April 15, 2024

Earlier this month, the Defense Department released a long-awaited report designed to address renewed public interest in unidentified flying objects. UFOs—or, UAP, as they’ve recently been rebranded—have been back in the news a lot lately, thanks largely to a few true believers who think the government has been hiding evidence of extraterrestrials.

The most influential of those true believers is a former high-ranking intelligence official, David Grusch, who left his job at the Pentagon to spread the word about what he says is a “decades-long” conspiracy within parts of the federal government to hide evidence of UFOs. Specifically, Grusch has claimed that the government had a secret UFO retrieval program that was dedicated to recovering and back-engineering “off-world” ships. Grusch has appeared on countless talk shows to discuss his claims and appeared before Congress last summer.

The new report comes from the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, a little-known agency tasked with investigating the unexplained in America’s skies. The document is little more than a historical summary of some of the U.S. government’s formerly secret programs—secure compartmented access programs (or SAPs)—that have been intertwined with UFO sightings over the years. The report references a number of previously clandestine, now declassified programs, including secret aviation and space programs that involved previously sensitive aircraft and aerospace technologies.

Notably, the report denies that the government has ever encountered anything remotely resembling extraterrestrials. It states, bluntly: “To date, AARO has not discovered any empirical evidence that any sighting of a UAP represented off-world technology or the existence of a classified program that had not been properly reported to Congress.”

But if the government isn’t hiding aliens, then what, exactly, is it hiding? This is the question that has haunted generations of truth-seekers.

You can understand its appeal. The UFO phenomenon is inherently byzantine. Myriad theories about aliens, wormholes, government cover-ups, and time travel are proffered by a menagerie of weirdos—fanatical researchers, ex-government officials, huckster media personalities. There is something intoxicating about the complex mesh of speculations and theories, all of which seek to explain an admittedly dark and baffling history. To some, the subject’s complexity is indicative of a greater truth that lies hidden beneath layers of mystery; to others, it indicates intentional obfuscation and trickery—a sign that, at its heart, the whole UFO story is bullshit.

The true believers

One person who is a believer is longtime writer and journalist Leslie Kean. Kean co-authored several influential news articles that brought David Grusch’s claims into public view. When I reached her by phone, Kean very politely and enthusiastically launched into an explanation of how she became obsessed with the topic. She tells me that her relationship with UFOs began two decades ago when she first stumbled upon the bewitching subject matter while working as a journalist for a public radio station in northern California.

“You get hooked—that’s what happened to me,” she said.

In 1999, while working at the radio station, a colleague sent Kean a report on UFOs put together by high-level military officials from France. Kean was immediately impressed with the stature of the people involved; the report’s authors even included several retired generals. “Never in a million years would I have ever imagined I’d be professionally involved with UFOs, but this report was stunning to me because you had these generals saying that we were being visited by craft from somewhere else—it seemed like a huge story,” she said.

During my conversation with Kean, I asked her whether she could ever conceive of UFOs as something decidedly more terrestrial, like covert military projects. “I think that it’s possible that some of the sightings are definitely that,” she concedes. But then she equivocates: “I don’t think it explains away all UFO events though—by any stretch of the imagination.” She dovetails back to a familiar UFO narrative of government retrieval and back-engineering of alien spacecraft: “We could have used reverse-engineering on some of these retrieved objects to help us develop our own technology—that’s conceivable,” she says.

Mark Pilkington’s “Mirage Men”

One person on the opposite end of the belief spectrum from people like Kean is Mark Pilkington. Unlike Kean, Pilkington has actually seen UFOs.

On a hot summer day in 1995, Pilkington and his friends were fixing a flat tire in Yosemite National Park when an object flew by overhead—what he would later describe as a “perfect silvery reflective sphere.” The sphere whizzed through the sky at unsettling speeds, then disappeared behind a grove of trees. “What in fucking hell was that?” Pilkington’s friend managed, as Mark struggled with the same question. The object—and others of a similar likeness—would haunt the group of friends as they made their way through the California wilderness, appearing at several different junctures along their route. The friends never found out what the object was, and they never saw anything quite like it again.

For Pilkington, the bizarre experience would inspire a lifelong obsession with the UFO phenomenon. Now, years later, he has spent decades furtively researching and writing about the subject, in the hopes of uncovering the truth. But if his early experiences inspired a fiery curiosity about the sightings, years of tireless interest have led the researcher to a fairly cynical conclusion: Years ago, he decided that a majority of UFOs are not evidence of extraterrestrial visitation, but are, instead, glimpses of clandestine government projects—things like drones, stealth aircraft, and other weird but decidedly terrestrial objects.

Even more darkly, Pilkington believes that the U.S. government has frequently stoked popular belief in UFOs as a means of manipulating the public’s perception of its secret activities. In some cases, he says, agents of the government have been involved in overt disinformation campaigns aimed at the UFO community—and the broader public. “I don’t think it was ever intended to be the thing that it became,” Pilkington tells me during a recent phone call, in reference to the expansive mythology that now surrounds UFO sightings.

To Pilkington, UFOs are “weapons of mass deception,” a psychological tool that can be wielded against the public for the purposes of covering up real government secrets. He calls the bureaucratic officials tasked with carrying out this deception “mirage men.” Pilkington wrote a book, which he later adapted into a documentary, that largely centers around the government’s efforts to manipulate UFO researchers. In particular, Pilkington’s book observes the activities of Richard Doty, a former Air Force counterintelligence official who claims to have been involved in a variety of disinformation efforts aimed at the UFO community throughout the decades. Some critics have tied Doty to popular parts of the expansive mythology that surrounds the subject, including the promotion of the Roswell crash as a seminal event in its history.

“I suggest popular ideas about UFOs have, at various times, been shaped and manipulated by disinformation specialists within America’s intelligence, military, and cultural apparatus, and, no doubt, by other nations—particularly the Soviet Union during the Cold War era,” said Pilkington, during one of his recent lectures. “What I don’t suggest, however, is that there’s any sort of permanent, ongoing program to promote UFO beliefs.”

To Pilkington, the beliefs that make up the UFO mythology are perfectly capable of perpetuating themselves, once they’ve been set in motion. This lore provides “a useful cover for certain clandestine operations, and is thus employed by the ‘mirage men’ if and when it is expedient to do so,” he added.

When it comes to Grusch’s claims, Pilkington isn’t impressed. “It’s just trash,” he tells me curtly. “Some of the evidence that has been presented through him is the same old shit that has been in the public sphere for twenty or thirty years.”

“There’s no revelations in anything that he’s said. There’s nothing that couldn’t have come from watching crappy History Channel documentaries,” he adds.

UFOs as a “smokescreen” for government “black” projects

A variety of “black” projects could help explain why UFO sightings are so varied and frequently so bizarre. The U.S. is perpetually involved in the development of new defense technologies, many of which remain hidden from public view for decades after their inception. Indeed, in an unclassified report published in 1997, the CIA readily admitted that, in prior decades, it had commonly used the UFO lore to distract from its clandestine aviation projects—things like the high-flying U-2 surveillance plane, which was secretly developed and tested at Area 51, the shady government facility known for its UFO sightings. According to this theory of UFO history, many sightings are merely glimpses of a still developing or secret defense technology or projects that our government may be testing but would prefer to keep hidden.

As an example, some have attributed the rash of “black triangle” incidents during the 1980s and ‘90s to be evidence of a hypothetical surveillance plane known as the TR-3A and TR-3B, or the “Black manta.” During the ‘90s, an amateur researcher, Steve Douglass, claimed to have captured images of a manta, though it has still never been officially confirmed that such a vehicle actually exists.

Some skeptics believe that one of the technologies that helps explain more recent UFO sightings is the field of radar spoofing. Radar systems are important defensive infrastructure for governments, and are used by militaries across the globe. However, the U.S. has invested heavily in “electronic warfare” technology that allows for the silent manipulation of these systems.

One apparent example is NEMESIS, a U.S. Navy program that was first publicly acknowledged in 2019. According to publicly available documents, the program uses a sophisticated combination of unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic warfare to convincingly trick enemy radar systems into believing that they are perceiving aircraft that are not actually there. The system, which has been dubbed the “next generation” of naval warfare, can reportedly create “viable false targets” that convincingly mimic aircraft signatures.

The theory that UFO sightings are actually evidence of advanced radar spoofing is not exactly a new one. Raviraj Adve, a professor in communications at the University of Toronto, previously stated in a 2015 documentary that UFO sightings involving Belgian F-16 pilots were likely the result of some sort of electronic attack. “It is my feeling that this is a fake target created by an electronic countermeasure system to spoof this radar,” Adve said, of one of the recordings captured during the incident.

When I reached Adve by phone and asked him what he thought of the most recent rash of sightings, he said he couldn’t comment on specific cases but offered very much the same explanation for the overall UFO phenomenon: “It seems most likely that many of these sightings are an experiment by the government,” he offered. “One of the reasons I thought of spoofing/jamming as the explanation is because of how easy it is to do,” he added. “It would have been feasible even forty or fifty years ago.”

When news of the NEMESIS program broke, a former member of Area 51’s black projects team gave an interview in which he compared his own prior work—developing radar spoofing schemes for the CIA against the Soviet Union—to what had happened to the Nimitz. “I don’t have the answers to what the Navy aviators saw, but in my mind, I’m thinking, we are doing it again,” he said.

Christopher Mellon: The Inside Source

As it stands today, so much of the UFO story revolves around the premise of information—good information and bad information, credible information and incredible information. One influential figure who, at many times, has played a prominent role in helping deliver information about the UFO subject to the broader public is Christopher Mellon.

A former highly placed U.S. intelligence official, Mellon very much gives off the impression that he knows where the government’s bodies are buried. Born to a wealthy family, Mellon was educated at Yale and worked for the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee for decades before transitioning into the intelligence community. Eventually, he served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence for both the Clinton and Bush administrations. As part of his work in government, Mellon was part of a committee that was given oversight over all of the Defense Department’s special access programs, or SAPS, the government’s highly compartmentalized initiatives that are shrouded in secrecy. As such, you’d think that Mellon would be the perfect person.

For the better part of the last decade, Mellon has used his government bona fides to advocate for transparency surrounding the UFO issue.

When I spoke with Mellon by phone, he explained that he had been drawn to the UFO subject matter after repeatedly hearing stories about F-16 pilots encountering strange sightings that were taking place—and that he had been confounded by the fact that nobody was doing anything about them.

“These things were hanging around in restricted airspace and these guys were seeing these things on a regular basis. And we didn’t know if they were Russian or Chinese but because they were unidentified and because of the stigma, nobody wanted to do anything,” Mellon said.

When I spoke with Mellon, he portrayed himself as a kind of bureaucratic truth-seeker, a government insider who nevertheless has been flummoxed by the government’s inaction on the issue of UFOs. As such, Mellon says he’s played an influential role in bringing the issue to the media and Congress and, as a result, into the wider public consciousness.

Mellon says that after learning of the extent of UFO sightings by U.S. pilots, he wanted to spread the word about the issue. “I came up with a simple plan to do that, which involved going to the press and going to Congress,” said Mellon. He then relays to me a familiar tale that has made its way into numerous news reports, which is the origin story of how a famous UFO video—the 2004 Nimitz episode—was leaked. According to Mellon, a person met him in the parking lot of the Pentagon and handed him an envelope containing a USB drive. Inside the USB drive were three videos taken by F-18 pilots that showed “real UAP,” as Mellon puts it. Mellon says he then decided to share the videos with the press.

The way Mellon explains it, the pivotal New York Times story that is largely credited with helping legitimize UFOs within the broader culture never would have happened without his direct involvement. “This was not investigative journalism,” Mellon tells me. “I handed them the evidence, introduced them to Lue Elizondo, gave them a stack of documents, arranged for them to meet and interview Harry Reid, and made a deal with them. They ran the story, which appeared on December 16 of 2017 on the front page.”

Mellon says this was part of a broader plan on his part to spread the word about UFOs and to get Congress to take some sort of action on the matter.

The truth is out there—that’s the problem

UFO sightings are still happening—pretty much all the time. Just last week, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, several witnesses saw a weird, pulsating light in the skies over the Green River. Undoubtedly another incident will happen soon.

America’s national security state is a gargantuan and decentralized labyrinth, protected from public—or even Congressional—scrutiny by concentric circles of secrecy and deception. J. Edgar Hoover, a man prone to hoarding clandestine information, once said: “There’s something addicting about a secret.” It’s the eternal promise of revelation that keeps UFO believers coming back for more, despite the obvious fact that no answers will be forthcoming.

The situation might be best encapsulated by a comment made by Christopher Mellon during my interview with him. Mellon said that secretive government work has a way of changing the way you look at the world. “If you get deep in that world, you do see things differently afterward,” he said. “And, if you get really deep into it—and you learn how certain things work—you read the newspapers differently…You realize how different actors are pulling different strings.” He pauses. “There’s some truth to that,” he says.

A version of this article originally appeared on Gizmodo.

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