As UFO buzz enthralls D.C., believers and skeptics agree: The truth is out there

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WASHINGTON — Stephen Bassett and Mick West don’t agree on much. Bassett has devoted much of his adult life to proving UFOs are helmed by aliens, and West has devoted much of his to proving they are not.

But they both agree on one thing: It’s good that, after nearly 75 years of taboo and ridicule going back to Roswell, New Mexico, serious people are finally talking seriously about the unidentified flying objects people see in the skies.

“If you look at the level of public interest, then I think it becomes important to actually look into these things,” said West, a former video game programmer turned UFO debunker. “Right now, there is a lot of suspicion that the government is hiding evidence of UFOs, which is quite understandable because there's this wall of secrecy. It leads to suspicion and distrust of the government, which, as we’ve seen, can be quite dangerous.”

Later this month, the Pentagon is expected to deliver a report to Congress from a task force it established last year to collect information about what officials now call "unexplained aerial phenomena," or UAPs, from across the government after pilots came forward with captivating videos that appear to show objects moving in ways that defy known laws of physics.

While those who dabble in the unknowns of outer space are hoping for alien evidence, many others in government hope the report will settle whether the objects might be spy operations from neighbors on Earth, like the Chinese or Russians.

The highly anticipated report is expected to settle little, finding no evidence of extraterrestrial activity while not ruling it out either, according to officials, but it will jumpstart a long-suppressed conversation and open new possibilities for research and discovery and perhaps defense contracts.

“If you step back and look at the larger context of how we've learned stuff about the larger nature of reality, some of it does come from studying things that might seem ridiculous or unbelievable,” Caleb Scharf, an astronomer who runs the Astrobiology Center at Columbia University.

Suddenly, senators and scientists, the Pentagon and presidents, former CIA directors and NASA officials, Wall Street executives and Silicon Valley investors are starting to talk openly about an issue that would previously be discussed only in whispers, if at all.

“What is true, and I'm actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are," former President Barack Obama told late-night TV host James Corden.

The omertà has been broken thanks to a new generation of more professional activists with more compelling evidence, a few key allies in government and the lack of compelling national security justification for maintaining the official silence, which has failed to tamp down interest in UFOs.

In a deeply polarized country where conspiracy theories have ripped apart American politics, belief in a UFO coverup seems relatively quaint and apolitical.

'Truth embargo'

Interest in UFOs waxes and wanes in American culture, but millions have questions and about one-third of Americans think we have been visited by alien spacecraft, according to Gallup.

But those questions have been met with silence or laughter from authorities and the academy, leaving a vacuum that has been filled by conspiracy theorists, hoaxsters and amateur investigators.

West, the skeptic, thinks the recent videos that kicked off the latest UFO craze, including three published by the New York Times and CBS’ “60 Minutes,” can be explained by optical camera effects. But he would like to see the U.S. government thoroughly investigate and explain UFOs.

The government has examined UFOs in the past but often in secret or narrow ways, and the current Pentagon task force is thought to be relatively limited in its mission and resources.

The newer activists have worked with mainstream news outlets to deliver evidence and eye witnesses that meet their high editorial standards and are careful when speaking to general audiences to avoid talking about aliens — though Mellon and Elizondo have appeared on controversial podcaster Joe Rogan’s show as well as "Coast to Coast A.M.," a long-running radio program devoted to conspiracies and the paranormal.

Both the skeptics and the believers don’t expect the Pentagon report to settle anything. Instead, they hope it will start something new.

“The idea of some super powerful aliens coming to visit us is a very compelling story,” West said. “So if you get even a tiny little taste of something like that, it really spices up the story.”