Feb 15, 2023

The UFOs we are shooting down.

The UFOs we are shooting down.
Photo by Oliver Pacas / Unsplash

What is with all the UFO news?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

We just shot down four objects out of the North American skies in a matter of a week. Why? Plus, a reader question about whether a government entity has ever tried to kill one of my stories. 

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In Monday's edition on social security, we had a line that noted Social Security and Medicare are paid through income tax. As noted in other parts of the piece, Social Security is funded mostly through payroll taxes, not income taxes. This error was made during a last-minute edit before the newsletter went out, and though an accurate description existed elsewhere, we regret including the mistake.

This is our 78th correction in Tangle's 186-week history and our first correction since February 9. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

A reminder...

I'm still looking to interview folks from or near East Palestine, Ohio, to talk about the recent events there for this week's Friday edition. If you or someone you know is in the area, drop me a line by replying to this email (or writing to me at isaac@readtangle.com).

Quick hits.

  1. The consumer price index in January fell for the seventh consecutive month, indicating another slight decrease in rate inflation. However, the inflation numbers have remained higher than economists predicted, and food and gasoline prices both rose month-over-month. (The numbers)
  2. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), 89, announced she will retire from the Senate in 2024. Three other Democrats had already announced plans to run for her seat. (The decision)
  3. Tesla employees at a Buffalo, NY, plant said they plan to unionize, a first for the company. Separately, the White House announced that Tesla will open 7,500 charging stations to non-Tesla vehicles by 2024. (The union & the stations)
  4. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey (D) underwent surgery for prostate cancer. (The surgery)
  5. Christine Wilson, the lone Republican commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, said she plans to resign, and criticized the Democratic chair for an "abuse of power." (The resignation)

Today's topic.

The UFOs being shot down. In a matter of eight days, U.S. fighter jets have shot down four objects across North America. The first was the highly publicized downing of the purported Chinese spy balloon, which was downed off the coast of South Carolina.

But in the wake of the fiasco of the Chinese balloon, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) went into heightened alert. As a result, NORAD began spotting more unknown objects in the sky, and in three instances downed them.

The first was a flying object brought down over the remote northern coast of Alaska on Friday. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the object was flying at about 40,000 feet and was a threat to civilian flights. He described the object as being the size of a small car.

The second object was shot down over Canada's Yukon Territory, and was described as a balloon similar to but significantly smaller than the one taken out off the coast of South Carolina. It was initially reported as "cylindrical," and an “airship.” But in a memo to lawmakers, the unidentified object was ultimately described as a "small, metallic balloon with a tethered payload below it."

Then on Saturday, an object was detected on radar over Montana, and again on Sunday hovering over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

As it moved over Lake Huron, U.S. and Canadian authorities restricted airspace over the lake and deployed planes to identify it. A senior administration official said the object was "octagonal" and had "strings hanging off," but no discernable payload. It was flying at about 20,000 feet before two F-16 fighter jets shot it down. The first missile fired by one of the jets did not detect the airborne object, lost track of the target and missed, a detail initially omitted by the Pentagon and first reported by Fox News. The missile, an AIM-9X Sidewinder that costs about $439,000, fell into Lake Huron.

Mystery and questions have surrounded the three sightings and shootings. American officials hesitated for days to explain what the objects were, which raised speculation that they could be anything from more spy balloons to alien aircraft. Late Tuesday, Biden administration officials said the three unidentified objects served commercial purposes and were not related to espionage. Crews are still trying to recover debris from all three of the objects. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two were in extremely remote areas while the object shot down over Lake Huron is now under 200 feet of water.

Meanwhile, the story that started the brouhaha over the incursions in the sky is also changing. On Tuesday, The Washington Post published an exclusive report, citing multiple administration officials, saying the Chinese balloon shifted course abruptly over the Pacific as a cold front moved in and analysts are now examining the possibility its flight over the continental United States might not have been intentional. That possibility would corroborate — at least in part — China's claim that the entire incident could have been an accident.

While events of the last week have created a perception of a sudden glut of new things in the sky, there is very likely a more benign explanation. After the incursion of the Chinese balloon, NORAD adjusted its radar system to make its system more sensitive to smaller and slower-moving aircraft. This has sharply increased the number of objects it’s detecting, which has in turn increased the number of military responses.

Today, we're going to take a look at some opinions from the left and right on the recent sightings, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left call for more transparency, which could reduce the level of panic and belief in conspiracies.
  • Some explain that adjustments NORAD has made are why we are suddenly seeing a wave of UFOs.
  • Others argue that Congress should hold hearings and clearly explain to the public what is happening.

The Washington Post editorial board said answers, not panic, are needed about the strange objects in the sky.

"Unlike China’s craft, the subsequent trio showed no signs of having propulsion systems and did not appear to target sensitive military sites. Authorities say they really don’t know the origin or purpose of the three — but did tell people not to worry that they were sent by aliens," the board said. "That such reassurance was deemed necessary was a sign of the panic that these objects have the potential to generate, and also of the imperative to get to the bottom of what is actually going on. As Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) put it: 'We need the facts about where they are originating from, what their purpose is, and why their frequency is increasing.'

"The three objects that have been most recently shot down aren’t necessarily cause for alarm. Officials say one reason so many unidentified aerial vehicles are suddenly being identified is because the Pentagon has widened the aperture and search parameters. The objects could turn out to belong to companies or universities, for example," they wrote. "Not every balloon that appears in the sky over North America needs to be fired upon by a costly missile. It’s harder still to see the need for an even costlier balloon defense program, although military contractors will certainly try to pitch them to lawmakers. To best protect the American people, it’s important to approach these incursions clear-eyed, calmly and without partisan gamesmanship."

In Slate, Fred Kaplan wrote about why there are suddenly so many UFOs.

"The reason U.S. radars weren’t seeing balloons or anything like balloons before, and are now seeing a lot of them, is that until this month, the radar operators weren’t looking for them," Kaplan said. "Many people assume that U.S. military-intelligence gear picks up everything flying through our airspace, but this isn’t true—and this fact is not necessarily a sign of incompetence. Thousands of objects are passing through the lower regions of outer space above American skies—meteors, private satellites, various debris—and if the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracked all of them, its officers would be overwhelmed, perhaps to the point of taking their eyes off the truly plausible dangers.

"So, they set 'filters' on their scanning radar to look out for objects of certain shapes at certain altitudes and speeds. Balloons floating along at a small fraction of the speed of sound don’t fit the algorithm," Kaplan wrote. "A retroactive analysis of the many UFOs in recent years that have been spotted, but have gone unexplained, will probably conclude that most if not all of them were spy-craft of one sort or another. At the same time, an analysis in the coming weeks of the three most recent shootdowns might indicate that they weren’t spy balloons at all; they might have just been space junk. NORAD might have reset its filters a bit too broadly."

In CNN, Peter Bergen said past reports on UFOs indicate this may be a growing problem we have to deal with.

"January's UFO report had a striking finding: The number of UFO sightings significantly increased between March 2021 and August 2022, during which time 247 new sightings were reported, mostly by US Navy and Air Force pilots and personnel," he wrote. "That's almost double the 144 UFO sightings reported in the 17-year period between 2004 to 2021. The report suggested that the increase may be because there is less 'stigma' associated with reporting UFO sightings, now that the Pentagon is actively pushing service personnel to report any 'anomalies' seen in the sky... The report by the US intelligence community found that a large number of those sightings, 163, were balloons or 'balloon-like entities,' while 26 were unmanned aircraft systems, i.e., drones. An unspecified number of sightings were 'attributable to sensor irregularities or variances, such as operator or equipment error.'

"There were 171 unidentified object sightings, however, for which no explanation was found, and some of those objects 'demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.' ... The report also noted that UFO sightings 'continue to occur in restricted or sensitive airspace, highlighting possible concerns for safety of flight.' It added that the sightings could point to 'adversary collection activity,' suggesting that UFOs found around sensitive US military installations could be a foreign power spying on them," he wrote. "Congress should convene hearings to get to the bottom of this. The public has a right to understand why objects are flying around in American airspace that the Pentagon and the US intelligence community can't identify."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right also call for more transparency, saying the Biden administration is not offering enough information.
  • Some are blaming the administration’s lack of clear communication for increasing hysteria.
  • Others argue we need better guidelines with foreign nations like China about what kinds of incursions are acceptable.

Michael Brendan Dougherty said "we need answers."

"The publicly available details on these flying objects and their downing don’t add up to a coherent story. Some of the news stories make the objects seem extremely low-tech and low-grade — but according to CNN, some pilots had reported that the object shot down over Alaska 'interfered with their sensors.' What’s more, the government has been clear that the balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina was not really similar to the three subsequently downed objects," Dougherty wrote. "A Washington Post report made the startling implication that the reason for the rash of sightings may be that, until recently, we’d set our radars and sensors to automatically filter out too much information... In other words, we’d been proceeding from a preconceived notion of what we should be seeing in the sky, and our systems therefore failed to see what was actually in the sky until someone in the Pacific Northwest saw it with their own eyes.

"Speculation among informed observers hasn’t clarified the mysteries surrounding this story. Some aeronautics reporters must be feeling vindicated, having previously warned of evidence that China was developing exotic airships," he said. "But beyond that, it’s impossible to know much of anything. Perhaps these objects are just a form of low-tech surveillance taking advantage of our blindness, to take sub-satellite-level pictures and video. Perhaps they’re something more sinister, such as a test of a weapons-delivery system that has proven itself useful at evading detection until now, or a first-strike device designed to deliver an electromagnetic-pulse attack. Or perhaps they’re just an attempt to surveil our top-secret planes outside of the normal orbit schedule of satellites."

In The New York Post, Rich Lowry said the White House can't even rule out an alien invasion.

"It’s best never to take White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s word for anything, but we can presumably believe her when she says the flying objects the United States shot down in recent days aren’t from an alien civilization. Although she left herself some wiggle room — 'there is no indication' of extraterrestrial activity, she said, displaying the weasel-word instincts of someone whose job involves dancing around the truth," Lowry wrote. "If she’s wrong, we are having close encounters of the most unwelcoming kind, as our alien visitors learn more than they presumably wanted to know about the business end of the F-22.

"We let a sophisticated Chinese surveillance balloon fly over the length of the United States and now, in reaction to that embarrassment, are practically scrambling the jets every time a little girl lets go of her helium balloon at a birthday party," he said. "Maybe the objects we’ve subsequently shot down were Chinese or Russian and deserved to be taken out with extreme prejudice. Maybe they were stray commercial or research objects that were minding their own business before having a very bad day. Who knows? Certainly, the administration doesn’t know or isn’t telling."

In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. argued that years of government secrets have left people believing "Chinese spyware" is actually aliens.

"The irritating delay in making sense of these events is a longer story than it might seem," Jenkins said. "From a febrile debate about the U.S. military and UFOs that started five years ago, we now find ourselves shooting unidentified objects out of the sky over the U.S. and Canada. From a U.S. Air Force general kibitzing about a war with China maybe as soon as 2025, in early 2023 we’re using a Sidewinder missile to blast a Chinese military spy probe out of the stratosphere off the coast of South Carolina. The intervening variable? Apparently a decade-long campaign by intelligence officials to keep reality bottled up. They didn’t think we could handle the truth about Chinese balloons and drones over America.

"The New York Times has fairly owned the story since it was a government-sponsored distraction about little green men," he added. "Then the tone changed markedly last fall. Sources began leaking that a pending declassified UFO report would emphasize not unexplained technology but ordinary balloons, drones and airborne clutter. The classified version of the same report, we were told, alluded plainly to Chinese spying... Our government has indeed achieved something resembling hysteria, with the White House on Monday officially playing down the involvement of extraterrestrials in the recent shootdowns," he said. "But World War III is undesirable, so China and the U.S. will need to reach a new consensus on what’s legitimate spying and what constitutes an airspace intrusion."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I do think it is odd that we don't have a clear explanation yet.
  • There are benign explanations for a lot of the story, but no explanation for why we are shooting these things down.
  • If Biden wants to end the hysteria, some transparency would help.

Yes, my brother and I are going to fire up that UFO newsletter to explore some of our more fun and outlandish theories.

But for now, let me offer a few serious and skeptical points.

For starters, we should have far more information than we do. It's been nearly a week since the first of these recent objects was shot down over Alaska, and as far as we know the government hasn't even reached the debris yet. There are obvious problems with shooting down something before you know what it is — and there are even more issues with using half-a-million-dollar missiles, funded by taxpayers, to blow things out of the sky and then not tell us what they are.

My best bet is that whatever we've taken down in the last week is some combination of domestic research vehicles and foreign spyware. I think Holman Jenkins is onto something when he notes that the government believes we can't handle the truth — not about aliens, but about how chock full of foreign or unknown flying objects our skies are.

Still, I have a predisposition to not trust the government line — especially on this topic. And it’s hard for me not to think there is more going on than meets the eye.

The explanation that we are suddenly finding these car-sized objects in the sky because we've adjusted our radars is straightforward enough. I also find it a little bonkers. Did we not think these were important enough to look for before? What car-sized object is flying above Lake Huron at 20,000 feet totally unbeknownst to NORAD? How many are there? And if we don't think they pose any meaningful threat, why the hell are we blowing them up?

This isn't remotely close to my area of expertise but my interest has certainly been piqued.

You don't have to watch a lot of X-Files (which I do) in order to understand that our federal government is now gigantic and shrouded in secrecy. Many corners of the military and our spy agencies are damn near inaccessible to the rest of us, and the engaging and startling thing about this fiasco is just how plainly we can now see that. Surely, there are a few people who know what we shot down and why we shot them down, but for now us "normal" folk — even the journalists — are left scouring over anonymous sources and contradictory accounts.

If Biden wants to stem the hysteria, which he should, the best course of action is a straightforward briefing on what we saw, why we suddenly saw so many of them in such a short period of time, and what factors were weighed when we decided to shoot these things down. The longer this current dance goes on, the crazier the theories will get, and the less clarity we'll ever be able to have.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Has any government entity ever asked you to kill / down-play a story? Seems like this happens in social media frequently.  How often does it happen in traditional media?

— Glenn from Tacoma, Washington

Tangle: I've never had that happen. I think there are a few reasons for that. One, it's not that common. Two, I've never worked full-time at a major publication like Fox News or CNN or The New York Times, where your work might be seen by millions of people. Three, most people in government know that strong-arming a reporter is generally a bad idea. If a journalist is reporting on a story that makes you look bad, and you go to them to try to get a comment on that story, and they respond by trying to kill the story — that is almost certainly going to end up being reported in the piece.

That being said, the place where this occurs most often is definitely in national security reporting. Government officials will sometimes ask papers to remove certain details or refrain from publishing stories if they believe the piece may risk someone's life, like an informant or spy. Papers will often satisfy those requests, since the threat to their sources can be very real.

More often than not, though, if the government wants to downplay or silence a story, they'll do so using other means. They'll lie, obfuscate, delay, or distract. Or, as has happened to me and is increasingly common, they'll go off the record. In 2020, I wrote about how anonymous sourcing works, and some of the wilder things I've been told off the record.

This is usually how it goes: An official will share with me the "narrative" that they want out in the media, then will ask to go off the record and become more forthright — maybe even contradicting what they just said. They'll do this in an attempt to either force hedges into the story ("however, anonymous officials cautioned...") or in an effort to get you to back off ("off the record, I think you are chasing a nothingburger").

In the end, it's often up to the reporters themselves to use their best instincts and judgment on what to print and what to keep chasing.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The next generation is a lot less interested in cars. Generation Z, loosely defined as anyone born between 1996 and 2012, are getting their licenses at lower rates than their predecessors. And many of them just don't seem particularly interested in having their own licenses. "I haven’t needed one to this point," one 24 year old told The Washington Post. "If there’s an emergency, I’ll call an Uber or 911.” In 1997, 43% of all 16-year-olds had licenses. By 2020, it had fallen to 25%. The number of 17-year-olds with licenses has gone from over 60% to less than half. According to The Washington Post, members of Gen Z cite anxiety, finances and environmental concerns for their decreased car enthusiasm. You can read the story here.


  • 247. The number of UFO sightings made by U.S. government personnel between March 2021 and August 2022, mostly by U.S. Navy and Air Force pilots.
  • 144. The number of sightings reported in the 17 years between 2004 and 2021.
  • 65%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say their best guess is intelligent life does exist on other planets.
  • 11%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say that UFOs reported by people in the military are definitely evidence of intelligent life outside of Earth.
  • 40%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say that UFOs reported by people in the military are probably evidence of intelligent life outside of Earth.
  • 10%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say UFOs are a major threat to U.S. national security.

The Extras.

Have a nice day.

Sometimes, tragedy breeds something special. Yesterday, we wrote about the baby girl born in the rubble of Syria's earthquake who miraculously survived, despite her mother dying. Another powerful story has also come from this tragedy. An anonymous man in the United States reportedly walked into the Turkish embassy and donated $30 million to earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, according to Pakistan's Prime Minister. The anonymous man, who is Pakistani, was praised by the prime minister on Twitter. “Deeply moved by the example of an anonymous Pakistani who walked into the Turkish embassy in the US and donated $30 million for earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria... These are such glorious acts of philanthropy that enable humanity to triumph over the seemingly insurmountable odds.” CNN has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.