unclassified report telling the world what it knew about these U.A.P.s.

kevin roose

And that’s the report that we got on Friday.

julian barnes

That’s right. That’s the report.

kevin roose

OK, so let’s crack this report open. It’s a PDF. It’s from the director of national intelligence. And it’s called “Preliminary Assessment of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” I assume you have it in front of you. And I think the main thing I want to know, and the main thing I think a lot of people listening probably want to know, right off the bat is: Does the U.S. government know about the existence of aliens or alien life on Earth?

julian barnes

It’s not going to be that easy, Kevin. No, the government didn’t say there are aliens out there. As much as people might have wanted it, the report is not a deep dive into extraterrestrials. But what it does cover is a whole range of what might be out there. The report talks about 144 incidents, 144 unexplained phenomenon that the U.S. military recorded or saw, took pictures of. But there’s not a lot of detail about most of these things. They remain kind of murky.

kevin roose

And what makes these 144 things — incidents — interesting, versus just being blurry pictures or optical illusions?

julian barnes

Well, we get the sense from reading the report that most of these 144 aren’t that interesting. But there is a subset, a subset of 18 that are different. They exhibit unusual behavior. Some of them are accelerating fast, faster than anything the United States military has the technology for, or some of those 18 are moving without a visible source of propulsion. And it is these videos and observations that have the interest of the intelligence community.

kevin roose

So a small minority of these incidents, like 18 of them, aren’t just kind of unidentified things in the sky that some military pilot saw — they actually seem to be demonstrating behavior that defies the laws of physics?

julian barnes

Well, I don’t know if it defies the laws of physics, but it defies earthly technology as we understand it.

kevin roose

And has the government figured out a way to explain these 144 incidents?

julian barnes

They have explained one of them. 143 remain unexplained.

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kevin roose

Wait a minute. So what you’re telling me is that the government investigated 144 U.A.P.s, things in the air, and of those 144, they only managed to come up with a definitive explanation for one?

julian barnes

That’s right.

kevin roose

And what was the explanation for that one?

julian barnes

It was a large deflating balloon.

kevin roose

Huh.

julian barnes

We have no idea what the explanation for these 143 incidents might be, but in this report, the government gave us five basic categories of possible explanations — sort of five ways to think about how these might be explained or understood. And even if it doesn’t resolve the 143, it gives us a way of thinking about it.

And that one that is explained, that large deflating balloon, the government places that one in their first category — the rather boring airborne clutter.

kevin roose

So we’re talking balloons, birds, just like anything random in the air that’s not actually all that exciting.

julian barnes

That’s right.

kevin roose

OK, so that’s one possible explanation. What else do we have?

julian barnes

Another one is natural phenomenon. I mean, there is a lot on this Earth that we haven’t explained or don’t fully understand, and could be things like ball lightning or meteorological effects that at first appear to a pilot or an infrared camera as something crazy, but are just something that we don’t see every day but are very much of this world.

kevin roose

Got it. So those two categories — airborne clutter and natural phenomena — kind of feel like the most sort of mundane explanations for what these phenomena might be. What’s the third category?

julian barnes

The third category is a U.S. secret project. And that’s probably the first of the interesting answers. Could this be a secret American drone that was observed by the Navy pilots?

kevin roose

Julian, I’m a little confused. Like, why would the U.S. government’s own military technology be a possible explanation here? Like, wouldn’t the government already know pretty definitively whether it was their own stuff up there or not?

julian barnes

You know, it’s kind of funny because the government is asking themselves the same question. I was talking to an official who told me about a senior general who was getting a briefing about the U.A.P. report, and turned to the briefer and said, don’t we know if these are our classified programs? And the briefer said, we don’t think they are.

Now, it seems absolutely crazy. I mean, shouldn’t the U.S. know whether it’s their classified black program or not? And I think the answer is they think it isn’t their programs, but they’re leaving the option open because maybe there’s stuff they don’t know. Maybe a U.S. contractor was testing something, and the government wasn’t fully aware of it. Maybe there’s still corners of classified programs they haven’t looked at yet. So they were pretty clear they don’t have any evidence that this is any secret U.S. programs, but they’re not ruling it out completely either.

kevin roose

Got it. OK. So let’s talk about the fourth category of possible explanation here in the report. What is that?

julian barnes

That is advanced technology developed by an adversarial power, in this case Russia or China. An example would be a stealthy drone or an advanced hypersonic aircraft, meaning something that can travel far beyond the speed of sound. The key element here is technology that the United States doesn’t have in its arsenal.

kevin roose

This seems like it would be a bad scenario, right? I mean, if one of our adversaries had developed technology not only that was more advanced than U.S. military technology, but that was so advanced that we didn’t even understand how it worked.

julian barnes

Yeah, that would be very bad on two fronts. One, it would mean our military scientists had fallen behind potential adversaries, and it would mean that American intelligence had missed these advances and did not understand what Russia and China were capable of fielding. But we should foot stamp that the report finds no evidence, there is no evidence that this is advanced Russia or Chinese technology.

kevin roose

You said there are five categories of possible explanation for these U.A.P.s. We’ve gone through four. So what’s the last one?

julian barnes

That is the catch-all category called “Other.”

kevin roose

Is that just code for aliens?

julian barnes

Well, yes and no.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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kevin roose

So Julian, let’s talk about this fifth category, this “other” category.

julian barnes

Yes. The “other” category is the catch-all category for the things the government can’t explain. And they hinted strongly that these Navy videos that we’ve been watching over and over again are in that category. But you know, they didn’t explain any further. They certainly didn’t mention aliens, but they didn’t also give us any other examples of what might fall into the other category. Other just means they can’t explain it.

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kevin roose

So it seems like they’re steering clear of directly naming the one thing that a lot of people have a lot of questions about, which is extraterrestrial life on Earth, aliens. Is there a reason for that? Like, why do they seem to be going out of their way to avoid mentioning that theory?

julian barnes

They very much are going out of their way to not say the word aliens, or do anything to acknowledge that the phenomenon could be extraterrestrial. That’s a signal of how unlikely they think this explanation is.

kevin roose

But given that we know that there are a ton of people out there who have thought for decades that the government is engaged in this giant cover-up — Area 51, Roswell, you know the stories — given that they clearly understand that that theory is out there, why not address it more fully? Why not just be direct and say it’s not aliens, or it’s very, very unlikely to be aliens?

julian barnes

I think that’s a great question. It’s one I’ve asked. I’ve wondered why they’re not more direct about saying that. And I feel like by failing to categorize these things, by failing to state publicly that there’s no evidence of alien visitation, that they are, in fact, giving life to something that some people want to really stamp out.

kevin roose

I don’t know, I guess I’m just wondering, like, why they don’t want to take that seriously as a possibility. Is it just because they don’t want to feed into conspiracy theories, or is there some other reason?

julian barnes

I mean, I think the reason is the U.S. government doesn’t think that this is how we’re going to find signs of alien life. Serious scientists think the way we’re going to get to evidence of other forms of life in this universe is not through a fuzzy video taken on the surface of Earth. It’s not through a Navy targeting pod. It’s from a really powerful telescope. A more serious scientist thinks that is where we’re going to find proof that we are not alone in this universe, not from a flying saucer video.

kevin roose

And just humor me here. I know I’m going to sound a little bit like a conspiracy theorist here, but we know that the government has not always been totally forthcoming about what it knew about U.F.O.s or U.A.P.s. I mean, we didn’t even know that the government was looking into this stuff at all until our colleagues reported about it several years ago. So why should we believe what the intelligence community, what the government is saying now? What reason do we have to think that they’re telling us everything they know?

julian barnes

That’s a very important point.

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There is a long history of the U.S. government allowing U.F.O. theories to develop in order to mask or hide what they’re up to, right? The Roswell crash was a U.S. military balloon designed to sort of spy on Soviet nuclear tests.

kevin roose

Remind me of what happened there.

julian barnes

So back in 1947, there was this high-tech balloon that the U.S. military developed and was testing near Roswell, New Mexico. It was designed to collect data on Soviet nuclear tests to get a better sense of how far the Soviet Union had advanced. It crashed. People took pictures in the local press. Newspaper photos were published. The military said it was a crashed balloon, but wasn’t really giving a full account of what happened. And as a result, we had decades and decades of conspiracy theories about an alien landing in Roswell, New Mexico.

kevin roose

I didn’t actually know that that’s where the Roswell conspiracy theories came from. It was a balloon designed to spy on Soviet military?

julian barnes

Yeah. And in the 1950s and the 1960s, a study by the U.S. government said almost 50 percent of U.F.O. sightings could be attributed to the C.I.A. testing the U2 spy plane. And then after that, the SR-71 Blackbird. That also created U.F.O. sightings. And the government lied about it and said it was natural phenomenon. It allowed the conspiracy theories to grow in the name of protecting these very important secret programs.

kevin roose

Right. So in other words, given what we know about previous eras of reported U.F.O. sightings — people taking photos of strange things in the sky that actually turned out to be military experiments that the government lied about or was not forthcoming about — maybe it’s rational for people to be a little skeptical of the government’s explanations for this latest round of U.A.P. sightings.

julian barnes

Yeah, it is rational. On the other hand, we have a government that has learned some lessons from that era, and we are in an era where the rise of conspiracy theories is considered a pretty important threat. And so I think it is also a case that we have the government doing its best not to lie and not to mislead. I mean, it’s impossible to tell, right, when the government is lying. And here, they don’t have the answers, but when you talk to officials, they’re not talking around it in the same way as when they are trying to not answer questions about America’s hypersonic technologies.

kevin roose

Right. They’re not saying, oh, you’re just seeing things, those are just blips in the sky or it’s ball lightning or it’s a sensor error. They’re actually admitting that there are some things that they don’t know and can’t explain.

julian barnes

That’s right.

kevin roose

Is this the first of many reports like this? Do you think there will be others?

julian barnes

They’ve said so explicitly. They’ve said that this is a preliminary report. They’ve laid out a 90-day plan to improve how they collect information, improve how they analyze this. So yeah, we’re going to get more U.F.O. reports.

kevin roose

U.A.P. reports?

julian barnes

Yeah, thank you for that correction. U.A.P..

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kevin roose

I know this is a very speculative question, but do you think we’ll ever get to the bottom of what these U.A.P.s are? Will we ever know for certain what’s going on?

julian barnes

I think we can get a better answer than we have now. And I think what it’s going to require is bringing some scientific knowledge, some outside scientific knowledge into the process to work with the military officers, to work with the intelligence analysts and really look at how this information is being collected, what information they have and what the possibilities are. And we need to bring this into mainstream science, that there are — and let people understand that there are some important scientific questions here that need to be answered, and it’s worth people’s time to look into it.

kevin roose

Right, to sort of destigmatize not only reporting sightings of unidentifiable things in the air, but to destigmatize researching and studying what those things are.

julian barnes

That’s exactly right. And the truth could be very boring, or more boring than alien visitation.

kevin roose

Right. Could just be some balloons, some birds, some solar flares or whatever. Could be military technology that we don’t understand. Could be aliens, but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

julian barnes

I’m probably a little more Scully than Mulder, so don’t hold your breath.

kevin roose

OK. Julian, thank you so much.

julian barnes

Thank you.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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Here’s what else you need to know today. On Tuesday, as the search for survivors at a collapsed Florida tower continued, a letter emerged from the president of the building’s condo association, warning residents three months ago that damage to the building had, quote, “gotten significantly worse.” The letter referred back to a 2018 inspection that had already identified major structural damage, and said that since then the damage had accelerated, and required costly repairs. The letter and 2018 inspection suggest that the building’s leaders and residents were aware of problems well before the collapse, which killed at least 11 people and has left about 150 people unaccounted for. And —

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michael barbaro

— the capital of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which has been brutally occupied by the country’s military, has been retaken by Tigrayan fighters in a major turning point in the nearly eight-month-long conflict.

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[HORN HONKING] [CHEERING]

michael barbaro

The Ethiopian government’s military offensive in Tigray has unleashed civil war, atrocities and famine. But over the past few days, the military withdrew from Tigray’s capital after losing ground to Tigrayan fighters. That development is a stinging setback for Ethiopia’s authoritarian leader, who predicted a quick and decisive takeover of the region.

Today’s episode was produced by Michael Simon Johnson, Luke Vander Ploeg and Daniel Guillemette. It was edited by Liz O. Baylen and M.J. Davis Lin, engineered by Marion Lozano, includes original music by Dan Powell, Elisheba Ittoop and Marion Lozano.

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That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.



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