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AARO Director Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick Holds an Off-Camera Media Roundtable

SUSAN GOUGH: All right. Good afternoon. I'm Sue Gough, for those who don't know me, from Defense Press Operations. Thank you for coming today to talk about AARO and its website and the launch of the new secure reporting mechanism on the website. When I call on you, please identify yourself and your outlet, because Dr. Kirkpatrick does not know you like we do. 

For those who are dialed in, please make sure that you mute your phone. We're going to go for about 30 minutes or so. When I call on you, one question, one follow up, and then as time permits, we'll circle back around if people have more questions. All right, with that, I will turn it over to Dr. Kirkpatrick.

AARO DIRECTOR DR. SEAN KIRKPATRICK: Thanks, Sue. Apparently, we have a bit of humor in our PA group by having a UAP briefing on Halloween. Thanks. Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming and joining on the phone. Today, per Section 1673 of the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, AARO launched the second phase of our secure reporting mechanism on the website. 

This phase of the reporting mechanism is for current or former U.S. government employees, service members, or contractors with direct knowledge of alleged U.S. government programs or activities related to UAP dating back to 1945 to contact AARO, to voluntarily submit a report. These reports will be used to inform AARO's congressionally directed Historical Record Report and investigations into alleged U.S. government UAP programs, due to Congress in June of 2024. 

The form on the website is intended as an initial point of contact with AARO. It is not intended for conveying potentially sensitive or classified information. The form will take individuals through submission guidance, including determining their eligibility, and then will gather contact information, data on their affiliation with the U.S. government, and some basic information on the UAP program or activity that they have a direct knowledge of. AARO personnel will then catalog and review the submissions and follow up with the individuals as needed. 

All information shared will be protected as personal and confidential and will only be shared with AARO staff for the purposes of contacting individuals for interviews. I'd like to emphasize that this contact form is for current or former U.S. government personnel to let AARO know that they have information of alleged U.S. government UAP programs or activities. We understand that members of the public are also interested in reporting UAP sightings to AARO. We are exploring methods for how the public can do so in the forthcoming third phase of the secure reporting mechanism, but I don't have anything to announce about that today. 

I'd also note that the secure reporting mechanism, now live on the website, does not replace the standard reporting procedures established in the May 2023 Joint Staff general admin message to the services and the combatant commands regarding how to report current operational UAP reporting and sightings. DOD personnel who observe a UAP should use the reporting procedures outlined in the Joint Staff message. Neither does this mechanism change the FAA reporting guidance for current observations from civilian pilots. And we encourage civilian pilots to properly report UAP sightings to air traffic control. AARO receives UAP-related pilot reports or PIREPs from the FAA. 

I'd also like to take this opportunity to strongly encourage any current or former U.S. government employees, military or civilian, or contractors who believe that they have firsthand knowledge of a U.S. government UAP program or activity to please come forward using this new secure reporting mechanism. We want to hear from you. As I've said, the information you submit in the form will be protected. 

Additionally, any information that you provide in a subsequent interview will be protected according to its classification. By law, AARO can receive all UAP related information, including any classified national security information involving military intelligence or intelligence related activities at all levels of classification, regardless of any restrictive access controls, special access programs, or compartmented access programs. 

Moreover, there is no restriction to AARO receiving any past or present UAP related information, regardless of the organizational affiliation of the original classification authority within the department, the intelligence community, or any other U.S. government department or agency. And with that, I will be happy to take questions.

MS. GOUGH: Brandi.

Q: Thank you so much, Sue. And thank you for doing this. I hope it's the first of many more. First, I have two questions, but I want to follow up on something you just said. Before this new mechanism was released today, had this guidance that you mentioned from the GENADMIN for military operators. 

Can you distinguish a little bit more between these two reporting offerings, how specifically military insiders should be reporting current and former observances moving forward? This mechanism from today is for current, specific and former DOD contractors and military insiders. So, how do the current sort of distinguish between the two, if that makes sense?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Right. Yes, it does. That's a great point, and I want to spend just a moment trying to explain that very carefully. So, this reporting mechanism that is on the website is for people who think they have firsthand knowledge of clandestine programs that the government has been hiding. Really, this is about the historical report here, right? 

The part of the AARO's mission that Congress has asked us to do in this review going back to 1945, to include in interviewing all of the whistleblowers and anyone that wants to come forward and have -- present their case and make their statement, for the record. 

Operational reporting is different. That is, pilot's flying around, and he sees something in his airspace and he needs to report it. That goes through operational channels, and that's what the GENADMIN guidance provides. That pilot needs to report it both through the service and through the combatant command that they're operating under, whether that's in NORTHCOM or in CENTCOM or in INDOPACOM. Those instructions are in that GENADMIN guidance. 

That also provides guidance on what they are supposed to report operationally, the timelines on which they have to do it, and the amount of data that they have to collect and provide back to AARO so that we can take action and go and investigate that. And so there's an operational piece, and then there's a historical piece. Does that make sense?

Q: Yeah, helpful clarification. And then while I have you, AARO's past reviews so far have repeatedly emphasized a priority on this need to close domain awareness gaps that are specifically associated with sensors and data collection. To be clear, are you -- is your office, or will you be assisting military commands with deploying purpose built UAP specific sensors or capabilities on platforms to bolster your reporting? Can you give us a status update, if so? And can you just elaborate a little bit more about how you're working specifically with military commands now on deeper sensor calibration and sort of those additions?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Sure. So, there's a lot packed in there, so let me try to undo that. First, we have a lot of our reporting comes from military sensor platforms, F-35s, F-22s, Aegis radars, whatnot. All of those sensors have to be calibrated against known objects, right. So, we're running a campaign and have been for the last year or so on here's what a weather balloon looks like in an F-35 when you fly it at Mach 1 in all of the sensors. Here's what it looks like on from Aegis, and then take all that data and turn it into models that we can then put back into the trainers so that the operators can understand what they're looking at. That's part one. 

Part two is then looking at, where are our data gaps? So, our domain awareness gaps don't necessarily arise because we don't have a sensor. It arises because we have a lot of data that are tuned for missiles, aircraft, large things that we're looking at, coming over the poles, that sort of thing. There's a lot of data that's not looked at. And so, my team is going through all that systematically with a lot of our S&T partners and our operational partners to go, if I put a calibration sphere out in the middle of the U.S. and I have, say, FAA radar data on it, what does it look like? And can I pull those signatures out and turn them into something that we can then queue off of? The idea being we want to reduce the number of UAP reports that are actually just balloons or actually just drones. Right? I need to get those off of our plate because those aren't UAP. 

Then when we have gaps, and by gaps I mean either operational gaps or a capability gap, then we will put a purpose-built sensor out in place to do search and track and ID and characterization. We have a couple of those already built and deployed. They've been calibrated against known objects, and we're using them to do pattern of life analysis. And what do I mean by that? We have a lot of our airspaces, for example, we don't understand, because nobody's measured it, what all of the stuff is that comes through the airspace on a daily basis. 

So, we have to do that. Well, you can't just run the sensors 24/7, because it costs a lot of money to do that, because we pay, you know, staff to go out there and run them. But we can build some -- some dedicated sensors that are automated, that will just survey an area for a long period of time, couple that with some overhead collect, and now you can get kind of a picture of what's there, what's there 24/7 for three months at a time. 

Then you'll know if there's a difference in that, and we can try to figure out if there are anomalies in there. 

Q: Are you working with all the commands?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: We are predominantly working with -- the short answer is yes, we will work with all of the commands. We send guidance out to all of the commands. But we are really involved with NORTHCOM, INDOPACOM, CENTCOM right now.

Q: (inaudible)


Q: So, David Grusch, the whistleblower who came forward to NewsNation, says he reached out to you to share his discoveries, and that you didn't follow up. So, did you follow up and investigate his claims? He says he still hasn't heard from you. So, ultimately, why haven't you two connected?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: So, Mr. Grusch, since AARO has stood up and since I've been director, has not come to see us and provided any information.

Q: And so, he also says that he briefed you before you assumed your position in AARO. Have you had the chance to follow up on any of the inquiries that he made or talked to any of the witnesses?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: So, the last time I believe I spoke with Mr. Grusch was when I was in the J2 at U.S. Space Command about five years ago, and it was not on this topic. Now, we have interviewed a whole range of people, over 30 people now. I think we've interviewed most of the people that he may have talked to, but we don't know that. And we have extended an invitation at least four or five times now for him to come in over the last eight months or so and has been declined.

MS. GOUGH: Let’s go to Pat Tucker, Defense One.

Q: Hey there. Thanks for doing this. So, during that July hearing, there's obviously the appearance of Mr. Grusch that earned a lot of headlines. But also David Fravor, former Navy pilot. There's this 2004 video that has now become very famous because of the New York Times reporting on it. 

And I wonder, I know that you don't necessarily have a priority list in terms of which of these incidents you need to get to the bottom of, like, first. But do you have any more information, or have you been able to come to any hints or – or – or inclinations about the nature of that now very famous 2004 video, purporting to show UFO taken -- or UAP, from sensors aboard an F-18 Super Hornet?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Okay, so cases, the way we investigate cases, we really prioritize more the operational ones from today than we do going backwards in time. And the reason for that is there is no supporting data to actually analyze. Right? So, that video, that's all there is. There is no other data to put behind it. So, understanding what that is off of that one video is unlikely to occur. Now, whereas today, if we have a lot of data, somebody sees something, there's going to be a lot more data associated with it that we can pull that apart. Radar data and optical data and IR data. 

As far as that particular one is concerned, there are some outstanding questions that I've had in talking with some of those pilots that we're going back to the Navy to do some research on as far as what happened with any of that other data that may have been there at that time. And a lot of that is going to be historical research. And I think one of the important things to note about that is, up until we issued new guidance to the forces to retain data, the way data is handled on these platforms is they don't retain them at all, ever. 

I mean, they retain them for 24 hours, usually. If there was an incident on the platform, like there was a malfunction, they would reuse that data to analyze what that is. But then when they go back out, they essentially overwrite the data storage. They don't necessarily pull that off and keep it anywhere unless there's a reason to. Back in 2004, there wasn't much of a reason to because that wasn't part of the guidance and authority necessary to go off and do that. Right?

Q: Okay. So-

DR. KIRKPATRICK: So, we have changed that now, again, with the Gen Admin guidance that we issued in May that directed all the services that should a report like that be made, they have to retain all that data and get it to us for analysis so that we have a better chance of actually getting into what is that thing? The farther back in time you go, the less data you have. It is highly unlikely we're going to get any resolution out of that that's going to satisfy anybody, just because there is no data to be looked at.

Q: Okay, and real quick follow up. So, today you're setting up this new procedure that people can come to you and talk about report previous programs that may not have been reported related to UAPs. I know you've got one team that just looks at old, kind of classified info and that you merge their findings with your science team that looks at sensors and physics, et cetera. Just real quick, are you finding any at all obstacles within the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. government that's preventing you in any way from looking over old – looking over classified information to find the existence of programs?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Absolutely not. We've had – we’ve had great cooperation, and we have access to anything we need.

Q: Okay, thank you.

Q: Are you comfortable with the staffing levels currently with AARO for the second phase?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's a great question. So, I think that gets at really sort of what am I expecting as far as throughput? Right? So, let me, let me give you my thoughts on that. The quick answer is I'm satisfied with our starting point in our staffing. Right? I have access to surge capability if I need it. But if I look at this through the lens of if we start with the hypothesis that there is a highly protected program somewhere that very few people have access to, then I would expect very few people would be able to come and report that. Right? 

Because there are just aren't that many people that would then, in theory, be briefed to that. If I, however, get hundreds and thousands of people trying to make a report because they think they know something, that is also an indicator of, well, it probably there isn't one there, then if I've got thousands of people because you're not going to have thousands of people briefed to a program. So, we're waiting to see how this plays out over the next couple of weeks. But I do have surge capability available if we need it.

Q: And so, is that one of the things you all are contemplating regarding this third phase, which is taking it to the broader public?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Yes. So, third phase will meet our final legislative requirement for the broader public to report any UAP event. And we're exploring how we're going to do that and mitigate what we expect to be a large volume.

MS. GOUGH: Let me go to the phones again. Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you. I just wanted to double check on a new thing, something you are asking current and former government employees if they have evidence of a former clandestine UAP program. What makes you believe that such a thing might have existed? And if the government kept it secret before, why should a government employee trust you now?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Well, let's see, I currently have no evidence of any program having ever existed as a to do any sort of reverse engineering of any sort of extraterrestrial UAP program. We do have a requirement by law to bring those whistleblowers or other interviewees in who think that it does exist, and they may have information that pertains to that. We do not have any of that evidence right now. And why should they come to us? 

Well, they should come to us because, well, it's in law that we are the authorized reporting authority for them to come to, they are protected under the Whistleblower Act that they extended those protections to last year's legislation and we have the security mechanisms by which to anonymously and confidentially bring them in, hear what they have to say, research that information and protect it if it is in truly classified. And if it's not classified, then we can validate that as well.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Joe Clark with Defense Media Activity. What do you mean by the mechanism specifically? Do you just mean you have facilities to host a classified discussion? Or you have people with clearances? What do you mean by that?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: For them to come in, once we contact them and bring them in, we can bring them in. We can do a couple of things, right, and we can be very flexible depending on where these folks are in the country. We have facilities here that are able to take any classification level. 

So, if they wanted to come in and they really think that they have a named program and they know what that program is and it's somebody's program that's a SAP of some sort, then they can come in into a protected space that is allowed to take that information and discuss that information, and then we can document it there. If they're uncertain, we can actually do it via other secure mechanisms, whether it's a classified phone call, or we can send somebody to them to debrief them in places that -- around the country that we can take them to and bring them in securely. But all of our staff are – are cleared, all of our debriefers are cleared to do all that.

Q: And then just a quick question. Can you kind of unpack what specific maybe changes or how this would differ from previous whistleblowing processes? Right? So, theoretically, somebody would have been able to exercise their whistleblower rights prior to your office. What's changed?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: So, they can, and they can still do this. If they have a whistleblowing complaint, like fraud, waste, and abuse, they can take that to the IG and provide that information to them. The difference is, I can't investigate what they give to the IG because that will be wrapped up in whatever personal, you know, complaints they put into that. Right? So, it's a law enforcement piece at that point. If I can extract that information from any personal complaint that they might make, say, for retribution, I don't need to know any of that part. 

I just need to know about the program so that I can research what they're saying that program is. And since we're the ones that are authorized by law to go do that research, and as was pointed out earlier, address any classification from any organization, we're going to be the ones that you're going to want to go do that with. Right? Because if you go to the IG, for example, you go to DODIG. DODIG will be limited to DOD capabilities. Right? Then if they have an IC thing, you go the ICIG, they'd be limited to what's in the IC portfolio. 

We're able to bring all that information together and actually research it and cross reference it with the archives, across all of the -- National Archives have been great partners in this. In fact, I'd like to highlight for you all that in our research, we have with them uncovered a whole bunch of new documents that they have digitized and put out on their website. And then we've got some more that we're going to be releasing here fairly soon. So, it's a – it’s a very powerful mechanism to allow us to dip into anybody's information.

MS. GOUGH: Okay, Brandy, go ahead.

Q: It's just a quick follow up. With this new process where people are going to be reaching out in the second phase to let you know that they'd like to talk to you, and then your team will reach back out, what is your sort of expectation in terms of timeline for when people should expect to hear back from you guys once they submit there?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Yes, that's a good question. So, we've – we’ve -- initially, this has not been implemented yet, but in the next update to the website, there's a couple of things that are going to happen. One, we've got a new user guide that's going to be released, so that that will help guide folks on how to go through that. We will also be implementing almost like a receipt. You put in a submission, you'll get an automatic message back that says, hey, we got it, we'll look into it. 

What I think is going to be a little bit of possibly a frustration is, especially if I get thousands of inputs, we're not going to be responding to everybody. We're going to be looking at their submissions, and based on what their answers are and what they provide to us, prioritizing those and the ones that we feel have firsthand knowledge of something that we need to research, we will reach out to quickly. So, we'll be collating the inputs on a weekly basis, and then looking through that, prioritizing them and sorting them, and we'll reach out accordingly to the ones that rise above that threshold.

Q: In past years, AARO's funding levels have been, you know, a bit of a concern for some lawmakers on the Hill. From what you've seen for this upcoming fiscal year, what's been floated around for AARO's number? I know that's classified, but do you believe that is adequate to continue expanding your capabilities?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: Yes, so, you know I can't talk about budgets that haven't been submitted yet or haven't been funded yet, because we are in a CR. And we haven’t -- of course, they are still classified, but the short answer is yes, I think it will be sufficient if they do anything that's in our realm of possibility right now.

MS. GOUGH: Okay. On the phone, Ethan? Ethan Holmes? You still have a question?

Q: Indeed. Thank you. Can you hear me all right? Hello? Can you hear me all right?


Q: Excellent. Thank you. This is Ethan Holmes with Sputnik News. Two quick questions for you. First of all, has AARO coordinated at all with foreign governments, including potential adversaries, to try and broaden their data sets on UAP? And if so, has there been any interest or enthusiasm among allies and partners on that? And then secondly, have any lawmakers from Congress reached out to AARO about their idea for a select committee on UAP, and is AARO supportive of such congressional efforts? Thank you.

DR. KIRKPATRICK: So, on the first part, we have coordinated with some allies and partners. We're looking at sharing information as we find it. We are looking at establishing ways to get any reporting that they might want to contribute to the – to the collection of data. That's all in preliminary discussions right now and is ongoing. We certainly have not reached out to any adversaries, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which they're adversaries. And then as far as legislation is concerned, we don't comment on pending legislation, so I don't think I can answer that one.

Q: One quick follow up question. So, you said you think you've all talked to the same people David Grusch did. Are you able to expand on that? What did they share with you all?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: No. For a variety of reasons, so we -- we, obviously, we are obligated to protect all these people's identities for – for all kinds of reasons. What they are reporting, we are documenting. They are reviewing and then revalidating that this is what they want to say. We then research all of that collectively. There is a – there is a, if you think of it as a story arc, there's a number of people that kind of fit into this story arc. 

But then there's these little offshoots and variations on themes. We're investigating each and every one of them. We're cross-referencing those. There are some bits of information that are turning out to be things and events that really happened. A lot of it is still under review, and we're putting all that together into our historical report.

MS. GOUGH: Okay, I'm going to go back to the phones once more time. Because of the mic issue, I didn't hear if that was Howard Altman or Pat Tucker before. So, if it wasn't you, Howard or Pat, do you have a question?

Q: I do. Thanks. It's Howard Altman. Thank you very much. A couple questions. One, does AARO have access to U.S. government orbital imaging and early warning satellite products? And if so, how many have captured UAPs? And the other question is, why does the DOD release footage from pods -- same pods of intercepts with Chinese fighters, but not of unprecedented kinetic shootdowns over North America? Thank you.

DR. KIRKPATRICK: So, the answer to your first question is yes, I have access to all the overhead imagery I need. I have not seen any of them that have collected UAP. We have collected lots of UAP that turned out to be balloons and those look nice. As far as the release of data, data release and footage is prioritized based on the geopolitical environment of the time. Right? 

So, engagements with Chinese fighters, Russian fighters, have a much larger priority in getting it through the review process for declassification than UAPs or other similar engagements. We are, however, working through those processes which all exist, and we've got several of them actually already declassified and ready to update on our website. 

And we'll be doing on the next update to the website, and we're putting them out as quickly as we can get them through that process. I think what is important for everyone to understand is the process for declassifying a video depends on who owns the platform. So, it's not just I have to go to the DOD, big DOD, and ask for declassification. I have to go to the Combatant Command or the service that was operating that at the time. 

What operation was it doing when it engaged it? How do I then make sure that what we are declassifying doesn't give away, not just sources and methods, but also operational details? Why was this platform where it was, what was it looking at? These are the kinds of questions that have to be answered, but it has to be answered by the operational commander, which is the Combatant Command in which those things occurred. And because they all are different, the process and the timeline for getting each of these events declassified varies. And it will continue to vary until we can figure out a better way to do business.

MS. GOUGH: Any more questions from the room? Any more questions from the phone? Dr. Kirkpatrick, do you have any closing remarks?

DR. KIRKPATRICK: I think the one thing I'd like to leave you all with is the website is a living thing. It's going to evolve as we do more and more here. We've got a package of a lot of new material that we've got ready for release. We've uncovered some things that we are having declassified. Not just operational videos, but historical documents that we've had declassified that we're about to release in the coming days and weeks. 

We've got some educational material that will help inform the public. So, you should expect to see things evolve on this platform every one to two months, I would say, just by way of how long it takes to get things through our processes.

MS. GOUGH: All right, thank you very much.