Judging by the reactions from the commentariat, many were genuinely perplexed over what to make of a New York Times article — published last Saturday in parallel with a Politico exposé — that alleges the existence of a "shadowy" Pentagon program to study pilots’ reports of UFO sightings. Among the most salient details: the effort, known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, had been supported by multiple senators, both Democrat and Republican — though former Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada was behind the program initially, which ran from 2007 to 2012 and may still exist today, albeit informally. Much of the congressional appropriation for the program — around $20 million — went to contractors, specifically Bigelow Aerospace, a firm run by Robert Bigelow, a billionaire and personal friend of Senator Reid. (The Times describes how the program used Bigelow Aerospace to manage subcontractors and do research for the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a point that will be important later.) Moreover, the Pentagon was not uniformly composed of UFO skeptics, as one might think. Many of those in the government who were behind the study appear to be true believers in the cause. In particular, Luis Elizondo, a Pentagon official, resigned from the Pentagon in “protest,” due to what he perceived as pushback. “Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?” an aggrieved Elizondo wrote in his resignation letter, per the Times report.
If you don’t follow astronomy and SETI research, or if you’re not a UFO conspiracy theorist, or if you don’t regard the New York Times as fake news, you may have been puzzled over what to make of this report. A secret Department of Defense program funded by “black money” to study UFO reports? Video footage of breathless military pilots tracking a strange blob across the sky? A military contractor commenting that they’re “absolutely convinced” that aliens are real and visiting Earth? It all sounds relatively convincing to the untrained eye. Perhaps Fox Mulder was right: the truth is out there.
But. (And there’s always a but.) There is more to this UFO story than meets the eye. To really make sense of it requires some knowledge of the history of the American government’s feelings about UFOs, coupled with a little bit of knowledge about how astronomers and scientists regard any claims that UFOs have visited us — and what would make a claim of visitation believable. And some of the actors involved hint at ulterior motives.
The contractor situation draws suspicion
Of all the species of lobbyists, military contractor lobbyists are the most dangerous: they profit from perpetuating a worldview that Earth is a dangerous place, and that the United States must be armed to the teeth at all times. After the Cold War ended, the military budget didn’t decline much, thanks to lobbyists’ efforts; the enemy just shifted from “communists” to “terrorists.” In this story, Bigelow Aerospace, the contractors who reportedly receive much of the Pentagon money, have a clear interest in perpetuating the idea that this is a worthy project to study and fund. And it gets weirder. According to a Washington Post report, the aforementioned UFO stalwart behind the program, Luis Elizondo, had “quietly arranged to release” the secret Pentagon videos showing pilots’ encounters with unidentified flying objects. But after arranging that release and resigning from his post, Elizondo joined a for-profit company called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences, which the Post characterizes as a “private company” that “specializes in promoting UFO research for scientific and entertainment purposes.” Oddly, To the Stars Academy is run by Tom DeLonge, the guitarist and singer of pop-punk band Blink-182, who has a long-standing fascination with UFOs that has been documented in song lyrics. (See: the single “Aliens Exist” from Blink-182’s 1999 album “Enema of the State.”)
To anyone who fancies him or herself a pseudoscience debunker, To the Stars Academy’s website raises all kinds of red flags: “We have access to a global team of research scientists with advanced knowledge to pursue projects, which include Human Ultra-Experience Database, Engineering Space-Time Metrics, Brain-Computer Interface, and Telepathy,” the website explains. As someone with an academic physics background, I’ll tell you upfront that “Engineering Space-Time Metrics” doesn't mean anything.
To the Stars Academy also has an entertainment division. “Our content aims to educate and inspire curiosity in scientific possibilities through various media formats like film, television, books, music and art,” the site explains. Appropriately, To the Stars Academy is involved in “entertainment properties” that include book series, including a young adult novel series.
This all seems bizarre, but note that this kind of press is certainly good for To the Stars Academy; indeed, most startups only dream of a Times report linking your employee to a mind-bending UFO caper.
The point is, To the Stars Academy — and Elizondo himself — have a vested interest in Elizondo’s efforts to get the Pentagon to disclose these kinds of programs. That doesn’t make the programs any less real, but it doesn’t mean Elizondo doesn't have a conflict of interest here either.
Previously, the U.S. government may have played up UFO conspiracy theorists to confuse the Soviets
Which is more shocking: the revelation that the United States government is covering up evidence of UFOs or the revelation that the United States government purposely spread disinformation that they were covering up UFOs in order to cover up their own spy plane tests?
The latter part of that is actually true. In 1997, The New York Times published a stunning headline: “C.I.A. Admits Government Lied About U.F.O. Sightings.” In it, they write:
In the darkest days of the cold war, the military lied to the American public about the true nature of many unidentified flying objects in an effort to hide its growing fleets of spy planes, a Central Intelligence Agency study says.
The deceptions were made in the 1950's and 1960's amid a wave of U.F.O. sightings that alarmed the public and parts of official Washington.
The C.I.A. study says the Air Force knew that most reports by citizens and aviation experts were based on fleeting glimpses of U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, which fly extremely high. [. . .]
Rather than acknowledgeing the existence of the top-secret flights or saying nothing about them publicly, the Air Force decided to put out false cover stories, the C.I.A. study says.
British documentarian Adam Curtis, renowned for his complex and layered documentaries about socioeconomics and politics, covered some of this turf in his 2016 documentary “HyperNormalisation.” With interviews from people allegedly involved, Curtis believes that the U.S. government purposely spread such disinformation in the 1980s to throw the Soviets off-track and mask their missile defense projects. As Curtis says:
In the 1980s, more and more people in the United States reported seeing unexplained objects and lights in the sky. . . . At the same time, investigators who believed in UFOs revealed that they had discovered top secret government documents that stated that alien craft had visited Earth.
The reality was stranger: the American government might have been making it all up, that they had created a fake conspiracy to deliberately mislead the population. The lights that people imagined were UFOs may in reality have been new high technology weapons that the US government were testing. . . .The government wanted to keep the weapons secret, but they couldn’t always hide their appearance in the skies, so it is alleged that they chose a number of people to use to spread the rumors that they were really alien visitations.
While many journalists have written about Curtis’s claims, including the BBC, no one has independently verified his sources. Yet they correlate with the New York Times’ report.
All this is only to say that the U.S. government has certainly used UFO claims as a means of spreading disinformation in the past. And at the time, they rationalized their behavior as throwing the Soviet Union off-track. Of course, now, there are different enemies.
Historically, paranormal research has been done merely to keep pace with one’s enemies
Yesterday it was the USSR; today, U.S. intelligence is similarly afraid of keeping up with the Chinese and Russians. Throughout history, scientific (or, in some cases pseudo-scientific) research is often carried out under the premise of trying to outpace one’s enemies. Sometimes said research pulls a rabbit out of a hat, as the Manhattan Project did in the United States, with the discovery and harnessing of fission.
Other times, this statecraft version of keeping up with the Joneses leads to nothing of merit: In the Cold War, the United States heard reports that the Soviet Union was studying “remote viewing” — that is, using telepathy to “see” across the world. There were debates in Congress over whether the United States was falling behind the Soviets; in a committee debate over “psychic research,” former Congressman Charlie Rose, D.-N.C., said that remote viewing “would be a hell of a cheap radar system. . . if the Russians have it and we don't, we are in serious trouble." Thus began an almost 20-year effort, funded by the federal government, into telepathy, known as the Stargate Project. The New York Times reported in 1984 that the Department of defense “[had] spent millions of dollars, according to three new reports, on secret projects to investigate extrasensory phenomena.” The reporter wrote of the Pentagon as having “concern over a ‘psychic arms gap.'” (At the time, the Pentagon denied that they had spent any money on psychic research, even though the Times had reported 10 years earlier on some of the fruits of that research.)
I have an unusual personal connection to Project Stargate, as my grandfather, James Spencer, was intimately involved in some of the government-funded efforts into the paranormal. As a writer working for Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, my grandfather was tasked with writing up reports from Russell Targ, the controversial physicist who was fascinated by psychic phenomenon and who worked under Project Stargate contracts. At SRI in the 1970s, Targ and his team studied remote viewing, and whether some people possessed psychic abilities; and while Targ believed they had found a “repeatable phenomenon” in at least one psychic, their work wasn’t reproducible by other scientists, rendering it moot from an empirical standpoint. (For his part, my grandfather remained a believer in the paranormal; he maintains that the psychic abilities of the clairvoyants dipped when in the presence of the hard-nosed military brass hovering over the psychic experiments from behind one-way mirrors.)
But back to UFOs. The point of all this is that the government will often spend money on (what may end up being) frivolities, if there is even a whiff that their enemies are doing the same. Sometimes this leads intelligence down fruitful paths, sometimes not. The fact that the U.S. spent a paltry portion of the defense budget on a UFO investigation division doesn’t tell us anything about the existence of aliens or the government’s feelings about them, but it does tell us everything about the existence of China and Russia and the government’s feelings about them.
Bigelow said as much in the Times report: "Internationally, we are the most backward country in the world on this issue . . . Our scientists are scared of being ostracized, and our media is scared of the stigma. China and Russia are much more open and work on this with huge organizations within their countries."
On a related note, the Politico report suggests the military may have also been interested not in aliens but in the potential of advanced propulsion systems being utilized by Russia or China, which might look as strange as alien craft to pilots who encounter them. "Was this China or Russia trying to do something or has some propulsion system we are not familiar with?” an anonymous former staffer told Politico.
Still, there’s no evidence we’ve been visited by aliens
Yes, there are grainy videos, and there are reports from pilots, and there are even people who say they’ve been probed. But there is no physical evidence that aliens have visited Earth, just as there’s no physical evidence that intelligent life (or any life) exists elsewhere in the universe. Even purported videos of UFOs tend to depict objects that could ostensibly be human aircraft — none behaves any more strangely than what a Harrier, rocket or drone is capable of.
Moreover, the one reported hint at a discovery of some kind of exotic material — the kind of telltale physical sign that might clue us in that we’re not alone — is predictably inaccessible; in the Times report:
Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, [Bigelow Aerospace] modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes. In addition, researchers spoke to military service members who had reported sightings of strange aircraft.
“We’re sort of in the position of what would happen if you gave Leonardo da Vinci a garage-door opener,” said Harold E. Puthoff, an engineer who has conducted research on extrasensory perception for the C.I.A. and later worked as a contractor for the program. “First of all, he’d try to figure out what is this plastic stuff. He wouldn’t know anything about the electromagnetic signals involved or its function.”
Reports, but no smoking gun — like so many episodes of “The X-Files” where Mulder is so close to incontrovertible proof before seeing the spooks hide it from prying eyes just in time. Perhaps we’ll just have to wait for the next episode.