CBS NEWS – BY NICOLE SGANGA, DAVID MARTIN, OLIVIA GAZIS AND ELEANOR WATSON
After decades of dismissing U.F.O. sightings popularized in American culture, a U.S. government task force assigned to investigate what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAPs, has found no evidence that objects came from outer space or a foreign adversary.
However, while there’s no evidence the objects are extraterrestrial, senior government officials who briefed reporters said Friday that nearly all of the incidents investigated remain unexplained, citing the significant limitations of available data and reporting.
“Of the 144 reports that we are dealing with here, we have no clear indications that there’s any non-terrestrial explanation for them,” a senior government official said, nixing the possibility of exotic sightings. “But again, we will go wherever the data takes us on this.”
In fact, officials were able to identify just one reported UAP with a high degree of confidence. “In that case, we identified the object as a large, deflating balloon,” the 9-page unclassified version of the report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) read. “The others remain unexplained.”
“The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP,” the report said, noting later that “no standard reporting mechanism” existed before the Navy created one in March 2019.
Most of the incidents the task force reviewed were reported in the last two years, according to the report, which is a preliminary version of an assessment.
The U.S. government officials said there is no doubt that identified UAPs were physical objects, tamping down speculation that sightings could be optical illusions caused by atmospheric conditions or sensor malfunctions.
“From a safety of flight issue, we absolutely do believe that what we are seeing are not simply sensor artifacts. These are things that physically exist,” a senior government official said. “They are physical objects.” But officials stressed that objects detailed in the 144 reports represent a “variety” of phenomena.
In 80 of the 144 investigated incidents, the task force detected objects using multiple sensors, leading officials to determine UAPs posed a hazard to flights. Over the years, the task force determined there have been 11 near misses.
According to the unclassified report, investigators found “[v]arious forms of sensors that register UAP generally operate correctly and capture enough real data to allow initial assessments, but some UAP may be attributable to sensor anomalies.”
Congress in December asked the Pentagon’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and other intelligence agencies, to submit a report on what is known about UAPs; relevant committees received a classified version of the report on Friday, before the unclassified version was publicly released.
Officials poured over 144 incidents between 2004 and 2021, relying heavily on observations made by military aviators.
Without evidence that UAPs are operated by an adversary like China or Russia, government officials say there is no reason to believe that a foreign power has made a technological breakthrough in recent years.
“A small portion of the data set has propulsion we cannot explain,” a senior government official said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an adversary that is introducing a technological surprise here.”
The report found that 18 objects investigated had propulsion systems that could not be explained, due in part to insufficient data and reporting. It said that the task force was conducting “further analysis” to determine if advanced technologies were present.
It also said that, if and when the incidents could be better assessed, they would likely fall into one of five explanatory categories, including airborne “clutter” like birds and plastic bags, atmospheric phenomena, domestic technologies, foreign technologies, and a catchall “other” category.
Officials stressed, as does the report, that they were limited in their analysis by the nature of the data underlying the incidents, which came chiefly in the form of verbal reports that were only occasionally supported by video or photographic evidence. The task force has since begun work on a new mechanism through which they hoped to standardize data collection on UAPs and apply scientific and engineering approaches to their explanation, they said.
“Ultimately, we have to increase the volume as well as the quality of the data we have,” one official said.
Despite a dearth of data, the task force investigation did reveal “UAP sightings tended to cluster around U.S. training and testing grounds,” though officials conceded the high-concentration of reported incidents could be “collection bias as a result of focused attention, greater numbers of latest-generation sensors operating in those areas, unit expectations, and guidance to report anomalies.”
Lawmakers who received the report also said more work was necessary to understand any potential national security threats posed by the phenomena.
“The United States must be able to understand and mitigate threats to our pilots, whether they’re from drones or weather balloons or adversary intelligence capabilities,” said Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Today’s rather inconclusive report only marks the beginning of efforts to understand and illuminate what is causing these risks to aviation in many areas around the country and the world.”
“This report is an important first step in cataloging these incidents, but it is just a first step,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who as Acting Chairman of the Intelligence Committee authored the language mandating the report. “The Defense Department and Intelligence Community have a lot of work to do before we can actually understand whether these aerial threats present a serious national security concern.
The officials told reporters a “majority” of the information included in the classified report was presented in the unclassified version. They said neither agency would be releasing any supplementary evidence, including photos or video, of the phenomena the report had assessed.
Limited information about the UAPs has trickled out over the last few months. The Defense Department task force confirmed in April that the scope of its work includes objects described as a “sphere,” “acorn,” “pyramid” and “metallic blimp” by military personnel.
In May, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” spoke with naval aviators David Fravor and Alex Dietrich, who had never before talked publicly about their encounter in Southern California in 2004 that was visible on their radar and on video when they were flying in the Nimitz carrier strike group. They observed an object that looked like a Tic Tac moving over whitewater in an otherwise calm blue sea.
The two said that they saw the object, about the size of their F/A-18F, but with no markings or wings and also without exhaust plumes, mimicking the movements of their own plane.
“Oh there’s, there’s definitely something that … I don’t know who’s building it, who’s got the technology, who’s got the brains. But there’s — there’s something out there that was better than our airplane,” Fravor told “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker.
The report, while brief and inconclusive, is nonetheless a notable disclosure for the U.S. military and intelligence community after years of downplaying and discrediting accounts of UFOs, as they were more commonly known, and “flying saucers.”
A senior government official conceded “historical socio-cultural stigmas” attached to UFOs posed a challenge to the task force, which had sorted through evidence gathered over the years without a clear standard for collection.
“Really, that stigma creates an additional challenge to timely and standardized reporting,” the official said. “We applaud the UAP task force’s work in this area as a means towards improving our available datasets and our understanding over time.”
Banner image: Off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida (2015)