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The most unpredictable moment in American politics in a while could take place next month. It has to do with UFOs

The Pentagon in Arlington, Va.
The Pentagon in Arlington, Va.Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

Nearly two decades ago, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that when analyzing a situation there are “known knowns,” as in the things we know, “known unknowns” as in things we know we don’t know, and then there are the “unknown unknowns” meaning there are things we don’t even know that we don’t know.

Rumsfeld was talking about the Iraq War then, but in the years since the concept has been an increasingly useful framework for understanding American politics. Nearly every news development has a pattern involving a lot of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” ― and of course thanks to the tribal nature of US politics, partisans usually retreat to their corners, no matter the issue.

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For example, we know generally what the two political parties will disagree about in terms of policy, and how different personalities might clash. It is usually just the topic or person that changes. There are also the “known unknowns,” news events that are mostly expected except for their specifics — for instance, the Mr. Potato Head incident inflaming the culture wars. Again, we often know what will happen next.

But it is rare when we have “unknown unknowns,” where we don’t know what we don’t know and, further, we have no idea how anyone will react. Yet, next month we might have just that moment.

The Pentagon faces a June deadline to issue an unclassified report on unidentified flying objects, which is expected to detail what the government knows about such incidents.

Among the many “unknown unknowns?” We have no idea what will be in this report, and we have no idea how the American public or American politicians will react.

The issue of wanting more information about UFOs hardly fits neatly down any sort of ideological, generational, or geographical lines. Former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid for years was calling for more information on the topic. Today among those leading the charge for more information is Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida.

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Language ordering the report was tucked into a bipartisan $2.3 billion COVID relief bill that Donald Trump signed into law in December. Among that law’s many provisions was one that said that the Pentagon had to issue a report to Congress in 180 days on “unidentified aerial phenomena (also known as ‘anomalous aerial vehicles’), including observed airborne objects that have not been identified.”

After years of UFO discussion being dismissed as a fantasy pushed by conspiracy theorists, the idea lately has been taken more seriously, especially as cameras, like on Naval vessels and planes, have recorded objects in American airspace doing things that appear to defy the laws of physics.

Indeed, the Pentagon has recently admitted that it has begun tracking and investigating these events. Last year, it released three videos that show “unexplained aerial phenomena” flying rapidly, with two of the videos containing audio of US service members reacting in amazement at what they are seeing.

The national security concerns are obvious: These objects could be from a foreign military or intelligence agency (the US government insists they are not American) or, sure, it is possible these objects are coming from somewhere other than Earth. What is less obvious is what exactly the US government knows about the objects captured on camera or seen by multiple people. Further, we don’t know what the leading theory is among those in government as to what these objects are or if any of these incidents are related.

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What is interesting, though, is how this all will play out politically. After all, all news events lately are seen through a partisan lens. Will politicians suggest this is wasteful government spending? Will they say it is a diversion from real issues we know are a problem like climate change? Or will it, oddly, get Republicans and Democrats together in a room to agree to work on something together that maybe gets them to solve other issues?

In the end, the report probably won’t say a whole lot. There is, after all, no incentive for the Pentagon to really disclose all that they know. Looking back on it in the future, the report on UFOs might go down as just another crazy thing that happened this summer — like the return of cicadas. Then again, these are Unidentified Flying Objects after all, and while there are a lot of known unknowns, there are surely even more unknown unknowns.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.