THE UNITED STATES Congress is strange enough without aliens, but here we are. Or is it, here they are?
Over a span of several months, members of the 118th Congress have gone from being transfixed by wind-propelled spy balloons to being mesmerized by a whistleblower’s claims that US intelligence officials possess “intact and partially intact non-human aircraft.” The whistleblower, former intelligence officer David Grusch, also claims that this and other evidence are being withheld from Congress.
“The allegations themselves are breathtaking,” says Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. “It could be a game changer, or it could be a crank. I just don’t know.”
Whether Grusch proves to be a crank or a game changer will likely soon be investigated by lawmakers from both parties and in both chambers of Congress. Skeptics abound, but there are also lawmakers who are curious and open to proof. Then there are the believers.
In our strange new political universe of alternative facts turned dystopian reality, once-fringe notions have built-in fan bases in today’s Capitol. And in the House of Representatives, party leaders tapped Grusch’s allies to lead their chamber’s investigation.
On one level, it’s fitting that today’s conspiracy-laced Congress—where anti-vaxxers berate scientists, Election 2020 remains disputed, and January 6 rioters are praised as victims—is now tasked with tackling arguably the nation’s most long-standing conspiracy. But many senators fear their House counterpart’s melding of “deep state” with deep space will only sow more confusion into an electorate hungry for answers, which hearings about unidentified aircraft in recent years have failed to satisfactorily answer.
The sensational details of Grusch’s claims about so-called unidentified anomalous phenomena (or UAPs—NASA’s new name for UFOs) spread rapidly through the Capitol last week, along with much derision and mockery. Some congressional leaders laughed them off. “This is not a question I had on my bingo card,” House Democratic Caucus chair Pete Aguilar told the press corps. Or they slid these latest ET allegations right into their old talking points. “Obviously, we’re concerned about Congress being kept in the dark from a lot of these agencies,” House majority leader Steve Scalise replied before even seeing the whistleblower’s claims.
The response was different among rank-and-file lawmakers, especially in the House, where the Grusch’s unvetted claims were seen as vindication by a small but vocal—and increasingly powerful—faction of far-right lawmakers who are heading up the inquiry ahead of a planned but still unscheduled hearing.
“I think it’s a little bit of madness and a whole lot of reality. I do believe we’ve recovered a craft at some point,” Representative Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican, told Steve Bannon on his podcast Wednesday. Burchett believes that the Pentagon’s budget is bloated, in part, because it’s funding secret UAP programs. His personal belief in UAPs stems from the 1947 incident in Roswell, New Mexico.
When Grusch’s report dropped, some members of today’s far-right immediately suspected it was a false flag planted by the deep state. “We kind of felt, with everything going on, this is like the biggest misdirection play in history,” Bannon told Burchett. Their fears appear to have largely dissipated, however, with Burchett and his far-right allies now all-in on the investigation.
Burchett told Bannon he “has a commitment” from both House speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Oversight Committee chair James Comer to hold a hearing on UAPs, though he says it’s not a top priority for party leaders. “We’re only going to get about one bite at the apple,” Burchett said.
If the Pentagon—which vigorously denies the whistleblower’s charges of a secret UAP program—or NASA officials ask to brief lawmakers behind closed doors, which is common when classified information is discussed, Burchett’s not interested. “I’m not gonna be a part of it if it’s classified. That’s ridiculous,” Burchett said on the podcast. “That’s just more of the same and creates more myths and rumors than it creates facts.”
Burchett is joined by two Florida Republican representatives: Matt Gaetz—“I have seen evidence of craft that I am not familiar with any of our allies or adversaries or even our country possessing”—and Anna Paulina Luna, who believes the government has been lying to the public about UAP’s “for decades.”
While Luna and Burchett will likely head up the House inquiry and eventual hearing, it’s not just fringe-right members whose ears perked up over these allegations. This includes Representative Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It’s a legitimate issue. On both sides, we just want to know if we’ve been seeing [UAPs] that are not man-made—is what the article said, but I don’t know,” he says. “But that’s a good question for the chairman” of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
That’s why one of McCaul’s first reactions to the article was to forward it to the House Intelligence Committee chair, Mike Turner, whose office didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment.
The Senate has also shown interest in UAPs in recent years, and the increased pressure on federal officials has produced results—including a massive spike in the number of UAPs the government monitors.
In its June 2021 report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed 144 UAP sightings stretching back nearly two decades. After years of mounting smartphone evidence, unanswered questions, and frustrated lawmakers, the military unveiled its newly rebooted and renamed All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO; pronounced “arrow”).
With a department mandated with tracking secrets in the skies, sightings skyrocketed. Last August, AARO officials disclosed more than 500 reports of UAPs. By this April, there were some 650 cases. And just last month, the Pentagon, which oversees AARO, hiked the number to roughly 800 mysterious flying objects.
While Grusch’s claims of alien life and recovered craft have made headlines, senators are alarmed by accusations that the federal government is hiding Special Access Programs from Congress.
“We need to just look into whether there are rogue SAP programs that no one is providing oversight for,” says Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who led the Senate’s April UAP hearing. “The goal for me will be to have a hearing on that at some point so that we can assess if these SAP’s actually exist.”
Gillibrand is sponsoring an amendment she hopes to attach to this year’s must-pass National Defense Authorization Act to mandate that no money can be spent on SAP’s unless it’s been reported to Congress. “So if there are SAPs out there that are somehow outside of the normal chain of command and outside the normal appropriations process, they have to divulge that to Congress,” Gilibrand says.
As for whether she thinks there’s any veracity to the whistleblower’s claims? “I have no idea,” Gillibrand says. “So I’m going to do the work and analyze it and figure it out.”
Other senators say there isn’t much to figure out. “Generally, I would look skeptically at many of these reports,” says Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who serves on the Intelligence Committee. While Heinrich remains dubious of the whistleblower, he says UAPs are a conundrum the federal government must address.
“What I take seriously is sometimes we just have these really good, decorated pilots and navigating officers who are experiencing things that we can’t explain, so we need to collect data so that we can figure out what is going on,” Heinrich says.
Still, among other senators, radio silence. WIRED sent an inquiry to Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner; in less than a minute, the Virginia Democrat’s staff replied, “We’re a no comment on this—thank you!”
When we caught the senator in the Capitol’s marble halls, Warner kept tripping over his own thoughts. “There’s been a lot of incoming. Frankly, I just need to find out more information on this,” Warner says.
As for the accusation that the federal government has lied to Congress and hidden some SAPs for decades? “We’ve heard these accusations before,” Warner says, before stopping himself, again. “Let me get some information first.”
Lawmakers are still awaiting more answers on the spy balloons that dominated the news—and American air space—at the start of the year, especially in regard to the four objects the Air Force shot down within an eight-day period this February. In the wake of those military engagements, the Biden administration held closed-door classified briefings for members of Congress, but they were less than straightforward, at least initially, until lawmakers pushed officials on UAPs.
“They were talking about the balloons, and then several senators pointed out, ‘Now hold on: We’ve had a lot of unidentified anomalous phenomenon for years now,’ and that’s when the military briefer was like, ‘True. True,’” says Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican. “The takeaway from that is, they had thousands of sightings of these things over the years, which was news to me. So I’m not surprised, necessarily, by these latest allegations, because it sounds pretty close to what they kind of grudgingly admitted to us in the briefing.”
While not necessarily surprised by Grusch’s claims, lawmakers of all stripes are disturbed by reports of UAPs hovering over US military sites.
“It’s not good. None of it’s good,” Hawley says. “I think we want to get to the bottom of this. I think it’s disturbing.”