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SALT LAKE CITY — TV's famous fictional sleuth of all things paranormal, Fox Mulder, might see the U.S. Department of Intelligence's new report on UFOs as the government finally coming clean on a slew of "X-Files"-esque incidents over the past 20 or so years.
But the nine-page document, titled simply "Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena," sparks a lot more questions than it answers in findings that assessed 144 incidents that occurred between 2004 and 2021. No mention of aliens or extraterrestrial life is made anywhere in the report, and all but one of the happenings, mostly captured by advanced equipment on jets flown by military pilots, are described by government officials as still unexplained.
But enough concern has been raised by the incidents for the report to conclude the phenomena may represent future threats in the form of "safety of flight" issues and could someday "pose a challenge to U.S. national security."
While not quite a mea culpa, the report functions as a confirmation of a number of long-rumored sightings and, in response, the U.S. intelligence apparatus says it's now directing efforts to double down on the work to document and investigate activities in the skies above that are, so far, leaving experts and scientists flummoxed.
And when it comes to what it all might mean, a new poll shows that residents of Utah — a state that some purport to have documentation of unexplained sightings going back to the 18th century — are somewhat more skeptical than the average American when it comes to their collective beliefs that we are not alone in this universe.
Congress last year required the creation of the report delivered last Friday. While its lack of conclusions has already been made public, the report still represents a milestone in the study of the issue.
U.S. officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said there were "no clear indications" that the sightings could be linked to alien life. There is also no definitive linkage of sightings to potentially unknown technology of an adversary like Russia or China.
"It's clear that we need to improve our capacity to further analyze remaining UAP observations, even as we accept that there are some limits to our capacity to characterize and understand some of the observations that we have," one official said.
U.S. intelligence officials say the activities, overall, are so variable that no single explanation of the phenomena is likely. But, analysts also believe there is a trend among some of the recorded incidents in which flight movements may be evidence of advanced systems and say they are "conducting further analysis to determine if breakthrough technologies were demonstrated."
"In 18 incidents, described in 21 reports, observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics," the report reads. "Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion.
"In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency energy associated with UAP sightings."
One Utahn who believes the technology is far too advanced to have been borne of mere Earthlings but isn't yet ready to completely concede to the presence of extraterrestrials is Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney
"I don't believe they're coming from foreign adversaries," Romney said. "If they were, that would suggest they have a technology which is in a whole different sphere than anything we understand and, frankly, China and Russia just aren't there, and neither are we by the way.
"I'm not worried about it from a national security standpoint."
But Romney wasn't ready to throw the little green men out with the bathwater, either.
"If for some reason these came from another system, if you will, another alien society, which I frankly would find hard to believe but I guess all things are possible, that would be fascinating, interesting," Romney said. "I know there are, they say, trillions of galaxies out there so who knows what might have developed somewhere else.
"But that would make me more fascinated, not fearful, and I also think we have a lot more significant challenges ahead of us right here and now than worrying about those things."
In a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics statewide poll, Utahns weighed in with their own takes on what, or who, might be behind the sightings (and it's worth noting that most of the polling was completed ahead of June 25, the day the federal report was made public).
To the question, "Recently, government reports have come to light concerning sightings of UFOs, what is your opinion on the subject?" 57% of respondents said there was a logical but not yet known explanation for the phenomena. Extraterrestrial life was the answer for 22% of those polled, but 21% believed in more conspiratorial origins. Of that group, 12% said the sightings were likely related to a top secret U.S government project, 6% said it was another country's secret project and 3% think it could be evidence of a secret technology from a nongovernment source.
The findings are from a survey conducted by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen of 1,000 registered Utah voters from June 18 to June 26. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
University of Utah philosophy professor James Tabery said he wasn't surprised by the Utah polling data and believes most people look for more grounded explanations for phenomena like the sightings detailed in the federal report. But he also noted that there will always be a group ready to extend belief beyond what is supported by evidence.
"I think ... it's worth emphasizing that almost 80% (of poll respondents) gravitated towards perfectly natural explanations," Tabery said. "Even though there is no reference to aliens or evidence of extraterrestrial life presented in the report, there is a cross section of society that is willing to fill in the blank with an extraordinary explanation."
And in a new national survey from Pew Research Center, that cross section appeared to include a bigger percentage of believers than what pollsters found in Utah.
In work conducted just before the release of the government assessment, Pew found that about two-thirds of Americans, 65%, say their best guess is that intelligent life exists on other planets.
I don't believe they're coming from foreign adversaries ... If they were, that would suggest they have a technology which is in a whole different sphere than anything we understand and, frankly, China and Russia just aren't there, and neither are we by the way.
–Sen. Mitt Romney
Pew researchers found that a smaller but still sizable share of the public, 51%, says that UFOs reported by people in the military are likely evidence of intelligent life outside Earth. Most of this sentiment comes from people who say that military-reported UFOs are "probably" evidence of extraterrestrial life, 40%, rather than "definitely" such evidence, 11%, according to the survey of 10,417 U.S. adults, conducted June 14 to 24.
Tabery also believes the choice made by U.S. intelligence researchers to use the term "unidentified aerial phenomena" over the more widely recognized "unidentified flying object" could be motivated by an effort to sidestep any preconceptions or stigma that come along with the UFO moniker.
"The UAP rebranding appears to be a reasonable attempt to remind people that that's what we're talking about here," Tabery said. "In the thousands or tens of thousands of reports about strange things people are seeing, most of them are very reasonable things. Meteors, birds, balloons ... but among those are a handful that represent incidents where we just don't know what's going on.
"And that's how science works. You admit they're anomalies and work to gather more data."
Ryan Burns worked for a decade as a fly-fishing guide in northeastern Utah but, after a series of sightings, dedicated himself full time in the mid-2000s to pursuing his own data on aerial phenomena.
Burns said he also believes the UAP designation used by intelligence researchers more accurately reflects what we collectively know, and don't know, about the source of the sightings noted in the federal report.
"I think there's a stigma that comes with the term UFO and the assumption that it is extraterrestrial life," Burns said.
He also said the term unidentified aerial phenomena appropriately leaves the door open on a wider range of possible explanations.
"It's a mistake for people to put this in a box and convince themselves it's one particular thing," Burns said. "I think it's our responsibility to try to not do the human thing and put this into a box. The important thing is to keep it in that unknown category ... and rely on science to answer this."
Burns said that the history of incidents witnessed in the sky goes back as far as recorded human history itself, with unexplained sightings having been variously attributed to deities, spirits and, eventually, to alien technology. He noted the journals kept by Spanish explorers and Franciscan friars Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez, who recorded their trek through Utah in the late 1770s, include references to unexplained sightings in the sky over what is now known as the Uinta Basin. The same area in which Burns himself said he has witnessed aerial anomalies.
And Burns believes the report marks a positive pivot in how U.S. government officials plan on handling the investigations into, and information sharing about, unexplained aerial sightings.
"I give it two thumbs up," Burns said. "It is a milestone and something many people thought would never happen.
"In my opinion, it is good to see them clamoring to find answers."
Contributing: Associated Press