We have tackled many strange stories on 60 Minutes, but perhaps none like this. It's the story of the U.S. government's grudging acknowledgment of unidentified aerial phenomena— UAP—more commonly known as UFOs. After decades of public denial the Pentagon now admits there's something out there, and the U.S. Senate wants to know what it is. The intelligence committee has ordered the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense to deliver a report on the mysterious sightings by next month.
Bill Whitaker: So what you are telling me is that UFOs, unidentified flying objects, are real?
Lue Elizondo: Bill, I think we're beyond that already. The government has already stated for the record that they're real. I'm not telling you that. The United States government is telling you that.
Luis Elizondo spent 20 years running military intelligence operations worldwide: in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Guantanamo. He hadn't given UFOs a second thought until 2008. That's when he was asked to join something at the Pentagon called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or "AATIP."
Lue Elizondo: The mission of AATIP was quite simple. It was to collect and analyze information involving anomalous aerial vehicles, what I guess in the vernacular you call them UFOs. We call them UAPs.
Bill Whitaker: You know how this sounds? It sounds nutty, wacky.
Lue Elizondo: Look, Bill, I'm not, I'm not telling you that, that it doesn't sound wacky. What I'm telling you, it's real. The question is, what is it? What are its intentions? What are its capabilities?
Buried away in the Pentagon, AATIP was part of a $22 million program sponsored by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to investigate UFOs. When Elizondo took over in 2010 he focused on the national security implications of unidentified aerial phenomena documented by U.S. service members.
Lue Elizondo: Imagine a technology that can do 6-to-700 g-forces, that can fly at 13,000 miles an hour, that can evade radar and that can fly through air and water and possibly space. And oh, by the way, has no obvious signs of propulsion, no wings, no control surfaces and yet still can defy the natural effects of Earth's gravity. That's precisely what we're seeing.
Elizondo tells us AATIP was a loose-knit mix of scientists, electro-optical engineers, avionics and intelligence experts, often working part time. They combed through data and records, and analyzed videos like this.
A Navy aircrew struggles to lock onto a fast-moving object off the U.S. Atlantic Coast in 2015.
Recently released images may not convince ufo skeptics, but the pentagon admits it doesn't know what in the world this is or this or this.
Bill Whitaker: So what do you say to the skeptics? It's refracted light. Weather balloons. A rocket being launched. Venus.
Lue Elizondo: In some cases there are simple explanations for what people are witnessing. But there are some that, that are not. We're not just simply jumping to a conclusion that's saying, "Oh, that's a UAP out there." We're going through our due diligence. Is it some sort of new type of cruise missile technology that China has developed? Is it some sort of high-altitude balloon that's conducting reconnaissance? Ultimately when you have exhausted all those what ifs and you're still left with the fact that this is in our airspace and it's real, that's when it becomes compelling, and that's when it becomes problematic.
Former Navy pilot Lieutenant Ryan Graves calls whatever is out there a security risk. He told us his F/A-18F squadron began seeing UAPs hovering over restricted airspace southeast of Virginia Beach in 2014 when they updated their jet's radar, making it possible to zero in with infrared targeting cameras.
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