(CNN) Key lawmakers warned at a House hearing on Tuesday that unidentified aerial phenomena -- popularly known as UFOs -- must be investigated and taken seriously as a potential threat to national security.
For many lawmakers and intelligence and military personnel working on unexplained aerial phenomena, the bigger concern with the episodes is not that alien life is visiting Earth, but rather that a foreign adversary like Russia or China might be fielding some kind of next-generation technology in American airspace that the United States doesn't know about.
Democratic Rep. André Carson of Indiana, the chairman of the panel holding the hearing, warned in his opening remarks, "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena are a potential national security threat. And they need to be treated that way."
He went on to say, "For too long, the stigma associated with UAPs has gotten in the way of good intelligence analysis. Pilots avoided reporting, or were laughed at when they did. DOD officials relegated the issue to the back room, or swept it under the rug entirely, fearful of a skeptical national security community."
"Today, we know better. UAPs are unexplained, it's true. But they are real. They need to be investigated. And any threats they pose need to be mitigated," he said.
The hearing featured testimony from top government officials and the display of images and video of unidentified aerial phenomena. The public portion of the event lasted fewer than 90 minutes. Following the conclusion of the public hearing, the panel will hold a closed-door, classified briefing Tuesday afternoon.
During his testimony, Ronald Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, argued there is a need to balance transparency with the protection of sensitive intelligence information, saying there is an "obligation to protect sensitive sources and methods."
"Our goal is to strike that delicate balance, one that enables us to maintain the public's trust while preserving those capabilities that are vital to the support of our service personnel," he said.
Scott Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence, also appeared before the panel to answer questions from lawmakers.
During his testimony, Bray showed video and images to demonstrate what observations of UAPs may look like -- and the effort it takes to try to identify what they might be.
One video featured images of flashing triangle shapes as seen through night-vision goggles. "In this video, US navy personnel recorded what appears to be triangles -- some flashing -- recorded several years ago off the coast of the United States," he said.
He went on to show an image of what appeared to be another triangle-shaped object that he said came from "several years later and off a different coast."
"This time other US navy assets also observed unmanned aerial systems nearby and were now reasonably confident that these triangles correlate to unmanned aerial systems in the area," he said.
"I don't mean to suggest that everything that we observe is identifiable," he said, "but this is a great example of how it takes considerable effort to understand what we're seeing in the examples that we are able to collect."
The first video Bray displayed featured only a very short clip of what appeared to be a blue sky with some white markings visible in the distance. He said that showed "an observation in real time" and suggested that it demonstrated how there is frequently a limited amount of data to work off of.
Bray echoed the concern that government officials must balance public disclosure with the need to safeguard certain information.
"Given the nature of our business, national defense, we've had to sometimes be less forthcoming with information in open forums than many would hope," he said. "If UAPs do indeed represent a potential threat to our security, then the capabilities, systems, processes and sources we use to observe, record, study and analyze these phenomena need to be classified at appropriate levels."
"We do not want potential adversaries to know exactly what we're able to see or understand or how we come to the conclusions we make," he said.
There was bipartisan consensus that UFOs should be treated with seriousness and not simply dismissed as something in the realm of science fiction.
The panel's top ranking Republican, Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas, said in his opening remarks, "aside from all the hype and speculation, there are important underlying issues posed by UAPs."
"The intelligence community has a serious duty to our taxpayers to prevent potential adversaries such as China and Russia from surprising us with unforeseen new technologies," he said. "This committee has an obligation to understand what you are doing to determine whether any UAPs are new technologies or not -- and if they are, where are they coming from?"
The hearing was convened by the House Intelligence Committee's Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation subcommittee.
It follows the release last year by the US intelligence community of a long-awaited report on mysterious flying objects that have been seen moving through restricted military airspace over the last several decades.
The report examined 144 reports of what the government terms "unidentified aerial phenomenon" -- only one of which investigators were able to explain by the end of the study. Investigators found no evidence that the sightings represented either extraterrestrial life or a major technological advancement by a foreign adversary like Russia or China, but acknowledge that is a possible explanation.
In his testimony before the panel, Moultrie explained that UAP can refer to "airborne objects that when encountered cannot be immediately identified."
In November 2021, the Department of Defense announced the creation of the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group.
The department said in a release at the time that the purpose of the new program would be to sync up efforts across the US government to "detect, identify and attribute objects of interest" in restricted airspace "to assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security."
Lawmakers requested an update on the program during the hearing. "Today we will bring that organization out of the shadows," Carson said.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Tuesday.