Congress passed legislation on Thursday that directs the government to eventually tell the public at least some of what it knows about U.F.O.s but stops short of more aggressive steps lawmakers sought to force greater transparency around unidentified phenomena and extraterrestrial activity.
The measure, which was tucked into the annual defense policy bill that won final approval with a bipartisan vote, directs the National Archives to collect government documents about “unidentified anomalous phenomena, technologies of unknown origin and nonhuman intelligence.”
Under the provision, which President Biden is expected to sign into law, any records not already officially disclosed must be made public within 25 years of their creation, unless the president determines that they must remain classified for national security reasons.
Lawmakers in both chambers have ratcheted up efforts to increase government transparency surrounding U.F.O.s and extraterrestrial matters as conspiracy theories proliferate and suspicions persist that the government is concealing information from the public. They have said Congress has reason to believe that the executive branch has concealed information about U.F.O.s that should be made public.
“This is a major, major win for government transparency on U.A.P.s, and it gives us a strong foundation for more action in the future,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, using the acronym for “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” the government term for U.F.O.s and unidentified objects.
But the measure is far weaker than what Mr. Schumer and other lawmakers in both parties had sought. Mr. Schumer succeeded over the summer in attaching a bipartisan measure to the defense bill that would have established a presidential commission with broad power to declassify government records on U.F.O.s, modeled after the panel that reviewed and released documents related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The Republican-led House added a proposal by Representative Tim Burchett, Republican of Tennessee, that would have skipped any review and simply ordered the Defense Department to declassify “records relating to publicly known sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena that do not reveal sources, methods or otherwise compromise the national security of the United States.”
Unable to reconcile the two competing approaches, negotiators who hammered out a bipartisan compromise between the House and Senate on the defense policy bill ended up dropping both Mr. Schumer’s measure and Mr. Burchett’s.
“We got ripped off,” Mr. Burchett said. “We got completely hosed. They stripped out every part.”
Mr. Burchett said the “intelligence community rallied” to kill his proposal and tamp down more aggressive ones to compel broader disclosure. Another person familiar with the talks who insisted on anonymity to describe them noted that the Defense Department also had pushed back forcefully on wider measures.
The measure that ultimately was included in the defense bill grants government agencies wide latitude to keep records classified.
It permits government agencies to determine whether public release of certain records would pose a national security threat that outweighs the public interest of disclosure. Records whose release would “demonstrably and substantially impair the national security of the United States” or “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” for instance, would be exempted from disclosure. Classified records must be periodically reviewed for declassification.
“It is really an outrage the House didn’t work with us on adopting our proposal for a review board,” Mr. Schumer said. “It means that declassification of U.A.P. records will be largely up to the same entities that have blocked and obfuscated their disclosure for decades.”
Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota and a co-sponsor of Mr. Schumer’s proposal, echoed his disappointment on the Senate floor Wednesday, just before the defense bill passed.
“We are lacking oversight opportunities, and we are not fulfilling our responsibilities,” Mr. Rounds said.
The Pentagon has begun stepping up the number of explanations it provides for recent videos showing unidentified phenomena, suggesting that pressure from Congress for greater transparency has had some early results.
Those videos of unidentified phenomena, captured by military sensors and released in recent years, and reports by naval aviators of strange objects have fueled speculation about U.F.O.s and extraterrestrial activity. Some of those videos have been explained as optical illusions or drones, but others remain unexplained and have become the subjects of wide and conspiratorial interest.
Julian Barnes contributed reporting.