The UFO Rogues Gallery Takes Over America, Part 1
In December of 2017, the New York Times ran a story that shocked America: it was the disclosure of a $22 million program at the Pentagon called AATIP (the Advanced Aerial Threat Identification Program), accompanied by three short black & white video clips from an F-18 fighter screen. To most people, this was a seismic revelation; but to those who have studied UFO culture for a long time, it was yet another groan-inducing chapter in a long, long history involving the same cast of characters over many decades, a chapter in the book of how a small number of believers in the paranormal and alien visitation have used every tool at their disposal to persuade the American public of their viewpoint. It's a story involving many threads, many individuals, and many groups; and today we're going to do our best to use the skeptical eye to unpack and organize it as best we can. When the public is being successfully fooled, it's always worthwhile to pull back the curtain and reveal the tricksters.
This is going to be a rare 2-part episode, which I'm really bummed about because the whole point of it is to lay bare the through-line that goes from the 1960s all the way to the present day — the same people, making the same claims about UFOs, and only now in the past few years getting the huge amount of public attention. That's what's really critical to understand: You've seen these videos from the US Navy allegedly showing UFOs and any reasonable person would assume that something new and exciting has been observed. But it hasn't. This isn't new news, it's literally 50-year-old news. However, once I got the episode written out, it was simply too long to squeeze into a Skeptoid episode. So I'm going to ask you bear with me and sit on the edge of your seat for the full one-week span between episode releases. Today we're going to pick up the story way back in the 1960s when it truly began, and next week we'll bring it all the way to the present day.
The spiritual leaders of this rogues gallery, as it were, are former astronomers and UFOlogists Jacques Vallée and the late J. Allen Hynek. They became friends in the 1960s over their shared interest in the metaphysical, specifically an idea they both shared based on their observation that poltergeists and UFOs both had a habit of appearing and disappearing. Their belief was poltergeists and UFOs — explicitly referring to alien spacecraft in this case — were the same manifestation of inter-dimensional beings. Together with their young protegé, the devout Scientologist Hal Puthoff, Vallée jokingly referred to the little group as the Invisible College, a reference to their special knowledge unseen by others.
A recent graduate in electrical engineering, Puthoff began working at SRI International, a private research institute formerly associated with Stanford University. And that's where it all began.
Chapter 1: The Stargate Project (1978-1995)
At SRI, Puthoff became the director for all the work contracted to them by the CIA and DIA pertaining to various programs researching "remote viewing", the use of psychic powers to spy on the Soviets. Puthoff was particularly enamored by their research subject Uri Geller. Even after Geller was thoroughly proven to be a fraud by Dr. Ray Hyman and kicked out of the program, Puthoff continued to promote him as genuine, and still does to this day.
Under Puthoff, Stargate made such breakthroughs as one of their psychics claiming to have traveled back in time one million years to commune with martians, and others describing the contents of photographs in a closed but unsealed envelope after having been left alone with the envelope for one hour. Author Martin Gardner later wrote that Puthoff and the others at Stargate "imagined they could do research in parapsychology but instead dealt with 'psychics' who were cleverer than they were".
Eventually the CIA decided that $10 million was enough to have wasted on a whole lot of nothing, and the Stargate Project was finally terminated. But before it was, one of the intelligence officials briefed on it was the Staff Director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, a certain Chris Mellon. Keep that name in mind.
Chapter 2: NIDS (1995-2004)
It was 1995 and Hal Puthoff needed a new job. One of his friends was Robert Bigelow, a hotel billionaire who was fascinated with life after death. With Bigelow's considerable bankroll, Bigelow and Puthoff co-founded the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) to study reincarnation, inter-dimensional beings, ghosts, UFOs, and other strange things they all believed were found on Bigelow's Utah property, the infamous Skinwalker Ranch (today the setting for an eponymous paranormal TV series). Also present at the founding in an unofficial capacity was the US Senator Harry Reid. Also on the NIDS board of advisors was a familiar name: Jacques Vallée.
During these years, Bigelow was able to persuade the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to change their UFO reporting recommendation to NIDS, so for a while, pilots were making their UFO reports directly to Skinwalker Ranch.
In 1996, local UFO reporter and friend of the group George Knapp took Senator Reid to a UFO conference, which according to all accounts, changed Reid's worldview profoundly. So, when Bigelow finally pulled the curtain on NIDS in 2004, he knew just who to call for his next project.
Chapter 3: AAWSAP (2007-2011)
Passionate about what he saw as a lack of government attention to UFOs, Harry Reid went to his friends and fellow senators Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye in 2007 and persuaded them to help secure $22 million in funding for a program he tentatively called the Advanced Aerospace Weapon Systems Application Program. Nominally, it was about foreign aircraft intrusions. But Reid and Bigelow knew what it was really about.
Chapter 4: BAASS (2008-2011)
In August 2008, the DIA posted their first solicitation for bids for the first contract of $10 million. There was only one bidder, Robert Bigelow, and the money was awarded. The name of his new company was Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies. The contract required Bigelow to provide a suitable facility, and that's how money from the US government revitalized research into inter-dimensional poltergeists at Skinwalker Ranch.
After a few years, that $22 million had all been spent. What had it been spent on? We shall see.
Chapter 5: AATIP (2011-2012)
There had been little support at the Pentagon for AAWSAP and its contractor, so no further money was forthcoming. Bigelow decided to continue funding it himself in 2011. A former military man named Luis Elizondo had been at the Pentagon interacting with AAWSAP and was aware of its work, and under Bigelow's new funding, Elizondo continued it for about a year under the name AATIP (Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program), though it's never been clear exactly what he did and the Pentagon has made contradictory statements over whether he actually worked for the program or not.
Finally, an accounting was due. Numerous Freedom of Information Act requests poured in (a few years later) to determine what this $22 million had been spent on. Bigelow's initial $10 million contract was known, but all that the DIA produced to justify the rest of the money was a series of 38 written reports on crazy science fantasy subjects, including stargates, wormholes, warp drive, invisibility cloaking, antigravity, and vacuum energy. Every one of these papers is authored by some friend or associate of Bigelow and the Invisible College clan, including Hal Puthoff himself. After looking at the reports, actual physicist Sean Carroll told Business Insider in 2018:
By all accounts, government officials who were aware of AATIP and its predecessors resisted making the program public simply because it was such an embarrassment.
That's where we're going to break for this week's show, and it's a perfect cliffhanger, because next week we're going to pick it up with the genesis of the infamous 2017 New York Times article that made this whole thing blow up so huge into the public consciousness, creating what I think is the single most successful PR campaign in the history of paranormalists promoting their view to the press. If you assumed that the seminal New York Times article from 2017 titled "Glowing Auras and Black Money: The Pentagon's Mysterious UFO Program" was the result of a serious journalistic investigation by one of history's most respected newspapers, next week's episode just might blow your mind. Because the answer is no, no it wasn't.
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