The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program
The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties.
The shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.
Officials with the program have also studied videos of encounters between unknown objects and American military aircraft — including one released in August of a whitish oval object, about the size of a commercial plane, chased by two Navy F/A-18F fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Nimitz off the coast of San Diego in 2004.
Mr. Reid, who retired from Congress this year, said he was proud of the program. “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” Mr. Reid said in a recent interview in Nevada. “I think it’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service. I’ve done something that no one has done before.”
In response to questions from The Times, Pentagon officials this month acknowledged the existence of the program, which began as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Officials insisted that the effort had ended after five years, in 2012.
“It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding, and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change,” a Pentagon spokesman, Thomas Crosson, said in an email, referring to the Department of Defense
By 2009, Mr. Reid decided that the program had made such extraordinary discoveries that he argued for heightened security to protect it. “Much progress has been made with the identification of several highly sensitive, unconventional aerospace-related findings,” Mr. Reid said in a letter to William Lynn III, a deputy defense secretary at the time, requesting that it be designated a “restricted special access program” limited to a few listed officials.
A 2009 Pentagon briefing summary of the program prepared by its director at the time asserted that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact,” and that the United States was incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered. Mr. Reid’s request for the special designation was denied.
Mr. Elizondo, in his resignation letter of Oct. 4, said there was a need for more serious attention to “the many accounts from the Navy and other services of unusual aerial systems interfering with military weapon platforms and displaying beyond-next-generation capabilities.” He expressed his frustration with the limitations placed on the program, telling Mr. Mattis that “there remains a vital need to ascertain capability and intent of these phenomena for the benefit of the armed forces and the nation.”
Mr. Elizondo has now joined Mr. Puthoff and another former Defense Department official, Christopher K. Mellon, who was a deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence, in a new commercial venture called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science. They are speaking publicly about their efforts as their venture aims to raise money for research into U.F.O.s.
In the interview, Mr. Elizondo said he and his government colleagues had determined that the phenomena they had studied did not seem to originate from any country. “That fact is not something any government or institution should classify in order to keep secret from the people,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Reid said he did not know where the objects had come from. “If anyone says they have the answers now, they’re fooling themselves,” he said. “We do not know.”
But, he said, “we have to start someplace.”
On the Trail of a Secret Pentagon U.F.O. Program
Our readers are plenty interested in unidentified flying objects. We know that from the huge response to our front-page Sunday article (published online just after noon on Saturday) revealing a secret Pentagon program to investigate U.F.O.s. The piece, by the Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper, the author Leslie Kean and myself — a contributor to The Times after a 45-year staff career — has dominated the most emailed and most viewed lists since.
So how does a story on U.F.O.s get into The New York Times? Not easily, and only after a great deal of vetting, I assure you.
The journey began two and a half months ago with a tip to Leslie, who has long reported on U.F.O.s and published a 2010 New York Times best seller, “UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record.” At a confidential meeting Oct. 4 in a Pentagon City hotel with several present and former intelligence officials and a defense contractor, she met Luis Elizondo, the director of a Pentagon program she had never heard of: the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
She learned it was a secret effort, funded at the initiative of the then Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, starting in 2007, to investigate aerial threats including what the military preferred to call “unidentified aerial phenomena” or just “objects.” This was big news because the United States military had announced as far back as 1969 that U.F.O.s were not worth studying. Leslie also learned that Mr. Elizondo had just resigned to protest what he characterized as excessive secrecy and internal opposition — the reason for the meeting.
What the New York Times UFO Report Actually Reveals
The fact that the program really existed was the part that the Times touted as its big get, but that wasn’t what set the internet on fire. What got people excited was the implication that the program had collected evidence of encounters with unidentified flying objects. In reporting this part of the story, reporters Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, and Leslie Kean were much less careful about maintaining a critical eye. “The program produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift,” the article asserted, later adding: “The company 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. In addition, researchers also studied people who said that they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for physiological changes.”
The straightforward presentation of these assertions implies that the authors believe them to be true. But they beg for elaboration. Were the produced documents credible? In what way were the buildings modified, and why was it necessary to modify them in order to store this material? What does it mean for an object to be associated with a phenomenon? What were the claimed physical effects, and were any physiological changes found?
Making portentous assertions out of context is a powerful technique for creating a sense of mystery and drama. Leaving a question unanswered implies that it is unanswerable. Selectively omitting key details can make a mundane fact seem uncanny. These techniques are great for exciting an audience, but they’re better suited to Ancient Aliens than the pages of the New York Times because the net effect is to cloud rather than illuminate key issues. In this case: What exactly did Elizondo’s team uncover?
In a follow-up story for the Times Insider about how the story came to be, reporter Ralph Blumenthal makes it sound like the Times scored an exclusive by getting Elizondo to open up to them, writing that he and two colleagues “met Mr. Elizondo in a nondescript Washington hotel where he sat with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on the door.” The implication is that Elizondo feared the repercussions of leaking sensitive information for the first time.
In fact, when Elizondo spoke to the Times he had left government and was promoting the launch of a new venture called To the Stars … Academy of Arts & Science, a website that is trying to crowdsource donations to study paranormal phenomena. Before the Times told his story, To the Stars’ main shareholder, former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge, had previously promoted the venture on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
And what, exactly, did Elizondo uncover during his five years heading a semi-secret arm of the Pentagon investigating possible extraterrestrial visitations? A visit to the venture’s website raises doubts. A video with the title “2004 USS NIMITZ FLIR1 VIDEO” is the same video seen on the Times’ website, with the addition of a detailed technical description of the infrared-imaging system that took it, along with the claim that “this footage comes with crucial chain-of-custody (CoC) documentation because it is a product of U.S. military sensors, which confirms it is original, unaltered, and not computer generated or artificially fabricated.” But no such documentation is provided.