Visitors From Outer Space, Real or Not, Are Focus of Discussion in Washington
WASHINGTON — While President Obama was promoting an immigration overhaul in Mexico, six former members of Congress gathered two blocks from the White House to consider what they see as the enforced government secrecy surrounding another kind of visitor: the kind who come from a lot farther away.
Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska, left, in 2007, appeared this week on a panel to discuss extraterrestrial life.
Every day this week, the former legislators presided over panels made up of academics and — former, of course — government and military officials, who were there to discuss their research or their own eyewitness accounts of unidentified flying objects and the extraterrestrials who presumably would have occupied them.
“Something is monitoring the planet, and they are monitoring it very cautiously, because we are a very warlike planet,” said Mike Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska who ran in both the Democratic and Libertarian presidential primaries in 2008.
Mr. Gravel and his fellow panelists were assembled by the Paradigm Research Group, which says it is committed to ending the government’s “truth embargo” on the existence of extraterrestrial life. The lawmakers were there in hopes that their presence and political credibility would be enough to persuade Congress to take the issue seriously.
“I’ve been exploring how we might get this issue out of the shadows of the lunatic fringe,” said Roscoe G. Bartlett, a former Republican representative from Maryland. Before his defeat last year, Mr. Bartlett was known for sounding the alarm on the threat posed to the nation’s energy infrastructure by electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, the shock wave from a nuclear weapon detonated beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
Called the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure, the event might have been mistaken as advocacy for government transparency, and some of the panelists had impressive résumés.
“I’ve come to understand and appreciate the importance of open, transparent government and the power of truth,” said Paul T. Hellyer, who served as Canadian Minister of Defense during the 1960s.
“We are not alone in the cosmos,” he added.
One reason the ex-members of Congress agreed to sit on the dais and ask questions may have been curiosity.
“Our country has trivialized it, has made it a joke, has made it green people with horns sticking out,” said Carolyn Kilpatrick, a Democratic representative from Michigan who lost her seat in 2010. “Now I find that it’s much more than that. And it’s not a joke. And there is scientific data that there may be something there.”
Another reason might have been the $20,000 the organizers said they paid each panelist. But they are still maintaining a healthy skepticism.
“Just because the government might have had a document about how to handle extraterrestrials doesn’t mean there were any,” said Merrill Cook, a Republican from Utah who was twice elected to the House.
The panels this week have been low-hanging fruit for the news media while President Obama is out of town and Congress is out of session, and not all of the people who study U.F.O.’s think the meetings will help them improve their stature in Washington.
“There really is something to this issue, and there is a serious side to it, but that’s not what’s being presented as this event,” said Leslie Kean, a journalist and author of “U.F.O.’s: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record,” a collection of firsthand accounts by people who believe they saw them.
The conclusion that U.F.O.’s are proof of extraterrestrial life is misguided, she said, and the people who broadcast that belief hindered support for real scientific research.
Despite the ridicule that usually accompanies the discussion of U.F.O.’s, they have been quietly talked about in corridors of power here. Some panelists at the event this week counted among true believers John D. Podesta, a chief of staff in President Bill Clinton’s White House, because of his role in Executive Order 12958, which requires the declassification of most government documents over 25 years old.
But the possible existence of extraterrestrial life is not exactly why he believes in government transparency, Mr. Podesta said.
“At the end of the day, there are going to be people who say that even if you did that, there must be other files that exist that you’re not disclosing,” he said in an interview.
But objects in the sky have piqued his interest. In June 2011, the Center for American Progress hosted government officials, from the Pentagon, NASA and the Department of Transportation, as well as Congressional staff and former officials from intelligence organizations, for a briefing by Ms. Kean and experts from academia and foreign militaries.
The private briefing was organized to discuss a proposal that the government establish a small office of two staff members who would selectively investigate mysterious skyward sightings and seek to understand them by applying scientific method. The proposal did not refer to U.F.O.’s, but rather, U.A.P.’s, unidentified aerial phenomena, as if those who drew up the proposal were keenly aware of how their objective could be perceived.
“They were interesting, credible people who had observed aerial phenomena that were unexplained and worthy of additional follow-up,” Mr. Podesta said. “Going back and looking at and declassifying whatever government documents exist is a smart thing to do.”