Analyzing Washington’s UFO Politics

My friends, this past week a Congressional hearing took place in which the subject of discussion was the status of AARO, a new Pentagon office tasked with investigating UFOs. Social media rang vigorously in expectation of new revelations or disclosure concerning what the U.S. government might know about UFOs. However, testimony was limited to how AARO is doing in regard to its mission, which is to provide Congress with oversight clarity on what the Department of Defense knows and is doing regarding UFO incidents. That is why the hearing was held by the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. Because of widespread expectations and misunderstandings concerning what the agenda of this hearing are, I am inserting this analysis of the hearing in the middle of our ongoing investigation of the Dragonfly UFO incident, which has been exposed in our last three articles, and which will conclude in Part 4, our next article. Meanwhile, we have to examine the hearing’s testimony and to place it in a historical context of UFO research going back many years. Enjoy.

The UFO Research Landscape

Let us begin by making a seemingly simple claim: the greatest anomaly of UFO studies is that for many years UFO incidents have been largely treated independently of each other, and after much time and many cases, this line of research still has not become a true field or discipline. There is still no devoted history, and no particular language of practice or unified theory for the study of UFO phenomena. Classification of cases is simplistic and almost random. Data and evidence are scattered everywhere, and handled without regard to a real method. Perhaps it is time to give a name to the study of UFO evidence. This has remained a long-standing field of inquiry that has blended many other disciplines: history, mythology, archaeology, anthropological studies, psychology (particularly of the subconscious kind), materials science, astronomy, physics, and photography, as well as many aspects of the paranormal. Let us imagine that astropology (a mix of anthropology and astronomical theories) might be one possible term for this wide-ranging field, and if it is so, then we – investigators of the poorly understood phenomenon of nonhuman craft and non-normal contact – are all astropologists. Granted, the degree to which astronomy is relevant to our study of UFOs is debatable among those who feel that UFOs come from the earth, the past, or another dimension other than space. But it all makes sense once we integrate that field with the perspective of anthropology. As the study of the origin and development of human societies and cultures, anthropology can frame our speculations concerning non-human cultures in contact with our own.

This term (or any other,  really) would help us identify what has been happening in our UFO studies, particularly now that the U.S. Government has, after a long hiatus of supposedly “canceled” research programs like Project Blue Book, returned to the public sphere in its renewed claims to be investigating these phenomena. So, we might expect that the public presence of the government in this space would have lent an air of calm and stability to research expectations. Instead, what has happened is more carnivalesque than enlightening.

Incidentally, you have noticed that “UFO” is the term I will continue to prefer, in defiance of its replacement with the new and redundantly synonymous abbreviation – UAP, “unidentified aerial phenomena,”  which was coined by the Pentagon in order to disconnect the study of unidentified flying craft from their historical association with aliens.

Many social media corners devoted to UFO and alien evidence have been in a sort of holding pattern, like a jet plane waiting for landing instructions. They have been circling around and around the issue of the government’s store of classified knowledge and its possible disclosures of UFO information. Certainly, the government channels have preferred to hold to a single position, namely that “No UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force was ever an indication of threat to our national security,” as was concluded by the U.S. Air Force in Project Blue Book in 1969. If that isn’t to your liking, dear reader, consider these other points (from the same official source):

There was no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as “unidentified” represented technological developments or principles beyond the range of modern scientific knowledge; 

There was no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as “unidentified” were extraterrestrial vehicles.

Perhaps certain photos can be ignored.

Lights photographed in 1952 over a Coast Guard air station in Salem, Mass., part of the Blue Book archive.Credit…Shell R. Alpert/U.S. Coast Guard


Photograph of a UFO sighting from a report in Riverside, California, 1951, via National Archives, Records of Headquarters US Air Force

There is no need to rehearse a full history of official investigations into UFOs. But before turning to this past week’s recent events in Washington, D.C. – which is the true subject of this article – let us paint a portrait of astropology, if we like that term for UFO studies, so we may build a context in which to understand how far apart the interests of the government on one hand, and the public, on the other, truly lie. This context will serve us when, in a few minutes, we review the intriguing testimony given last Wednesday at a Congressional subcommittee hearing on the matter of UFO studies.

So, before government investigations, there are the inquiries made by “us,” the people who have closely followed UFO activities on planet earth. On “our” end (representing those of us without official clearance or knowledge of UFO-related government activities), we have  testimony, evidence, and material related to UFOs, but there are also the scars of psychological trauma related to two factors above all others: tenacity and frustration. How so? Evidence of sustained tenacity is undeniable, as the UFO research community has held the unshaken belief in alien encounters going back to Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and has clung to the rankling suspicion that, ever since then, the U.S. government has refused to disclose what it knows about UFOs. This in turn has led to decades of pent-up frustration, the other side of the tenacity coin, because “astropologists” (UFO researchers) have gotten zero assistance from the U.S. government concerning access to evidence of what are already known and verified cases of contact that have been suppressed by official channels, known and unknown. 

In what might accurately be seen as a roller coaster of drama, UFO researchers have hoped for, (yet time and again have been denied) the possibility of learning something – anything – of what the U.S. government has discovered, researched, and developed regarding the alien phenomenon. And when official statements have been made, we see that, rather than reveal what they know (as corroborated by witnesses, for example), they focus obsessively on selfish, irrelevant, or secondary questions, such as whether the aerial phenomena that have been observed actually pose a danger to members of the armed forces – omitting concern or protection for the actual public. Thus, we arrive at the first hump of the drama roller coaster, created by the upside down thinking of Washington that overlooks how the armed forces are supposed to be the protectors, not the recipients of protection. If the path of a UFO puts the lives of fighter pilots in danger, we would do well to remember that this is exactly what their job is, what they are trained for, and paid to do. No memorandum, report, or other statement needs to specify that they are in harm’s way; everyone already knows that.

And so it is that on this public stage (which is missing many elements that we shall address in the future) that the scene turns to Washington, and a recent meeting of an official body called AARO – the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office. This group, not yet familiar in the household sense, is new and was rather hastily organized last July, 2022 as yet another in a succession of units within the Department of Defense created to investigate and report on UFOs. (Abbreviation alert!) Along with AARO, recent memory recalls several other outfits created for the same purpose of studying UFOs. These were all distinguished primarily by their somewhat sardonic names, including the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), and the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG). I would like to find the office that names all of these groups, and if it doesn’t exist, I would like to baptize it the Department Of Unidentified/Bizarre Levitating/Enigmatic/Suspicious Phenomena: Examination, Analysis and Knowledge (DOUBLESPEAK).

Regrettably, the Pentagon and Congress have not been exactly diligent in putting information into the public’s hands, even though Congress has this obligation. UFO studies have been clumped with the reports on nuclear and mass destruction weapons, for example, in the so-called Unclassified 721, an annual report to Congress that in fact never mentioned UFO phenomena. As thin as its information quality was, the 721 was nonetheless the only UFO catch-all report from the Pentagon. Moreover, it was canceled in 2013 for the worst possible reason, namely that Congress already gets a classified version of the same information and the reporting requirement is 15 years old:

This reporting requirement should be repealed because it is 15 years old and the Intelligence Community routinely provides finished intelligence products, regular Congressional Notifications, and briefings on this topic. This approach ensures that significant developments are brought to the timely attention of Congress, rather than waiting for an annual report. Furthermore, this topic is addressed in the Annual Threat Assessment hearing. 

As worded, this decision seems to be a win for labor efficiency in government, which is all to the good. However, the real consequence is that the public was suddenly deprived of any further updates, and the public reporting requirement to which Congress is sworn in its accountability to the American people was (again) quietly ignored. The average citizen doesn’t follow the bureaucratic labyrinths of the federal government’s machinations, which increasingly favor a self-serving road of information hoarding, opaqueness, and exclusion that does not serve public knowledge . Cynical minds can conclude that there is a veiled collusion at play between Congress and the Pentagon that follows a thinly evident pattern: In the interest of furthering national security, Congress has become increasingly entangled in the Pentagon’s agenda, even as it vociferously argues for public transparency. In turn, the Pentagon reports to Congress in closed committee sessions with material that the public never sees.


Very well. I resist performing government analysis because it is like trying to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, there are many ways to lose. Therefore, my analysis of this past week’s hearing on UFO activities is probably as wrong as it is correct. Still, below is a deep reading of the hearing’s transcript. From this close reading, I present several conclusions, numbered below. You may wish to disagree with all of them. After the conclusions is a link to the transcript of the hearing itself, with timestamps and a video link so that you can review it at your leisure. The hearing was led by three U.S. senators, and testimony was given exclusively by Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick, the director of AARO. 

Here is one video version of the hearing:

Below are six conclusions concerning AARO, as inferred from the hearing transcript. Speakers are identified by their initials in square brackets:

[SK] Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Chair
​​[JE] Sen. Joni Ernst, Ranking Member
[JR] Sen. Jacky Rosen
[SK] Dr. Sean M. Kirkpatrick. Director, All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO)

1. Insufficient reporting – too few cases

Director Kirkpatrick mentioned that AARO has 650 cases in its archives. At first blush, that seems like a high number. However, this includes all capture sources: planes, drones, and UFOs. It seems strange that all those eyes in the sky: satellites with deep focus cameras, drones, pilots of all kinds of aircraft, and distance sensors — radar, IR, principally — are operationally active 24 hours a day. AARO has received 650 cases in nine months. This averages 2.4 cases a day from all sources and locations indicated in the slides presented, which are surely more than 650 sources of intelligence. Is this a high or low number?  By this tally, there appears to be a high number of anomalous cases per day, but when we combine all surveillance and sensor asset types – personal, mobile, orbital based on land, sea, and air, there may be in excess of 150,000 collection points. Statistically, it is impossible to imagine that AARO is receiving anything more than an infinitesimal percentage of anomalous objects captured, and there is reason to believe that much of the data collected is not from operational military or intelligence assets.


2. Lack of interagency cooperation

In her opening remarks, Sen. Gillibrand was disappointed that AARO wasn’t in the loop in the most high profile cases such as the recent HAB (high altitude balloon) incidents:

In the recent incidents where multiple objects were shot down over North America, it seemed that Pentagon leadership did not turn to AARO office to play a leading role in advising the combatant commander. We need to know whether this will continue. We need to know whether the leadership and DOD will bring AARO into the decision-making process in a visible way and we need to know what role AARO will play in inter-agency coordination after the NSC working group disbands

She further asked as much in her final question of the hearing (minute 47:09):

…. my last question is about um the integration of departments, UAP operations, research analysis, and strategic communications um during the recent UAP incidents over North America. It didn’t appear that you were allowed to play that role do you agree that the public perception is generally that you and your office did not appear to play a major role in the Department’s response to the detection of objects over North America. What can you tell us that’s going on behind the scenes from your perspective and in the after action assessment process? Is there awareness that there is a need to operate differently in the future and a commitment to doing so?

when the when the objects were first detected I got called by joint staff leadership uh to come in uh late one night to review events as they were  unfolding and to give them a you know an assessment based on what we knew at that time. I did that I worked with the director of joint staff the J and the j that night and over the couple of following days on what are the types of things that we are tracking from a unidentified object perspective, what databases do we use, those sorts of things for  known objects, known tracking. Beyond that the response I would have to I would have to refer you back to the White House for the decision on how they did the response,  we did not play a role in what you would respond other than that initial, you know, advice on what we are seeing and how we are seeing it.

In other words, AARO was brought in to *give* information to order decision makers, rather than to serve the role for which the office was created, however defined (“we did not play a role”).


3. AARO is a priority for Congress, not the Pentagon

It appears that AARO isn’t a priority, or is being sidelined in the Pentagon structure. A mandatory website design was submitted to DoD for approval four months ago, and still has not been approved. Consequently, AARO doesn’t exist in a way that the public can understand what they are doing:

what you want to do okay thank you um as you know Dr Kirkpatrick Congress has mandated that your office establish a discoverable and accessible electronic method for potential witnesses of UAP incidents and potential participants in government UAP related activities to contact your office and tell their stories Congress also set up a process whereby people subject to non-disclosure agreements preventing them from disclosing what they may have witnessed or participated in could tell you what they know that risk of retribution from the or violation of their NDAs. Have you submitted a public-facing website product for approval to your superiors and how long has it been under review?
I have we submitted the first version of that before Christmas
and do you have an estimate from them when they will respond and when you'll have feedback on that?
no I don't 
okay we will author a letter asking for that timely response um to your superiors when when do you expect that you will establish a public-facing discoverable access portal for people to use to contact your office as the law requires.
So I would like to first say thank you all very much for referring the witnesses that you have thus far to us I appreciate that we've brought in nearly two dozen so far it's been it's been very helpful. I'd ask that you continue to do that until we have an approved plan. We have a multi-phased approach for doing that that we've been socializing and have submitted for approval sometime and once that happens then we should be able to push all that out and get get this a little more automated.
What I would ask though is as you all continue to refer to us and refer witnesses to us I'd appreciate if you do that please try to prioritize the ones that you want to do because we do have a small research staff dealing with that, thank you.
And then do you have an plans for public engagement that you want to share now that you think it's important that the public knows what the plan is ?
So we have a number of public engagement recommendations according to our strategic plan. All of those have been submitted for approval, they have to be approved by USDINS, are waiting for approval to go do that. 


4. AARO lacks coordinated interagency emergency response plans

Admittedly, the real time nature of UAP appearing suddenly within U.S. borders and interests requires a kind of immediate response that isn’t compatible with much deliberation. The recent sudden incursion of the Chinese high altitude balloon (“HAB”) into U.S. borders was both high profile and high priority, which is why the crisis command center was located in the White House rather than the Pentagon. It’s not clear that DoD was ready for a real world situation involving a high level response to a UAP incursion that had at its source a political dimension (i.e., the fact that the balloons were Chinese rather than “alien”/unknown rendered it a political and policy problem above a military one). It’s also not clear that a full response profile has been developed for similar but broader future cases beyond this specific kind of scenario, so it’s possible we might see similar quickly developing situations where AARO’s role is again passed over, relegated to a passive mode, or incorporated principally as part of after-action contexts.

It is thus clear that the operational definition of AARO, although inspired by the Congressional aim to hold relevant Defense Department management points accountable for additional reporting, is rudimentary and incomplete. It omitted what AARO’s role, function, and mode of operation were expected to be during crisis incidents. Because of the speed and indeterminate nature of UAP developments and because it has not yet been robustly incorporated into current response protocols, AARO’s role during an incident could be caught in a tension of three overlapping but potentially competing contexts: in the case of a UAP that might be payload bearing, incident response falls within a military context, and AARO’s role would be left for DoD to define. Alternatively, in an intelligence context where the UAP is understood to be part of a foreign spy mission, then IC (i.e., the U.S. intelligence community comprising over 1,000 official agencies) would also decide, which means that AARO should be allowed to report at fairly levels close to the scope of the DNI (Director of National Intelligence), given that the size and complexity of IC, the relevance of a UAP incident to multiple IC agencies, and the potential intelligence damage inflicted by a UAP all require coordination through centralized decision-making. Thirdly, however, if, as happened with the Chinese spy balloons, an event has known international connections and is being tracked publicly by major news media, then the incident falls primarily within a political context. 

All of this speaks to a need for AARO’s role to be much better defined and coordinated along a wide variety of operational scenarios. Whether this will happen, given the diminutive size and budget of AARO, seems unlikely in the short term. 


5. AARO is not built to last

There is another reason why a well developed integration of AARO with interagency response protocols is unlikely to evolve. The complexity of AARO’s proper role, necessarily at the highest levels of multiple institutional contexts, poses a significant problem for different agencies and their policies. However, everyone knows that, in government, lasting legitimacy and influence are possible only through ownership (i.e., a class of problems that belongs to a specific agency, and no others). All long lasting lines of effort in the history of public administration began as units with provisional labels like “Project,”, then grew with fuller terms like “Office,” and were finally established as “Department,” “Agency,” “Bureau,” or “Administration.” A surprising number of such outfits emerged with the original sin of serving as points of coordination between competing agencies, but, for the successful ones, institutional expansion trajectory invariably traced a clear and well defined three-step strategy: 

1) gain legitimacy and authority by staking out a problem space (if the space is already covered by another agency, divide the problem and keep the smaller, more narrow slice),
2) make the area of specialty into a larger problem,
3) report directly above, not laterally. 

As a familiar example of this evolutionary pattern, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which was the intelligence agency of the United States during World War II, grew into the Central Intelligence Agency.

From this perspective, as AARO’s director, Sean Kirkpatrick uttered a profoundly short-sighted statement in the hearing. His stated aim for AARO was  that “UAP become SEP: someone else’s problem.” This is a regrettable position to announce, as it sends a fairly loud signal to every other agency in Washington that AARO is not designed for growth but is, instead, inherently provisional, temporary, secondary. Specifically, as UAP incidents become someone else’s problem, they are categorized and subsequently treated as something to be volleyed over the proverbial fence to (and thus lost within) any agency. This means that AARO will have no real ownership of UFO incidents, and therefore cannot grow lasting institutional roots. Burdened by its leader’s desire for a provisional implementation, AARO material will almost certainly be ignored by other agencies.


6. Final or follow-up transparency of cases is irrelevant to AARO

Anyone expecting that AARO’s existence will in fact lead to greater transparency should consider that any agency receiving AARO reports, evidence, or material is not beholden to the same reporting standards that apply to AARO, nor would it have any incentive to make its information available in any form. AARO has no structure or authority to make any reports public once they are relayed to other agencies. As before, the public is likely to remain in the dark on AARO incidents. Why didn’t Congress think of this loophole? The only conclusion is that its aim to make information transparent for the public is, as mentioned earlier, an afterthought. But as Senator Gillibrand stated in her opening comments, “Congress established AARO; we made it clear that we expect vigorous action.” In other words, AARO was created to deliver transparency to Congress, not the public. This is why Dr. Kirkpatrick gave a closed session hearing to Congress shortly before this sterile, prosaic public hearing was convened.


In conclusion, if AARO’s priority is to relay cases to other agencies throughout the government, then disclosure is not in its critical path. It is hard to see how this goal of serving other agencies with a non-existent record of disclosure will receive cases from AARO and then provide disclosure from them, or even prioritize them within their own workflow. Since AARO is called a Resolution Office, not a Disclosure Office, we could reflect on institutional meaning of that descriptor.

The full transcript of the Senate hearing is here, with videos and graphics, I encourage you to read it twice – with coffee.

In our next article, we will conclude our investigation of the Dragonfly UFO incidents. Until next time.

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