Institutionalizing Weirdness: Last Week's UFO report

Or, Stephen didn't read enough pages of Terence McKenna yesterday and this is only 9 pages. There's a payoff for doing it this way though.

Welcome back everyone, this is the Trenchant Edges where we metaphor about verbing the unusual into something practical.

I’m Stephen Fisher, your research junkie, and host.

Today we’re taking a break from Terence McKenna to look at that UFO report put together by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. You can read it yourself here, it’s 9 pages.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 54 seconds. Contains 2182 words

Before we do that we should take a moment and touch on what the DNI (or ODNI if you’re nasty) is and why they’re the one releasing this report.

A Bureaucratic History Tangent

Successful institutions build their own sense of loyalty and an insular community. This can be problematic for any organization, but it’s especially true for spy agencies.

Lack of intelligence sharing was cited as one of the causes of 9/11, and with good reason. If you look into the CIA’s Alec station you’ll find accusations that the CIA didn’t just withhold key information that could have prevented 9/11, but ordered their FBI liaisons to not share it. This is the closest thing to a smoking gun anyone has for a 9/11 conspiracy.

So, traditionally, the US intelligence gathering was done by the military or piecemeal by business people or diplomats/spies.

That started to change around ww1 when the US formalized its first signals intelligence agency (MI-8) within the army and the Justice Department began to spawn what we now know as the FBI into a more independent organization. MI-8 ended up at the state department and the bureau ended up with J Edgar Hoover in charge.

After WW2, the US decided to spin off a lot more mission-specific agencies. Including the familiar ones like the CIA, NSA, etc.

At present, there are 18 agencies in the US intelligence community supported by a constellation of thousands of private intelligence contractors.

You can read more of the details of how this happened here. You can read more about who those agencies are here.

The really key thing is that every so often the state will create a new administrative structure to collect and organize all its intelligence-gathering efforts. This is because you can’t change bureaucracies by fiat and every bureaucratic leader fights tooth and nail for their jurisdiction and budget. Always it’s about the money.

As god intended.

(we must presume because no one has figured out how to change it)

So, the DNI was created as part of an attempt to get all these competing agencies to share information and actually, you know, inform policymakers of what’s going on.

The most famous of these rivalries is the FBI vs the CIA, which started in the OSS days when Hoover had so many spies in OSS headquarters that he’d often find out information before the OSS’ leader William “My personality created an intelligence agency more interested in doing James Bond bullshit than actually spying; an institutional disease that’s plagued everyone on earth since I talked FDR into giving me power. Seriously this problem is so bad most of the former CIA director memoirs about their time at the agency complain about it. Publically.” Donovan.

I may have some strong feelings on this matter. As may the literal dozens of countries the CIA have murdered, kidnapped, and coup’d within over the years.

The point is that the Director of National Intelligence is a patch on a fundamentally broken system. And has itself been patched over a couple times now.

See, you don’t want to give one organization total control over spying because that’s too much power and the executive branch would quickly lose any pretense of control over the intelligence community. But you can’t let them be totally ungoverned for the same reason.

So you keep adding new bureaucrats to try and corral the old ones rather than wasting political capital on reform.

So the reason the DNI exists to release this report is because of the CIA’s failure to share information with the FBI and other agencies that might have prevented 9/11.

OK, so that was a long-winded explanation but I think it’s important to understand the context of US Intelligence: IE, these people are a fucking disaster who have failed upwards as the state wants increased powers.

The Report

First, it’s worth noting that public disclosures of the state investigating UFOs is nothing new. The Airforce’s Project BLUE BOOK ran from 1947 to 1969 and issuing a public statement at the end of 1969 that there were no alien craft, etc.

As always happens when I poke around this kind of thing I found the FBI report on a 1989 civilian project bluebook trying to study UFOs. Rabbit holes in rabbit holes my friends.

And then there was that time when the CIA decided to get some SEO love from google by putting up some of their UFO files as an X-files-themed guide on how to research UFOs during the X-files reboot. Seriously, it’s real.

Fucking infuriating.

OK, so this report.

It’s got a catchy name: Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena

And you just know it’s gonna be a banger government document when it starts off by slightly renaming something.

Now, when I first heard UAPs instead of UFOs I was skeptical. But I actually kinda like UAP better now. Assuming something weird you see in the sky is an object is kinda… well, it’s an assumption. And it makes an ass of the advanced aliens visiting us just to see what we do with it.

Let’s just slide into that first line of the executive summary and see what they’re admitting to: “The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP. “

So, not much. I guess, in honor of Donald Rumsfeld’s generous donation of a gender-neutral bathroom, we should label this a known unknown.

It then goes onto say that they started using a more systemized reporting process to gather information on UAPs in 2004 and so focused on reports from then to now.

The next bullet point is pretty interesting so I’ll just bring it all over:

• Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.

Now, if you’re like me and think the most interesting thing about the UFO/alien abduction phenomenon is how similar it sounds to folktales about angelic visitation, demonic possession, and ever-reasonable fairies, this is an interesting tidbit.

I always keep my senses looking out for secularized folktales and religious expressions.

But I digress. They then admit that there are some UAPs with really weird behavior and that behavior might be because of sensor errors.

So they’re clearly angling away from anything resembling the “disclosure” promised by UFO enthusiasts.

Then they elaborate on the 5 kinds of categories they expect explained UAPs to fall into and they’re absolutely amazing.

  1. airborne clutter

  2. natural atmospheric phenomena

  3. USG or U.S. industry developmental programs

  4. foreign adversary systems,

  5. Other

So with categories like “Junk”, “weather”, “Our stuff”, “their stuff” and “Something else”, you can tell we’re absolutely in for an intellectual tour de force.

The summary finishes by saying these whatevers could be a threat to national security and explaining that it will be very expensive for us to collect better data.

And the last sentence is the real money shot of the summary: “Some of these steps are resource-intensive and would require additional investment.“

See, my rant about institutional bureaucrats acting in their own interest to maximize budgets was actually an appropriate introduction the whole time. Wooosh.

The primacy effect is a psychological memory tendency for people to remember the first thing they read in a set. It’s usually paired with the recency effect or the same thing but to the last thing in a set a person has read.

Combined here we have a message of: Gosh, we’d sure love to tell you what all these UAPs are but we just don’t have enough money to get good data.

Solid gold, honestly. 10/10 work. Kudos to the team who drafted and edited this masterpiece of government financing.

This was page 3. Page 1 is a cover sheet, page 2 is about the scope of the data collection. You know, when it’s from, who they collected it from, that stuff. Page 8 and 9 are appendixes.

So that gives us pages 4, 5, 6, and 7 of content.


A charming restatement of the executive summary.

It then gives us some more details on process: Most of the reporting comes from the last 2 years after the airforce and navy standardized reporting protocols for themselves.

144 events from the government (USG) were examined, 80 had multiple sensors observations.

It then goes into the problems with data: The stigma against reporting, various technical challenges, the fact that military sensors are highly specialized and thus aren’t really made to investigate new stuff.

Kind of neat, honestly.

Page 5 starts off by admitting there are patterns: Incidents tend to cluster around US military bases, but they suggest this is mostly a bias of where you find sufficient sensors and observers told to report anomalies.

And what might be the interesting part for the UFO fans (who have been very patient with this bureaucracy nerd): The next section talks about the reports which appear to demonstrate advanced technology.

Of the 144 events reported, 18 incidents appeared to demonstrate advanced tech:

  • remain stationary in winds aloft,

  • move against the wind,

  • maneuver abruptly, or

  • move at considerable speed,

  • without discernable means of propulsion.

  • In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings.

They then stress how important it is that there be a small army of experts to look at this data and validate it. The lovable scamps.

The next headline says, probably right, UAP PROBABLY LACK SINGLE EXPLANATION and goes onto repeat the executive summary categories in slightly more detail.

This is irrelevant as 4 of the categories are obvious and the last one is meaningless.

But let’s take a look at “Other” again anyway.

Other: Although most of the UAP described in our dataset probably remain unidentified due to limited data or challenges to collection processing or analysis, we may require additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze and characterize some of them. We would group such objects in this category pending scientific advances that allowed us to better understand them. The UAPTF [Task Force] intends to focus additional analysis on the small number of cases where a UAP appeared to display unusual flight characteristics or signature management.

Take a moment and laugh with me a bit about this. Here we’ve got the report basically holding aliens hostage to budget increases.

It’s good shit.

The rest of page 6 makes a halfhearted case for national security threats, says they don’t think it’s another country spying on us and moves on to explain how they could spend more money if they could only have an appropriation kind, sir.

Uninteresting except this bit about near misses:

The UAPTF has 11 reports of documented instances in which pilots reported near misses with a UAP.

So, about 5-6% of their reports are near misses. Not sure if that’s important information, but it seems both way more than chance and way less than an attack.

Anyway, page 7 is just boring crap about how they want more technology, analysts, and standardization. 8 is an appendix. Page 9 is mostly a list of the things the senate wants the final report to weigh in on. Focusing on national security issues, of course.

The last line in the whole thing is point 8:

Recommendations regarding increased collection of data, enhanced research and development, additional funding, and other resources.

So, this isn’t really so much a report on UAPs as it is saying we can’t really write you a report because we don’t have enough data and analysis capabilities. So pay us and we’ll find you whatever.

Maybe this wasn’t the most exciting report, but it’s a good lesson in bureaucratic priorities: Threats and funding, funding and threats.

Why threats? Because if there’s a threat we can get more funding.

And the cycle goes.

Now, the other thing to consider when reading these reports is who the audience is.

This was a very concise summary released to the public as well as within the state bureaucracy and congress.

So there are multiple messages going on. Gee, we just don’t know there may be a threat works both on the public (Give us money and maybe we’ll tell you aliens are real) and on congress.

The details and discussion of reporting warn everyone that there probably will be military + FAA wide reporting procedures soon and to prepare for that. It signals a possible end to the stigma reported by so many pilots over the years about reporting UFOs being bad for their careers.

And perhaps it even it positions Space Force as a real thing that can solve real problems. Appendix B requests giving someone a public facing duty to inspect and report on UAPs so maybe they’ll hand it to the new military guys.

Wheels within wheels my friends.

Alright, we’ll be back tomorrow with more Terence Mckenna and even more UFOs.