UFO hearing: The claims that the US has recovered alien spacecraft, explained

The headline is a bold one. “Intelligence officials say US has retrieved craft of non-human origin,” last month’s story in the publication The Debrief read.

The phrase “whoa, if true” was coined for a situation like this.

Especially the “if true” part.

Here’s what seems true enough at this point: A former government official named David Grusch, who has worked in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, has gone public and is saying some curious things — most recently, in public testimony before a House of Representatives committee Wednesday.

Grusch says that in recent years he worked with the federal government’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force — yes, that’s a real thing, set up to investigate reports of strange flying objects.

Grusch says that he’s been told of secret government programs that have “intact and partially intact vehicles” of nonhuman origin. He says he’s been told both the US government and other governments have been engaged in a “publicly unknown Cold War” to try to reverse-engineer technology from these craft.

Grusch says all this information has been illegally withheld from Congress, so, before he left government this April, he filed a whistleblower complaint with the intelligence community’s inspector general, and gave information to Congress too.

And he’s saying some other things, too. “Biologics came with some of these recoveries,” he said at Wednesday’s hearing, adding that, according to people working on the program he talked to, these were “nonhuman.”

“Naturally, when you recover something that’s either landed or crashed, sometimes you uncover dead pilots,” Grusch had previously told NewsNation in an interview. “And believe it or not — as fantastical as that sounds — it’s true.”

But… uh… well… is it true?

Some purported whistleblowers are truth-tellers with solid information, some are kooks, and some fall somewhere between those two poles. Grusch admits he has no firsthand knowledge of these purported programs. He hasn’t seen any craft, or certainly any dead alien pilots. Rather, he says he’s repeating what other people have told him. Who are these people? Does he really know what they are saying is true? What evidence does he have?

He has not publicly released any such specifics. His defenders point out that any such details would be classified, so it would be illegal to release specifics. They also argue that he handed over the classified details he knew to the inspector general and Congress, and point out it would be a crime to lie to either.

Yet skeptics question whether Grusch is just repeating tall tales that have long circulated through the UFO-believing community, suggesting he may be just a gullible sap (if not an outright fabulist). They also point out that prestigious media sources have so far remained wary of Grusch — the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico were all offered his story but none thought it was publishable. The Debrief, which published it, is a notably UFO-friendly outlet, as are Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal, the two journalists who wrote the story. And purported bombshells like this in the past have tended to fizzle out.

The New York Times and Congress mainstreamed the UFO issue, focusing on weird sky sightings from credible sources

In recent years, the topic of UFOs has gained a surprising amount of mainstream legitimacy due to two institutions: the New York Times and Congress.

Claims of extraterrestrial craft or life forms — and government cover-ups — have long been the province of conspiracy theorists, fringe figures, and supermarket tabloids. But the UFO believers found success in recent years by downplaying wild claims of aliens and focusing on what might be called “weird shit in the sky.”

In 2010, independent journalist Leslie Kean published a book called UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, which compiled claims about strange sky sightings in recent decades from the most credible sources she could find, while remaining agnostic on whether these sightings were aliens or something else. The main point was to make the case that these sightings were really happening, and leave the explanations till later. John Podesta — the former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, who later served as a top White House aide for both President Obama and President Biden, and has been a longtime advocate for UFO disclosure — wrote the book’s foreword.

After writing another book investigating “evidence for an afterlife,” Kean got a scoop. A former Defense official, Christopher Mellon, brought her to meet a man named Luis Elizondo, who’d just left his job at the Pentagon. Elizondo said he’d headed a secret government initiative to investigate military reports of unknown aerial objects — and they had videos of military pilots incredulously reacting to objects making difficult-to-explain movements. The videos were authentic. Kean approached former New York Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal, who pitched the story to the Times, and it ran in December 2017.

For many, the takeaway was that the Pentagon really was taking UFOs seriously. The reality was more complicated. The program was initially foisted on the Pentagon by Congress, at the behest of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Reid had been persuaded by Robert Bigelow, a wealthy donor obsessed with aliens and the paranormal, to allot money in government funding bills for this purpose. The program then hired Bigelow’s company for a contract and, per the New Yorker’s Gideon Lewis-Kraus, doesn’t seem to have accomplished very much, besides collecting the videos. Skeptics also soon questioned whether Elizondo had exaggerated his role in the program.

The twist, though, was that the Times story pushed the federal government toward making a more serious inquiry into unexplained sightings, under the justification that, sure, these might not be aliens, but perhaps they could be secretive technology from a foreign adversary that the US needs to understand.

Key players in Congress, like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), started to get UFO reporting and disclosure requirements into congressional government funding bills. The Pentagon publicly announced its “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force” in 2020, It was renamed in 2021 and then again in 2022 due to new congressional legislation expanding it, and it’s currently known as the “All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office” (AARO). This is the office with which Grusch worked.

By 2021, everyone from Barack Obama to Donald Trump’s national intelligence director John Ratcliffe was now openly acknowledging that the government had seen strange objects in the sky that they didn’t fully understand. Obama’s former CIA director, John Brennan, went further, saying these phenomena might “involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.” So, everyone now agrees there’s weird shit in the sky and we don’t know what it is, but it’s still pretty rare for an official to nod directly to the “alien hypothesis.”

The new claims — and I emphasize they are claims — are far more mind-boggling, involving crashed UFOs and a government cover-up.

Yet there was another claim that kept bubbling up in the UFO community — that the government wasn’t just seeing things, but that it actually had things. Either purported material from crashed vehicles, or the vehicles themselves — hard, physical evidence. Versions of this claim have been around for decades, but in recent years it’s popped up from several of Kean’s and Blumenthal’s sources specifically. Luis Elizondo, for instance, told Tucker Carlson in 2019 that he believed the US government did have material from an aircraft, but said he couldn’t go into more detail.

This claim, too, got some mainstream media legitimation when Blumenthal and Kean wrote a follow-up New York Times report in 2020. They quoted Eric Davis, who had worked as a subcontractor and consultant for the Pentagon UFO program, claiming the government had materials from “off-world vehicles not made on this earth.” (Critics questioned the Times’ decision to quote Davis, given that he had previously opined that “psychic teleportation” — the ability to move your location with mind powers — is “quite real and can be controlled.”)

Harry Reid, by then retired, also spoke to the Times. “After looking into this, I came to the conclusion that there were reports — some were substantive, some not so substantive — that there were actual materials that the government and the private sector had in their possession,” he said. “It is extremely important that information about the discovery of physical materials or retrieved craft come out.” Reid elaborated to the New Yorker in 2021 that he was told Lockheed Martin had some materials, but that the Pentagon denied him clearance to review them. Reid also, it should be noted, has a history of making explosive claims that don’t turn out to be true.

Meanwhile, AARO, the expanded Pentagon UFO initiative, was underway, but early reports from it and hearings featuring its officials were underwhelming, not revealing much new of note.

Yet the chatter in the UFO community was that something was coming. On June 3, Politico Magazine published an op-ed by Christopher Mellon, the former Pentagon official who had worked with Leslie Kean and become deeply enmeshed in the UFO community. “Since AARO was established, I have referred four witnesses to them who claim to have knowledge of a secret US government program involving the analysis and exploitation of materials recovered from off-world craft,” Mellon wrote.

Two days later, Kean and Blumenthal dropped their big story for The Debrief, revealing the new whistleblower, David Grusch. In that story, Grusch made three distinct claims:

  1. US has UFOs: That (he’s been told) the US government has possession of intact craft of non-human origin, and that he knows specifics, including the names of the people involved in these programs.
  2. A secret Cold War: That the US has been involved in an “80-year arms race” — a “publicly unknown Cold War” with adversary nations “for recovered and exploited physical material,” to “identify UAP crashes/landings and retrieve the material for exploitation/reverse engineering to garner asymmetric national defense advantages.” In other words, both the US and other countries’ governments have UFO vehicles and have been trying to exploit their technology.
  3. A cover-up: That elements of the intelligence community have illegally withheld information on these programs from Congress.

Kean and Blumenthal claim their anonymous sources vouch for Grusch and his information, and they also include an on-the-record quote from a recently retired colonel named Karl Nell, who they say worked with Grusch. Nell endorsed both his character and his claims of a secret 80-year arms race for technology deriving from “non-human intelligence.”

Then Grusch kept talking. In his interview with NewsNation, he made his even more startling claim that “it’s true” that the government has uncovered “dead pilots” of these craft as well. Curiously, that claim was not present in Kean and Blumenthal’s initial story.

After this, Michael Shellenberger — a former environmental commentator who parachuted into national security reporting as part of Elon Musk’s “Twitter Files” journalist crew, making claims that in my view are conspiratorial and misleading — wrote a post on Substack claiming that various anonymous sources told him the US “has 12 or more alien spacecraft.” (Musk responded to Shellenberger with a skeptical tweet: “Haven’t seen anything & I think I’d know.”)

More prestigious media sources, though, have stayed away from Grusch’s claims. According to Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein, Kean and Blumenthal brought the story to the Times, but the paper turned it down in April. They then went to the Washington Post and Politico, neither of which was prepared to publish it. One reason for the Post’s caution, per one of Klein’s sources, is “that it was unclear what members of Congress made of Grusch’s [closed-door] testimony.” (Translation: Do the people who have clearance to review his information think he’s legit, or crazy?)

And the government office Grusch worked with, the AARO, released a statement as follows: “To date, AARO has not discovered any verifiable information to substantiate claims that any programs regarding the possession or reverse-engineering of extraterrestrial materials have existed in the past or exist currently.” They’re saying, in other words, that they haven’t been able to confirm any of this stuff.

But where are the specifics?

UFO skeptics have an alternative narrative for how this discourse has unfolded over the past several years. They think a cabal of grifters, the gullible, and the delusional have effectively managed to hoodwink the New York Times and key members of Congress into believing wild nonsense. They think the supposed UFO videos are not that weird or have alternative explanations.

Some of the claims Grusch has mentioned publicly — alien bodies, claims of an “80-year” arms race — sound very, well, science fiction-y. But even he admits he’s only passing on things others have told him, and his public claims remain noticeably bereft of specifics. He admits he has no firsthand knowledge of any of these things and hasn’t seen anything with his own eyes — he’s just been told things by others. Just like Harry Reid and many others before him.

The journalist Garrett Graff, who’s writing a book on the government’s UFO programs, told Vanity Fair that specifics and evidence always seem to be what’s missing from these claims. Instead, as ever, there’s a lot of people passing on fantastical claims they’ve heard from others, which Graff suggested makes it feel like a “game of telephone.”

The UFO-logists have a ready response here: the specifics are classified, so people can’t talk about them! Yet that’s unsatisfying to me. Classified information leaks all the time. Would every single person over 80 years who could reveal aliens’ existence to the world, changing humanity’s conception of itself forever, really be too chicken due to fear of a little US government prosecution? Would every president be either so deferential to the security state, or kept so ignorant by them? Would other governments have successfully kept this secret too?

For now, both the believers and the skeptics agree about what comes next: Grusch’s classified claims will be reviewed by the intelligence community’s inspector general and Congress.

The skeptics have a prediction for how all this will go: We’ll never get Grusch’s specifics. Congressional investigations of his claims will be inconclusive or outright debunk him. And we’ll move on to a new wild series of claims next time around.

Update, July 26, 1:50 pm ET: This article was originally published on June 10 and has been updated to reflect the congressional hearing on the topic.