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05/03/2013 03:56 PMConspiracy Theories in Kyrgyzstan: Accounts Tie Boston Bombers' Family to Mafia
By Marcus Bensmann and Matthias Schepp in Bishkek/Moscow
As law-enforcement officials search for clues about the early life of the Boston Marathon bombers, a number of conspiracy theories are coming to light. Many are based on alleged ties between the men's father and a local mafia boss in Kyrgyzstan.
In the eyes of Nataliya Kurotshkina, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not a likely candidate to carry out attacks using explosives. "The boy winced at even a small firecracker," recounts the 49-year-old, who was Tamerlan's first-grade teacher in School No. 2 in Tokmok, a typical Soviet-era city in northern Kyrgyzstan near the border with Kazakhstan. The teacher with dyed-blond hair runs past a portrait of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin on the second floor of the school. She produces a class picture from May 1995 showing Tamerlan, then a 9-year-old second grader, standing in the back row. He is wearing a blue suit and a white shirt while he gazes at the camera with curious eyes.
A class register listing the grades of all the students indicates that Tamerlan was ambitious and smart. He had top grades in almost all subjects, and was second-best only in math, geography and English. Kurotshkina describes her former student as "extraordinarily polite and well-raised."
However, even then there was another parallel world in which Tamerlan had been forced to grow up. In this world, violence was part of everyday life. "Tamerlan was a refugee child from Chechnya," the teacher recounts. "That's probably also why he was very withdrawn at first."
Driven Back and Forth by War
US investigators have identified Tamerlan and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, as the presumed perpetrators of the double bombing attack during the Boston Marathon on April 15. The homemade pressure cooker bombs they allegedly built killed three and injured more than 260, and they are also accused of subsequently killing a campus police officer. The brothers had lived in the United States for years. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout while trying to flee police, while Dzhokhar was cornered and captured on April 19 after being severely wounded.
In 1944, the brothers' grandfather was one of some 90,000 Chechens who Stalin had deported to Kyrgyzstan, then part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Tsarnaevs sold their small house in Tokmok before returning to Chechnya.
Once they arrived, the Tsarnaev family reportedly owned some land in the early 1990s in the village of Chiri-Yurt, which lies about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the capital, Grozny. By all indications, the family was hoping to build a new life in Chechnya. Instead, they entered a region that was sliding into a war between Russian soldiers and independence fighters. "Tamerlan's father told me that he had no desire to fight and die in Chechnya," says Abil Seimkasiyev, Tamerlan's former boxing instructor.
The war fought between Russia and Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 was particularly savage, with kidnappings, bombings and decapitations. The family fled and returned to Tokmok.
Anzor Tsarnaev, Tamerlan's father, then owned a red Skoda that he would drive around the area. By all accounts, he made a living there as an auto mechanic. Reports from a number of international media sources, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have frequently indicated that Anzor was a lawyer. But, in reality, he only had an identification card listing him as a "aide to the prosecutor's office," a document that was easily purchased on the black market in the 1990s. In any case, the father of the two suspected terrorists never studied law, says the Kyrgyz National University, which was the only institution training lawyers in the country at the time. There is also nothing to be found about Anzor Tsarnaev in the Central Asian country's archives, leading one senior official in the Interior Ministry to posit that the archives must have been "sanitized."
The Al Capone of Kyrgyzstan
These and other clues have given rise to a number of conspiracy theories in Kyrgyzstan. They revolve around the friendship that Tamerlan's father had with Aziz Batukayev, a crime boss known as the "Al Capone of Kyrgyzstan" who has been accused of being behind murders, gang wars, drug trafficking and prostitution. He also numbers among the main figures in criminal organizations operating in an area of the former Soviet Union that stretches across several borders.
Batukayev and Anzor Tsarnaev were close childhood friends. Both ethnic Chechens, they were born in the same year, attended the same school (No.
, shared a boxing coach and often played soccer together on dusty streets. They also grew up in the same neighbourhood, with less than 200 meters (650 feet) separating their parents' homes. "They herded goats and cows together," says the brother of the mafia kingpin. "But Batukayev already looked lost on any day that he didn't get in a fight, while Anzor Tsarnaev also liked to read books a lot."
On April 9, six days before the attacks in Boston, Batukayev was surprisingly released from prison after serving several years because he was supposedly terminally ill with leukaemia. He then disappeared into Chechnya in a rented SUV. The blood sample used to prove Batukayev's illness reportedly came from another patient. Indeed, many in Kyrgyzstan believe that the short period of time between the release of the mafia boss and the Boston attacks are more than coincidental, though there is no concrete evidence to back these assertions.
Last week, individuals claiming to work for American law-enforcement agencies were trying to gather details about the Tsarnaev family's earlier life. They knocked on the doors of former neighbors, asked questions and gave candy to children. "But a lot of the kids don't try them because they might be poisoned," says the sister-in-law of the mafia boss.
Here, just as everywhere in the countries once belonging to the Soviet Union, residents are deeply ambivalent about the United States, which is simultaneously an object of hate and a land of promise. The Tsarnaevs came to the US in 2002. In the wake of the terror attacks in Boston, many of their former neighbors in Tokmok don't want to be associated with them anymore. "After the family returned from Chechnya, I only ran into Tamerlan's father a few times in the city," Batukayev's brother guardedly says. But another neighbor says that Tamerlan's father had tea with the Batukayevs during his last visit to the city in the summer of 2012.
May 3, 2013Path From ‘Social Butterfly’ to Boston Suspect’s Widow
By MICHAEL COOPER, SERGE F. KOVALESKI, RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and JOHN ELIGON
When Katherine Russell arrived as a freshman at Suffolk University just over five years ago, she seemed to bond so well with her new roommates in their lively dorm opposite Boston Common that one classmate likened them to sitcom characters. “They reminded me of the show ‘Sex and the City,’ ” he recalled. “Two of them were free-spirited, one was materialistic and Katherine was the social butterfly.”
Then Ms. Russell began dating Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a boxer from Cambridge, Mass., known for his flashy clothes, and her life began to change. As he became a steadily more religious Muslim, Ms. Russell converted to Islam. She started to cover her head with a hijab in public, startling some classmates. She dropped out of college in 2010, the year they got married and had a daughter.
She moved into his family’s run-down apartment in Cambridge, trading her old life of New England comfort and privilege — her father and grandfather both went to Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale — for the struggles of an immigrant family, with money so tight that they were on public assistance at times.
Now Ms. Russell, 24, is known around the world as the widow of the man suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon with his brother before he was killed April 19 after a shootout with the police. And she has attracted the interest of the F.B.I., which is trying to determine whether she knew about the bombings or helped the two brothers in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, before or after the attacks.
The surviving bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has told investigators that he and his brother built their bombs in the Cambridge apartment where Ms. Russell lived with Tamerlan, 26, and their daughter, Zahira, a toddler, according to two law enforcement officials. Other officials raised the possibility that the bombs may have been assembled elsewhere.
Investigators are also interested in a text message Ms. Russell sent to her husband after the F.B.I. released photographs of him and his brother a few days after the bombings, two other law enforcement officials said. (This week, the F.B.I. took samples of Ms. Russell’s DNA, and determined that her fingerprints and DNA did not match samples found on some bomb fragments, the officials said.)
Ms. Russell’s lawyers issued a statement saying that the marathon bombings had “caused profound distress and sorrow to Katie and her family” and adding that “the reports of involvement by her husband and brother-in-law came as an absolute shock to them all.”
The recent turn of events has stunned Ms. Russell’s friends, relatives, former classmates and neighbors. In North Kingstown, R.I., where she grew up, a newspaper, The Standard-Times, summed up local sentiment in a front-page headline. “NK native widow of Boston bombing suspect,” it read. “Former high school classmate calls situation ‘odd.’ ”
Ms. Russell grew up in a comfortable home on a leafy street there, the daughter of a doctor. Stephen Constantine, 23, who, like Ms. Russell, played alto saxophone in a middle school band, recalled her as popular and a good musician. “She could play more complex music than I could and learn it faster, and her sound was warmer and fuller bodied,” he said. In high school, she won an award for her drawing of a cat menacing a mouse. “It was a large colored-pencil drawing of a black cat with its paw raised and a gray mouse scooching out of the way,” her art teacher, Amos Trout Paine, recalled. She quoted a David Bowie song, “Quicksand,” in her high school yearbook.
Shortly after graduating, she had a brush with the law: she was arrested and charged with shoplifting five items worth $67 from an Old Navy at the Warwick Mall, according to a police report. She performed community service and paid money toward a general restitution fund that benefits crime victims, and the case was dismissed. The lawyer who represented her, J. Patrick O’Neill, who serves in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, said he could not recall details of the case or much about Ms. Russell.
In 2007, she moved to Boston to major in communications at Suffolk. It was there that friends introduced her to Mr. Tsarnaev, who had gone to a nearby community college. They dated on and off, people who knew them said, and eventually Ms. Russell converted to Islam.
She seemed to embrace her new religion willingly and enthusiastically, said someone who occasionally attended Russell family gatherings, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to betray the family’s confidence. “She was infatuated with this guy, and she adopted that religion,” the person said, recalling a dinner in Boston when she announced that she had decided to start wearing a head scarf as part of her faith. “It was a big surprise.”
Mr. Tsarnaev had a rough side: a domestic violence complaint was lodged against him in 2009 by another girlfriend, officials said. His father, Anzor Tsarnaev, said last month that he had “hit her lightly.”
But things seemed promising for the young couple in 2010, said Julian Pollard, 31, a boxer who recounted a conversation with Mr. Tsarnaev that year at a Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell, Mass. “He said the training was going great, that he was happy with his faith and that he had just met a girl and he was very happy about that,” he said. “He told me that he was engaged to her, or was about to propose.”
They married on June 21, 2010, in a 15-minute ceremony in an office on the third floor of the Masjid Al Quran, on a quiet residential street in Dorchester. Imam Taalib Mahdee said that he had not met the couple before the ceremony, and that she was the one who had called and asked to be married there. “They were a happy couple,” he said. Their marriage certificate listed his occupation as driver, hers as student.
But Ms. Russell did not go back to college that fall. Mr. Tsarnaev, who had given up boxing after being barred from national Golden Gloves tournaments because he was not a United States citizen, was growing increasingly religious, neighbors said. Money was scarce: the family’s income was supplemented by public assistance and food stamps from September 2011 to November 2012, state officials said. And last year, Mr. Tsarnaev left his wife and daughter behind in Cambridge for six months while he traveled to Dagestan to see his father, and to visit Chechnya.
Her mother-in-law, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, said in an interview that Mr. Tsarnaev had wanted Ms. Russell and their child to move to Dagestan with him, and that she had been thinking of it. “She herself agreed; she said she wanted to study a different culture, language,” Ms. Tsarnaeva said.
At times Ms. Russell supported the family by working as a home health aide — “working long hours, caring for people in their homes who are unable to care for themselves,” her lawyers said in the statement.
One neighbor said that Ms. Russell often seemed shy and quiet in the presence of her husband, but warmer and friendlier when he was not around. Another neighbor recalled hearing yells coming from the apartment.
A relative said that Ms. Russell attended family gatherings less frequently, and withdrew a little from her old social life. “I think she believes in Islam,” said the relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and who said that she had seemed happy with her husband. “I don’t think she was coerced. I think she’s faithful to the religion.”
On April 19, as the news spread that the Tsarnaev brothers were believed to have committed the marathon bombings and had gone on a nightlong crime spree that involved the fatal shooting of a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a carjacking and a gunfight with the police in which Tamerlan was killed, a neighbor knocked at the door of their third-floor apartment in Cambridge, where Ms. Russell had apparently just heard the news from a relative. “She was in utter shock,” the neighbor said. “Utter shock.”
Then law enforcement officers arrived and ordered them all out. Their downstairs neighbor Albrect Ammon, 18, said that Ms. Russell, who was dressed all in black, tried to borrow a cellphone from another woman, but an officer snatched it away, saying she was the suspect’s wife.
Reporting was contributed by William K. Rashbaum and Julia Preston from New York, Deborah Sontag from Boston and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Research was contributed by Sheelagh McNeill, Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Jack Styczynski.
May 3, 2013Jobs Data Ease Fears of Economic Slowdown in U.S.
By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ
Washington may be hitting the brakes, but the private sector is still rolling ahead, helping create nearly 200,000 jobs a month, on average, since the beginning of the year and forcing the overall unemployment rate in April down to its lowest level since the end of 2008.
This push-and-pull dynamic was evident in data released Friday by the Labor Department, as private employers added 176,000 people to their payrolls even as the public sector shed an additional 11,000 workers.
The latest figures painted a somewhat brighter picture of the overall economy than had been expected as the government sharply revised upward its estimate for job creation in the previous two months. Those revisions concluded that the economy generated a robust 332,000 jobs in February, not the 268,000 originally reported, and 138,000 in March, up from 88,000.
The news sent the stock market soaring to new highs, with major stock market indexes closing up 1 percent for the day.
Still, at 7.5 percent, a slight drop from last month’s 7.6 percent, the jobless rate remains far higher than it typically would be this far into a recovery. It is also a full percentage point above the level the Federal Reserve has said it wants to see before it will consider raising interest rates from their current levels near zero.
As a result, most experts expect the economy to continue to be buffeted by countervailing factors in the months ahead, with business activity and the Fed providing a healthy measure of support for growth even as fiscal austerity in Washington makes a substantial drop in the unemployment rate unlikely.
“The drag from the government sector is quite substantial,” said Gregory Daco, senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight. “Given the fiscal headwinds, the private sector is doing O.K.”
Despite repeated fears of a double-dip recession, an economy that has endured a spring swoon for three consecutive years and other potential perils, the country’s rate of job creation has been remarkably steady, if subdued. Over the last three years, the economy has added an average of 162,000 jobs a month, within a hairbreadth of April’s pace, at least as initially estimated, of 165,000 new jobs.
But experts have been warning that the economy and job creation are likely to slow in the second quarter, largely as a result of fiscal tightening in Washington. Payroll taxes increased in January, and the effect of across-the-board spending cuts mandated by Congress is expected to be felt more broadly in the months ahead.
While the private sector has been on the upswing since last summer, cutbacks in government employment continue to prevent a stronger acceleration in the economy, economists said.
“If it weren’t for the government, the economy would be stronger,” said Mr. Daco, citing the spending cuts hitting now, as well as the higher Social Security deductions for all workers and increased income taxes for top earners that began in January.
On the other hand, he said, “If the Fed hadn’t loosened monetary policy, we’d be seeing weaker growth. Both sides are generating opposing forces.”
Even though job growth now looks better, continued strains in the economy and data this week showing inflation over the last 12 months running at a low 1 percent rate suggest that the Fed is not likely to slow its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases intended to stimulate the economy for at least the next few months. On Wednesday, the Fed said it was “prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases,” depending on the outlook for the labor market and inflation.
The White House was quick to highlight Friday’s report, even as it warned of the potential dangers from the fiscal squeeze.
“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” Alan Krueger, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement. Mr. Krueger urged Congress to replace automatic budget cuts with a more balanced approach. “Now is not the time for Washington to impose self-inflicted wounds on the economy,” he said.
Republicans cautioned against drawing too positive a conclusion from April’s data. “President Obama’s desperate hype-and-blame campaign will try to spin today’s anemic jobs report six ways to Sunday,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “But the facts remain clear: too many Americans have been unemployed for far too long. For millions, the economy is simply not working.”
The jobs report provided plenty of fodder for differing views. On the positive side, the size of the labor force increased, while the total number of unemployed Americans dropped by 83,000 to 11,659,000. What’s more, the ranks of the long-term unemployed, defined as workers who have been out of a job for 27 weeks or more, declined especially sharply, falling by 258,000 to 4.4 million. That is still far above what is typical at this stage of a recovery, but it is a marked improvement from past months. The long-term unemployed have been a particular cause of concern for economists in this recovery, because skills degrade the longer a person is out of the work force, and employers are reluctant to hire someone who has not held a job in a while.
On the downside, the least-educated workers continue to bear the brunt of elevated joblessness, with the unemployment rate for workers who failed to graduate from high school rising to 11.6 percent from 11.1 percent in March. At the other end of the education spectrum, unemployment among people with a college degree or more remained at a low level, rising by 0.1 of a percentage point to 3.9 percent.
Employment in the construction sector, which increased at a healthy pace in the first three months of 2013, actually dipped by 6,000 in April. The recovering housing market has been one of the bright spots in the economic landscape, and economists will be closely watching to see if higher home prices and increased construction translate into additional jobs. The manufacturing sector, which is closely watched as a gauge of broader economic strength, was unchanged in April.
Analysts noted that the number of hours worked fell in April, another sign that the economy is having trouble generating enough additional income and jobs to help lift spending. The typical workweek fell to 34.4 hours from 34.6 in March. Average hourly earnings inched up 4 cents to $23.87.
The economy has been showing other signs of weakness of late. Several indicators beginning in March have pointed to much slower growth, with everything from retail sales to manufacturing looking soft recently.
“In one line: Not bad, especially in the light of beaten-down expectations,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist with Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors, after Friday’s report. “This could have been much worse.”
May 3, 2013As Senators Head for Exit, Few Step Up to Run for Seats
By JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — The retirement of Tom Harkin, a Democrat who has represented Iowa in the Senate for nearly 30 years, should be the kind of rare opportunity that sends the best and brightest of his state’s political class scrambling to get on the ballot.
But so far the only viable candidate to raise his hand is Representative Bruce Braley, also a Democrat. On the Republican side, one potential candidate after the other has taken a pass — the popular governor, his lieutenant governor, two congressmen and an ambitious state senator who said that he is not willing to have his life turned upside down.
The dearth of candidates for an open Senate seat reflects what former and current senators and those who once aspired to the office say is a sad truth: rarely has the thought of serving in the Senate seemed so unappealing.
Once considered an apex of national politics second only to the presidency, the “greatest deliberative body in the world” is so riven by partisanship and gummed up by its own arcane rules that potential candidates from Georgia to Kentucky, Iowa to Montana are loudly saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Add to that the cost of getting there — which can include fighting off special interests and “super PACs” from your own party, exhausting criticism from the increasingly partisan news media, and prohibitive campaign expenses — and a Senate seat no longer seems so grand.
Such weariness is evident not just in the people who are forgoing a Senate bid but also in the exodus of senators not seeking re-election. So far, 8 of the 33 whose terms expire in 2014 have decided not to run again. They include some who probably could have sailed back into office, like Mr. Harkin and his fellow Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee.
“In the old days, you’d have to carry the Senate Finance chair out on a stretcher,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran political strategist who has advised Republican politicians for four decades, including one in Iowa, State Senator Brad Zaun, who just decided not to run against Mr. Harkin. “There’s just not quite the enthusiasm I’ve seen in other years.”
Senate retirements are at the highest levels on record. Since the 2010 elections, a total of 30 senators have bowed out. And more could come yet.
A similar wave of 29 retirements occurred in the mid-1990s, but there is nothing else on record before that quite as large, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress, which has data going back to 1930. Ordinarily, only a handful leave with each election cycle.
At this point in 2011, seemingly vulnerable incumbents like Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, and Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, had Republican challengers. In states where seats opened up like Nevada and Virginia, the Democratic and Republican sides of the tickets both quickly filled up.
This year there are numerous states with open seats where only one party has a candidate, and many states without a challenger where there is an incumbent the other party would very much like to pick off.
No Democrat has emerged in Kentucky to challenge Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, despite repeated avowals from Democrats to defeat him. Democrats also have no strong candidate yet in West Virginia, where John D. Rockefeller IV is retiring.
The recruiting troubles for Republicans are worse, in part because gains in the Senate are theirs to lose.
Twenty Democratic-held seats are up in 2014, compared with 13 held by Republicans. And many of those Democratic seats are in states where President Obama lost in 2012 — including North Carolina, Montana, Arkansas and Alaska.
So far, Republicans have no viable declared candidates in any of those red states yet, though conservatives are urging several strong possible contenders to run, like Representative Tom Cotton in Arkansas. Late Friday, Alaska’s governor, Sean Parnell, said he would not run, as did Representative Steve King of Iowa.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican first elected in 2010 who is helping his party recruit this year, said his first piece of advice to prospective candidates was to spend $50,000 on an exhaustive opposition research paper on themselves so they can get a sense of what mud might be slung their way. “It can be a pretty miserable process,” he said. “And I’ve got to try and get people over that hurdle.”
The reasons for choosing not to run involve many personal factors. They vary from politician to politician, but all share a common thread: a belief that the Senate is too difficult a place to accomplish much of anything these days.
“I don’t know that you’d find any legislative body in America — or the world — that’s as dysfunctional,” said Jay Dardenne, the Republican lieutenant governor of Louisiana, who decided not to run next year against Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat considered among the most vulnerable.
Like many politicians with aspirations of higher office, Mr. Dardenne says he will instead run for governor, where he said he has a much better platform from which to affect policy in Louisiana. Representative Tom Latham, who declined to run despite encouragement from Iowa Republicans, said the rush to the Senate exits was a warning sign. “It becomes quite clear that there’s a lot of frustration,” he said. “Some really good people are willing to go home.”
Representative Nick J. Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who was considering a run to replace Mr. Rockefeller, said he believed he could actually be more effective in the House of Representatives — a body hardly known for its functionality. But at least it’s a dysfunction he knows. Today’s ultrapartisan Senate is radically different from the one he started working in as an elevator operator as a young man. “I never envisioned it getting to where it is,” he said.
Another factor keeping people away is the new array of options in the super PAC era — many of them quite lucrative — available to politicians outside of government.
Norm Coleman, the former Republican senator from Minnesota who lost to Al Franken in 2008 and declined to run again, said he had found fulfilling work in his advocacy group American Action Network, which is playing a major role in increasing conservative support for immigration law overhauls.
Now, he said, “I can have a tremendous impact, in many ways a broader reach.”
“On the other hand,” he went on, “when you’re in the United States Senate I don’t think there was a person in the world who wouldn’t return your call. People still return my calls now. But maybe not as quickly.”
May 3, 2013Visitors From Outer Space, Real or Not, Are Focus of Discussion in Washington
By ANDREW SIDDONS
WASHINGTON — While President Obama was promoting an immigration overhaul in Mexico, six former members of Congress gathered two blocks from the White House to consider what they see as the enforced government secrecy surrounding another kind of visitor: the kind who come from a lot farther away.
Every day this week, the former legislators presided over panels made up of academics and — former, of course — government and military officials, who were there to discuss their research or their own eyewitness accounts of unidentified flying objects and the extraterrestrials who presumably would have occupied them.
“Something is monitoring the planet, and they are monitoring it very cautiously, because we are a very warlike planet,” said Mike Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska who ran in both the Democratic and Libertarian presidential primaries in 2008.
Mr. Gravel and his fellow panelists were assembled by the Paradigm Research Group, which says it is committed to ending the government’s “truth embargo” on the existence of extraterrestrial life. The lawmakers were there in hopes that their presence and political credibility would be enough to persuade Congress to take the issue seriously.
“I’ve been exploring how we might get this issue out of the shadows of the lunatic fringe,” said Roscoe G. Bartlett, a former Republican representative from Maryland. Before his defeat last year, Mr. Bartlett was known for sounding the alarm on the threat posed to the nation’s energy infrastructure by electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, the shock wave from a nuclear weapon detonated beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
Called the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure, the event might have been mistaken as advocacy for government transparency, and some of the panelists had impressive résumés.
“I’ve come to understand and appreciate the importance of open, transparent government and the power of truth,” said Paul T. Hellyer, who served as Canadian minister of defense during the 1960s.
“We are not alone in the cosmos,” he added.
One reason the ex-members of Congress agreed to sit on the dais and ask questions may have been curiosity.
“Our country has trivialized it, has made it a joke, has made it green people with horns sticking out,” said Carolyn Kilpatrick, a Democratic representative from Michigan who lost her seat in 2010. “Now I find that it’s much more than that. And it’s not a joke. And there is scientific data that there may be something there.”
Another reason might have been the $20,000 the organizers said they paid each panelist. But they are still maintaining a healthy skepticism.
“Just because the government might have had a document about how to handle extraterrestrials doesn’t mean there were any,” said Merrill Cook, a Republican from Utah who was twice elected to the House.
The panels this week have been low-hanging fruit for the news media while President Obama is out of town and Congress is out of session, and not all of the people who study U.F.O.’s think the meetings will help them improve their stature in Washington.
“There really is something to this issue, and there is a serious side to it, but that’s not what’s being presented as this event,” said Leslie Kean, a journalist and author of “U.F.O.’s: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record,” a collection of firsthand accounts by people who believe they saw them.
The conclusion that U.F.O.’s are proof of extraterrestrial life is misguided, she said, and the people who broadcast that belief hindered support for real scientific research.
Despite the ridicule that usually accompanies the discussion of U.F.O.’s, they have been quietly talked about in corridors of power here. Some panelists at the event this week counted among true believers John D. Podesta, a chief of staff in President Bill Clinton’s White House, because of his role in Executive Order 12958, which requires the declassification of most government documents over 25 years old.
But the possible existence of extraterrestrial life is not exactly why he believes in government transparency, Mr. Podesta said.
“At the end of the day, there are going to be people who say that even if you did that, there must be other files that exist that you’re not disclosing,” he said in an interview.
But objects in the sky have piqued his interest. In June 2011, the Center for American Progress hosted government officials, from the Pentagon, NASA and the Department of Transportation, as well as Congressional staff and former officials from intelligence organizations, for a briefing by Ms. Kean and experts from academia and foreign militaries.
The private briefing was organized to discuss a proposal that the government establish a small office of two staff members who would selectively investigate mysterious skyward sightings and seek to understand them by applying scientific method. The proposal did not refer to U.F.O.’s, but rather, U.A.P.’s, unidentified aerial phenomena, as if those who drew up the proposal were keenly aware of how their objective could be perceived.
“They were interesting, credible people who had observed aerial phenomena that were unexplained and worthy of additional follow-up,” Mr. Podesta said. “Going back and looking at and declassifying whatever government documents exist is a smart thing to do.”