All the pieces of a formal congressional hearing were in place. A row of lawmakers with furrowed brows were seated in wide, leather chairs behind an elevated table with microphones. Water pitchers and engraved nameplates were in front of them. A second, smaller table was set up below for witnesses to deliver their expert testimonies. Chairs lined the back for spectators and reporters.
The topic of Tuesday's discussion: government suppression of alien visitors from outer space.
Despite the setup, this was not an actual hearing. It was day two of a week-long event called the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure that will be part of a documentary called "Truth Embargo." Held at the National Press Club in Washington, the hearing will include testimony from some 40 panelists.
To conduct the proceedings, six former members of Congress are being paid $20,000 each to act like they're in Congress again, and ask questions about the government's alleged role in shielding the existence of alien visits to Earth. (Their pay comes to about $666 an hour. But that's a different conspiracy theory all together.)
The former lawmakers—retired Republican Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland and Merrill Cook of Utah; former Democratic Reps. Darlene Hooley of Oregon, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan and Lynn Woolsey of California; and former Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel—are tackling a variety of topics. They range from what "really" happened in Roswell, N.M., in 1947 and why Air Force service members aren't being treated by the Veterans Affairs hospital for injuries allegedly sustained while working with UFOs to why the U.S. government won't release more information about supposed visitors from other planets.
The purpose of the hearing, said organizer Stephen Bassett, is less to prove the existence of extraterrestrials than to pressure the federal government to end its silence about the thousands of UFOs allegedly spotted over the years.
"It's no longer about lights in the sky, it's about lies on the ground," Bassett said.
The last official congressional hearing on alien lifeforms was in 1968, but the White House denied just two years ago that there was any coverup.
"The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race," said Phil Larson, a spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye."
But these members of Congress aren't entirely convinced that the statement was truthful.
Like a bunch of nostalgic, former high-school football players tossing around the pigskin at a 20-year reunion, they peppered witnesses as though they were back in the game on Capitol Hill.
When Yahoo arrived at the "hearing" Tuesday morning—Congress is on recess this week, so why not?—retired Air Force Tech Sgts. John Burroughs and James Penniston were at the witness table where they described the night in 1980 they believe they had stumbled on a UFO in the Rendlesham Forest on their base in England. Penniston said he touched it, and that he suffers from injuries to this day that he believes stemmed from that moment.
"It's probably the worst decision I made, touching that," Penniston said.
The former congressional members listened for hours as the two described the night the alleged craft was found, how the government was covering it up, and Penniston's difficulties finding affordable medical care. He said that Veterans Affairs had declined to treat his injuries.
"I want to apologize from the United States government," Cook told him, as the others offered their own condolences when they heard his story.
After the morning session the group broke for lunch, and I met a man wearing a copper forehead headband with a crystal piece atop a silver coin. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was born more than 1,800 years ago beneath the surface of the Earth in a subterranean city where several million people live near Mount Shasta in California.
All humans, he said, are aliens from other constellations.
"You're from Pleiades," the man, who called himself Zaraya, told me.
"How do you know that? Do I look like someone from Pleiades?" I asked.
"No, I just know your essence," he said.
I also caught up with some of the retired lawmakers, who said they were divided on whether they believed in the existence of aliens. Gravel, an outspoken 9/11 truther who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination five years ago, is an enthusiastic believer.
"There's no question in my mind when you hear this kind of testimony," Gravel said. "This is reasonable testimony. It's a little bit like 9/11. When you begin to look at this and listen very carefully, you look at this and say, 'Hey, there's something wrong. There's something fundamentally wrong. And why won't the government, why won't our society respond to that?'"
Gravel added, however, that Earthlings probably could not handle a permanent visit from aliens.
"We're not ready to receive extraterrestrials. We're not mature enough," he said. "The way we approach it is, 'Shoot 'em down.' This is a little bit like Columbus and Cook when they made their discoveries. They killed a few natives and ... made slaves out of them. We don't have a good record of handling first discoverers."
Bartlett, on the other hand, said he was open to the idea that aliens could be among us, but wasn't completely sold. He just wants to know the truth.
"Is it some secret thing that we're doing, that Russia's doing? Is it extraterrestrial? I have an open mind. I came here with an open mind, I still have an open mind," he said. "Clearly it's not something that's common knowledge. My problem is that whatever is out there, the people have a right to know about it. I think it's inconceivable that the truth about this can have any effect on national security."
"I've had a curiosity about it for 50 years," Bartlett added. "I knew there were a number of sightings that could not be explained away."
If they only knew that, the whole time, they were talking to a Pleiadian.