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Why the Pentagon’s latest UFO report is a turning point on the issue

The U.S. intelligence released a preliminary --and watershed -- report on unidentified aerial phenomena or UFOs. The report is the government’s most concerted and serious attempt to understand an issue without the fear of being ridiculed. The report found no evidence of aliens but acknowledged at least 143 unexplained sightings since 2004. NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien joins.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On Friday, the U.S. government's intelligence community released a preliminary report on UAP's – unidentified aerial phenomena –more commonly known as UFOs.

    The long-awaited report comes after the declassification and release of several videos in recent years showing mysterious sightings. And while investigators said there were no extraterrestrial links to the 144 sightings that were reviewed, they also said there was too little information to characterize the incidents, leaving a lot of unanswered questions.

    For more on the report, I spoke with PBS NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien.

    OK, Miles, so the big news besides the new name change from UFO to UAP, how significant was this report?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it it takes it one step into the realm of conversation outside of the snicker factor, if nothing else. Right. A big problem with all this over the years is that pilots and others have seen things which just don't add up, but have been afraid to share that information for fear that they would be laughed out of the barracks.

    And, you know, finally, we've gotten to the point where we can have a conversation about this without people, you know, wondering if people need to talk to a therapist or something. And so that's a big deal. And then the idea that we're now in a discussion of how we can look for potential UAP's or UFOs, I still like UFO, that we can start to look for them in a more concerted way, using things like artificial intelligence and pattern recognition, taking radar data from all over the country and trying to look for anomalies rather than just relying on what amounts to gunsight data from military aircraft.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, in the report, they posed a few possible reasons that some of these could have happened. I mean, overall, it did not rule out the possibility that we've been visited by creatures from another galaxy or anything, but it tried to explain away a little bit, maybe some of it is science, refraction of light and water. I mean, they had a few different theories in there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They did. And they certainly were trying to cover all the bases, as it were. But what really struck me the most were the ones where they said, you know, we had multiple and varied sensors all returning the same information. You know, any time you get involved in any aspect of science or technology and you had separate streams of data that check out each other, that's when you start saying there's something here.

    And that's that's what made it more than just a random casual, you're not going to believe what I saw when I was flying, there it was, recorded with multiple sensors, all agreeing that something wasn't right here. And so when you see that, it leaves very little left in the way of skepticism, right. That it happened. Right. So then, what is it? Is it is it something we've created in the black world and we're not sharing? They say not. Is it something adversaries might have created, you know, China or Russia? I presume if China or Russia had this capability, we would know about that probably by now. So you know, Hari, I am a guy who has seen one of these. OK, I can tell you right now that there is a certain amount of validation knowing that this is not just something that, you know, I saw and imagined.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, for people who don't know, you are trained pilot, you've spent countless hours in the sky. Did you feel like you'd be laughed out of the bar if you told somebody, I think I saw a UFO guys.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yeah, I'll be honest with you, I haven't shared it much over the years because, you know, people look at you like, you know. Yeah, right. You must have had a few drinks or something. But it was my wife and I at the time in the 1980s in Maine, we looked up in the sky. It looked like an extremely bright planet, like something like Venus, only even brighter, just hovering there. And then all of a sudden it just took off at speeds that were beyond my comprehension. And I chalked it up at the time to oh well I'm kind of in the remote part of Maine.

    If I were the US military and I was testing out something super duper secret, this probably wouldn't be a bad place to do it. And I just don't know about it. But now what I saw is, it's almost identical to what we've heard from a lot of these Navy pilots incorporated into this report. So I feel a little bit validated myself.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Good. So here's the thing. This is just a nine page unclassified report. I mean, it also lends itself to people saying, well, what's the government not telling us? What else do they know? What are some of these senators seen on the Intelligence Committee? It kind of almost fuels another surge of interest in this possibility.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Absolutely. And there was no way they were going to get around this, no matter how much they released there would always be that. But, you know, when you get a boiled down nine page version of what clearly something with a lot of depth and data to it, that is only going to spur on more of a press for more information. You have to think about this to, Hari, if, in fact, going back to this idea that it was, you know, foreign adversaries, if that really was the case, can you imagine a more important priority for the Pentagon than to deal with this? I mean, that is a big darn deal if there is an adversary who has the capability of flying aircraft in ways that we can't even touch. So, you know, it always goes back, I think logically, we've talked about this over the years, there are billions and billions of galaxies out there. We presume that we are not alone. So logically, that means there is something else out there alive. Isn't it illogical to say, well, they can't be that much farther ahead of us, that we can't understand, necessarily, their technology. So but the thing is, how are we ever going to prove that? We don't have the science or capability or the understanding.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Why doesn't the government declassify at all?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Exactly, Hari. I mean, and you and I as journalists, that's, of course, what we're going to say. And everybody at home would say, of course you're going to say that, but why wouldn't they? What is the issue? Why hold back at this point if it is, in fact classified programs that the U.S. is involved in, I guess we understand that. But maybe they could nod to that effect or that fact to us in some fashion, I don't know. But I don't see a lot if truly we take that report at face value and there are indications there that they say, I forget the exact wording, that this is not anything that the US is developing in a super secret way. If that is the case, why hold back? Why not share it all? Why not lay all the cards on the table? You know, and some of this is just knee jerk classification, as you well know, from trying to do our job as a reporter, just trying to get stuff that is way out there in the open market already, but is technically classified is very difficult. And it's very difficult to get the government to release stuff that is considered top secret or classified, it's just some of this is a bias toward keeping it secret, I think. But I do believe the more transparency, the better here. We need that. We need to know the full story. And I just hope that this continues on in a concerted way, in a more open way in the future.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yeah. Miles O'Brien, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Hari.

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