“I get the UFO question?” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during last week’s Republican Presidential primary debate.
Christie was asked about the recent congressional UFO hearing. "I think it's horrible that just because I'm from New Jersey, you asked me about unidentified flying objects and Martians,” he said with a smile. In the Garden State, he explained, “we're different but we're not that different."
To Florida’s congressional delegation, however, it’s no joke. A bipartisan group of members is pushing for more government transparency around what is now called UAP, or unidentified aerial phenomena.
Florida lawmakers – including Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Maxwell Frost, Matt Gaetz, Anna Paulina Luna and Jared Moskowitz – led the push for the media-grabbing hearing last month that featured explosive testimony about the existence of alien spacecraft and remains.
Here's why it caught fire: “UFOs have long been a central theme in popular culture,” John Silk wrote recently for DW.com. “TV shows and films from ‘Mork and Mindy’ to the ‘X-Files,’ from ‘E.T.’ to ‘Men In Black,’ and music bands from the Carpenters to Radiohead, have played with the notion we may not be alone in the universe.”
For instance, many will recall the weekly travails of "X-Files" FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, who had a poster in his office of a flying saucer with the tagline, "I want to believe."
UAP refers to “anything in space, in the air, on land, in the sea or under the sea that can't be identified, and which might pose a threat to U.S. military installations or operations,” according to the Department of Defense. It resurfaced into popular consciousness after an alleged Chinese spy balloon was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean in early February.
Several lawmakers now are pushing for a select committee on UAP with subpoena powers. Critics, on the other hand, have questioned whether any of the information that came from the latest hearing is new – or truthful.
Chris Impey, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, wrote in the Conversation that all the information brought out in the hearings was already known.
“While the hearings brought attention to UAPs and could lead to more reporting from people who work in the military and aviation, the testimonies did not produce evidence to fundamentally change the understanding of UAPs,” he wrote.
Moskowitz, a Broward County Democrat, told City & State that his primary motivation to push for the select committee is increasing government transparency, an issue he views as bipartisan.
The impetus for the original hearing occurred when Gaetz and Luna were blocked from reviewing information on several UAP incidents at the Florida Panhandle’s Eglin Air Force Base.
“That concerned me. Why would members of Congress who had security clearance be denied that access?” Moskowitz said. “The government has already come out and said UAPs exist. There's about 170 instances that we can’t explain. I think there can be more information provided to the American people.”
Gaetz, Luna and Frost did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The push in D.C. for increased transparency from the military on UFO sightings is not new, said Greg Eghigian, a history professor at Pennsylvania State University who is currently focused on the history of UFO sightings and reactions to them.
There’s been a desire for congressional hearings since the middle of the last century. That’s when public interest, even hysteria, over sightings first arose.
In fact, two UFO-related panels were held in 1966 and 1968. They were largely driven to build goodwill in then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford’s home district, where some residents claimed to have seen a UFO.
“Amid the sightings in his district, the Air Force brought out a consultant that told the public, ‘Hey, this stuff is silliness. This is nonsense.’ (He said) people were just seeing swamp gas. And that really angered a lot of (Ford's) constituency,” Eghigian said.
Appealing to constituents could be a significant factor in the hearings this time around as well. Three of the four Florida members of the U.S. House pushing for this are first-term lawmakers, looking to make a name for themselves on Capitol Hill.
What’s different is this was the first committee in history that actually heard from witnesses; its predecessors relied solely on expert testimony.
The witness that got the most media coverage recently is David Grusch, a former Air Force intelligence officer. He alleged that the government has secret UFO programs that have recovered extraterrestrial life. The claim has been called ridiculous by several government agencies, including NASA.
When asked about Grusch’s claims, Eghigian said much of what he said has been circulating for decades.
“In some of these instances, you're talking about stories that even people in the UFO world have said, ‘Hey, we've sort of abandoned this particular set of claims, because we just don't see any evidence for it,’ ” he said.
But Moskowitz defended Grusch, saying how the government has tried to attack him is a sign that there is some truth to his testimony.
“If what he's saying is just completely false, then there's no reason to discredit him. If what he's saying has some truth to it, the effort to discredit him only makes him more believable,” Moskowitz said.
The decision to approve a select committee on UAP lies with Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Oversight Chairman James Comer. But even if they approve, Eghigian is concerned that the results could be anticlimactic if, say, the committee hearings are closed to the public.
Moskowitz told City & State that closed-door hearings only with members of Congress and other people with security clearance is a possibility.
“I think that's going to leave a lot of people unsatisfied," Eghigian said. "They will learn that maybe congressional oversight and public transparency don't mean the same things.”