The Pentagon's UFO Hunt
In December 2017, the New York Times ran a story that shocked readers worldwide. It was the revelation of a Pentagon program called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, which spent $22 million from 2007 to 2012 investigating UFOs. Videos were released showing apparently unexplainable thermal images of maneuvering UFOs taken from US fighter planes. The Internet went mad as people embraced what appeared to be government endorsement of actual alien visitation. But then cooler heads had a chance to look at the reports, and we now view the episode quite differently. For it turns out that this whole program was not so much an official investigation of a genuine phenomenon, so much as it was a singularly successful public relations coup by a group of lifelong UFO believers and promoters of alien visitation and the paranormal.
What was reported by the New York Times was that the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP, sometimes given as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program) was the brainchild of Harry Reid, then a senator from Nevada, with support from senators Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens, due to their shared concern that UFOs may represent a national security threat — the same reason Project Blue Book ran in the 1950s and 1960s, and other similar programs since. The funding was reported to be $22 million over five years, with most of it going to Robert Bigelow, a Nevada hotel billionaire and space entrepreneur. The project was run at the Pentagon by a mysterious man named Luis Elizondo. That's all well and good, seems legitimate enough; and bolstered by the very impressive UFO videos, it's understandable how the story captured the attention of news agencies — and the public — worldwide.
But what they probably didn't know was the dubious history of the cast of characters behind AATIP. The central figure was Bigelow, known to NASA for Bigelow Aerospace, but known to the UFO and paranormal communities for Skinwalker Ranch. It's a 480-acre property in Utah which Bigelow purchased in 1996 after learning stories of paranormal activities said to happen there: cattle mutilations that he believed were the result of alien experimentation, UFO sightings, ghost lights, and trans-dimensional and shapeshifting beings. Bigelow had formed a group he called the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDSci), a group of parapsychologists and alternative scientists to study telepathy and related phenomena. He moved them all onto Skinwalker Ranch.
Bigelow described his position on alien visitation to the TV news program 60 Minutes:
According to news site Politico's analysis of campaign donation records, Bigelow was a major donor to Harry Reid, his Nevada senator. The two were friends. It was at Bigelow's urging that Reid approached Stevens and Inouye and secured the $22 million, which was then given to Bigelow. It was an odd transaction. First, $22 million over 5 years (about $360,000 a month) accomplishes very little on a governmental scale — regardless, it's a bit smelly that it was given to a major donor and friend. How Bigelow spent it has not been made public, but what has been released is that many of the people Bigelow employed at NIDSci are the same ones listed as senior researchers for AATIP, such as engineer and parapsychologist Hal Puthoff — one of the people behind Project Stargate, the CIA's failed effort in the 1970s to employ psychic powers for intelligence purposes. Puthoff wrote the proposal to fund AATIP, and used his time there to write 38 papers about his ideas for metaphysical space-time drive systems for spaceships, described by physicists as pure pseudoscience.
And now that the AATIP program has ended, many of these same people are still working together, though now under former rock musician Tom DeLonge, who in 2015 founded something he calls the To The Stars Academy (TTSA). It's crowdfunded by selling corporate shares, and to date, around 3,000 UFOlogists, conspiracy theorists, and other enthusiasts have sent money to support TTSA's mission of proving an alien presence on Earth, and the reality of phenomena such as telepathy. DeLonge writes that this is necessary because:
It's a theme familiar to Skeptoid listeners: Dismissing disliked science findings as "mainstream ideology" is a common gambit of the pseudoscientist.
Biologist Colm Kelleher, who was the head of NIDSci for many years, studied cattle mutilations and other paranormal phenomena at Skinwalker Ranch until its closure in 2004; then he was the Deputy Administrator for AATIP from 2008-2011; and is now listed as the biotech consultant for TTSA. Running one's eye down the lists of personnel employed by these programs, one could get the impression that this is a single ongoing enterprise of hardcore believers in alien visitation, moving as a group wherever the funding leads them. Legally, there are no evident corporate connections between Bigelow's NIDSci, Reid's AATIP, and DeLonge's TTSA; but in reality, they are clearly a single spiritual thread followed by a core of believers. Each program begins approximately where its predecessor left off. Cynical observers might well conclude that AATIP was little more than Bigelow's successful plan to shift the funding of his personal hobby studying the paranormal from his own pockets to that of the taxpayers.
Even Leslie Kean, the principal reporter behind the New York Times story, has been a part of the ongoing enterprise for some time, having written articles promoting TTSA since at least October 2017. She is also a lifelong promoter of UFOs and the paranormal, having written books on both; with such titles as UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record and Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife.
The intermingling of UFOs and aliens with paranormal phenomena like telepathy and the afterlife has been a common theme throughout these groups. Telepathy, they believe, is how the visiting aliens communicate with us. DeLonge made this convoluted statement to Paper Magazine in 2015:
Elizondo is the most cryptic of these personalities. His biography from AATIP listed roles in intelligence at virtually every national security agency you can think of. Yet when Wired magazine submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for information about Elizondo's employment at the Pentagon, they turned up no records at all; nor does any Luis Elizondo appear in an online database of federal employees for that period of time. A Pentagon spokesperson did confirm only that he had worked for the Department of Defense at some point. So it's all very strange. Elizondo's position today is as Tom DeLonge's personal bodyguard at TTSA, though with the grandiloquent title of Director of Global Security.
Update: It now seems clear that any association Elizondo may have had with AATIP was probably fabricated. –BD
But of course, it's not the people or their backgrounds or beliefs that determine the validity of these claims of alien visitation, but rather the evidence itself. None of the programs discussed have presented any empirical evidence, but both AATIP and TTSA have offered the videos taken from US fighter jets. These videos were passed along to the media with the press releases in December 2017. So let's take a look at them.
The most dramatic of these videos, filmed in 2004 by an F/A-18F fighter plane, appears to show a stingray-shaped craft banking above some clouds, even making a few turns. It's enough to impress almost anyone... except, of course, military pilots familiar with the characteristics of the FLIR infrared camera. It's a bit difficult to explain in an audio program, but for an excellent breakdown of exactly what you're seeing and why it looks like a stingray-shaped craft turning above some clouds, see the article on the Metabunk website. In short, what's happening is that the stingray shape — two roundish wings with a short tail — is how any single sharp point of heat appears through the glare filter of the FLIR pod mounted to the fighter plane. Other confirming examples of this shape are widely available online. When the craft appears to rotate in the video, these movements correspond to the rotation of the gimbal on which the FLIR turns in response to the airplane's maneuvers. The FLIR camera was looking off to the side, not straight ahead; and the fighter plane was moving past the clouds, while the distant point of heat remained stationary — most likely a commercial jet headed away from the fighter, about 15 miles away according to reconstructions. The video was simply an effective combination of two commonplace optical illusions.
If these videos were so easily explained, why then did Elizondo and TTSA present them as evidence of alien visitation? The reason is simply that these people are not very good investigators — and certainly not impartial ones. Astronomer Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute explained to Business Insider how Bigelow and DeLonge's people were not the best choices to analyze these videos:
Putting an exclamation point on this was another video shown by Tom DeLonge at a TTSA event. Its explanation was even simpler: it was revealed to have been amateur video shot of a metallic foil party balloon in the shape of a number one, such as you might buy along with a number two for someone's 21st birthday party. This is the investigative acumen paid for by those who have bought shares in the company.
So, did the Pentagon's $22 million Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program prove that the US government is in contact with alien visitors? No. But it did prove that US Senators are just as susceptible as news reporters (and the general public) to being persuaded by rhetoric and pseudoscientific sensationalism, when expertly wielded by passionate true believers.
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