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When Congress passed a $2.3 trillion omnibus spending and coronavirus-relief package in December 2020, one of the conditions was that the Department of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence had six months to produce an unclassified report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP being the technologically sophisticated nomenclature for UFOs). The nine-page report, Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, was released on June 25, 2021.

The report’s main takeaway is that the military hasn’t been collecting the kind of high-quality data on UAPs that would allow it to report findings on the phenomena. The conclusion, in other words, is a non-conclusion:

Limited data and inconsistency in reporting are key challenges to evaluating UAP. No standardized reporting mechanism existed until the Navy established one in March 2019. The Air Force subsequently adopted that mechanism in November 2020, but it remains limited to USG reporting. The UAPTF [the Pentagon’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force] regularly heard anecdotally during its research about other observations that occurred but which were never captured in formal or informal reporting by those observers.

There were 144 sightings that the task force assessed, only one of which could be identified: “a large, deflating balloon.” The rest remain unidentified, although the report maintains that “sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception” couldn’t be ruled out. Neither could the possibility that these may be “technologies deployed by China, Russia, another nation, or non-governmental entity.”

One thing that the report didn’t mention was extraterrestrials or vehicles from another planet. Then again, the report didn’t rule these out either. To some UFO enthusiasts, this is as good as admitting that The X-Files is finally coming true.

With the 2021 UAP report, members of the UFO community (who often refer to themselves as UFOlogists) have finally found the respectability they’ve long craved; and Senators Marco Rubio, Mark Warner, and the rest of the Senate Intelligence Committee have found a great new way to inflate defense budgets. It’s an unlikely marriage, perhaps, but one made only more likely by a strange confluence of characters, both UFO true believers and charlatans among them.

Low-quality and incomplete data leads to lousy conclusions and misinformation, in the U.S. government and anywhere else. But it can be great for pushing your agenda.

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I was contemplating all of this recently when a book was self-published by three UFOlogists — journalist George Knapp, biochemist Colm Kelleher, and James T. Lacatski, an engineer previously with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Titled Skinwalkers at the Pentagon: An Insiders’ Account of the Secret Government UFO Program, the book promises to reveal “the massive scope of the Pentagon’s landmark UFO study” known as the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program (or AAWSAP). The task force cataloged UFOs/UAPs, intrusions onto US military bases, and the “strange phenomena” experienced by those who investigated the paranormal on the government’s dime, “resulting in frightening eruptions of paranormal events in their households that terrorized and sometimes injured their children.”

To burnish their credibility, the authors point out that the book was cleared in a Department of Defense security review (Case 20-SB-0058, if you’d like to look it up yourself). This makes it sound as if the DoD was verifying the “unending series of paranormal events” documented in the book, but all it really means is that tall tales of flying triangles, blue orbs of softball-sized energy, and unexplained hair loss don’t pose a threat to national security.

The most valuable part of the book is the foreword by former U.S. Senator Harry Reid.

The American Southwest has a vibrant UFO culture — something to do with the mysterious grandeur of the high desert, I’m sure, but also something to do with the location of test sites like Area 51 in Reid’s home state of Nevada. Like many desert-dwellers, he is interested in UFOs, but unlike most desert-dwellers, he struck up a friendship with one of his campaign donors, budget hotel billionaire/uncredentialed UFO investigator Robert Bigelow. In 2007, Bigelow arranged a meeting with Reid and a Defense Intelligence Agency employee named James Lacatski.

In that meeting, Lacatski expressed his concern that UFOs were being ignored by the scientific community and the military. Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, was impressed by what he heard about alien intrusions into American airspace — coming from a pedigreed member of the intelligence community, it must have been considerably credible-seeming — and, with the help of Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska (Republican) and Senator Dan Inouye of Hawaii (Democrat), “two members of the Appropriations Committee who controlled the dark money, the non-public money,” Reid was able to get funding for Lacatski’s investigation.

UFOs were shaping up to be a bipartisan issue.

The program was small, $22 million in a Pentagon black budget worth an estimated $52.6 billion. In August 2008, the Defense Intelligence Agency put out a request for proposals for AAWSAP that read, in part:

The Acquisition Support Division (DWO-3) of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has the responsibility to provide guidance and oversight to the Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition process along with leveraging the DoD Intelligence Community to coordinate, produce and maintain projections of the future threat environment in which the U.S. air, naval, ground, space, missile defense and information systems operate. In order to accurately assess the foreign threat to U.S. weapons systems, a complete as possible understanding of potential breakthrough technology applications employed in future aerospace weapons systems must be obtained.

The contract was awarded to Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, LLC (BAASS). For the next several years, the company cranked out reports with names like “Warp Drive, Dark Energy and the Manipulation of Extra Dimensions” and “Invisibility Cloaking: Theories and Experiments.” Also, during this time (at least according to the Skinwalkers book) people connected to AAWSAP developed weird medical problems and experienced paranormal encounters. Most distressing of all, Lacatski had a vision of the abstract object from the cover of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells album.

For some reason, the government stopped funding the program after two years, and it disbanded in late 2010.

Award-winning UFologist Tom DeLonge

Award-winning UFologist Tom DeLonge

There is a notion in the UFO field called “disclosure.” The U.S. government knows that ETs are real, this theory claims, but it’s keeping the truth hidden until just the right time. Disclosure is portrayed as a quasi-secular End Times, which would be a good thing, if the benevolent space brothers endowed humanity with advanced technology for curing Earth diseases and social ills. Or it could be a very bad thing, with anal probes and cattle mutilations for everybody. Depends who you ask.

Tom DeLonge, best known as one-third of the nineties boy band Blink-182, is a millionaire businessman and award-winning UFOologist who must have realized that disclosure presented a good business opportunity. In October 2017 he announced his latest venture, To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTSA). This organization has two main silos, a media venture to sell books and movies related to aliens, and a research organization positioned to exploit any scientific advancements that might be the result of extraterrestrial or other paranormal contact.

The announcement of TTSA was heralded in a Huffington Post story by UFO journalist Leslie Keane. In this press-release-disguised-as-news, she makes DeLonge seem downright philanthropic:

Something extraordinary is about to be revealed. Former high-level officials and scientists with deep black experience who have always remained in the shadows are now stepping into the light. These insiders have long-standing connections to government agencies which may have programs investigating unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). They intend to move into the private sector and to make all declassified information, and any future knowledge, available for all to see…

What is going on here? Is this the beginning of some sort of trend towards a new openness on the part of the U.S. government? These people know more than any of us do, so the question of their motivation is fundamental.

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In the TTSA business model, the entertainment arm of the company convinces people that UFOs are real, promoting a public willingness to invest in pseudoscientific research projects involving everything from clairvoyance to recovered UFO material. (It reminds me of a story I once heard about an addiction counselor who moonlights as a bartender.) Of course, if the company ever finds that the “alien technology” thing is a dead end, it can always double down on making movies and books and comic books and skateboards (which seems to be just what is happening, judging by its latest SEC filing).

Clairvoyance has been a pseudoscientific dead-end for the military-industrial complex since at least the 1970s, when it was rechristened “remote viewing” in an attempt to make it sound more science-y. Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in California was at the forefront of this type of research, and a 1996 paper by SRI’s Hal Puthoff describes CIA-funded psychic journeys to the Ural Mountains and the planet Jupiter. Nothing came of it, really, except for a generation of psychic scammers who can now add “CIA asset” to their resumes.

In 2019, TTSA announced that it had acquired metamaterials of extraterrestrial origin from UFO evangelist Linda Moulton Howe. In the press release this is portrayed as a “groundbreaking” acquisition, but the truth is that these little chunks of metal — “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin” — have been a known commodity since the 1990s. In a 2016 story in Fortean Times, Peter Brookesmith demonstrated how this mysterious bismuth/magnesium alloy was most likely created:

The process, called the Betterton-Krohl Process, uses molten magnesium floated over the surface of liquid lead. The magnesium sucks up, or pulls bismuth impurities out of the lead! Often, the magnesium is used over and over again. (“The UFO Files,” Fortean Times, October 2016)

The supposed alien bismuth/magnesium metamaterial was purchased by the TTSA for $35,000, a testament to either DeLonge’s intense gullibility or his intense belief. Or most likely both. Even before TTSA, his Blink-182 bandmates picked up on this: “[H]e believes anything he reads,” bassist Mark Hoppus told Rolling Stone. “You could say, ‘I read in a magazine that an alien landed in Australia. A doctor found him and did an autopsy – there’s footage on the Internet.’ And Tom wouldn’t even question it. He would take it as gospel and go around telling everybody.”

Luis “Big Lue” Elizondo, the History Channel’s newest star

Luis “Big Lue” Elizondo, the History Channel’s newest star

AAWSAP, the Top Secret program initiated by Harry Reid and Robert “Deuce” Bigelow in 2007, was first revealed by The New York Times in December 2017, two months after Tom DeLonge’s To The Stars Academy was announced. “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” was written by Leslie Keane, Ralph Blumenthal, and Times Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper. The revelation of the first government UFO investigation since Project Blue Book in the 1960s quickly captured the world’s imagination. It story raised a lot of questions, but provided few answers.

Not at all helpful for clarity was the reporters’ reference to AAWSAP as AATIP (short for Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program). As James Lacatski explained in Skinwalkers, AAWSAP was the Top Secret name of the Top Secret AAWSAP program, while AATIP was its non-Top Secret nickname. Except that after AAWSAP closed in 2010, the name AATIP was then adopted by a separate Pentagon UFO program. The main source for “Glowing Auras” is Lue Elizondo, who told the paper that he was in charge of AATIP (not AAWSAP), but since AAWSAP is referred to as AATIP in the article, AATIP is conflated with AAWSAP and we are led to believe that Lue, then a military intelligence case officer, was the head of AATIP (AAWSAP), when in reality he was involved with AATIP (not AAWSAP). Lue could’ve cleared all this up back in 2017, but he apparently chose not to.

Further complicating the story is the fact that, when journalist Keith Kloor looked into it in 2019, he couldn’t find any evidence that Elizondo had ever worked on a government UFO program, much less headed one.

The late 2017 publication of “Glowing Auras” appeared to be timed, along with the TTSA launch and an interview with Robert Bigelow on 60 Minutes, as part of a coordinated PR campaign for UFO disclosure. And with the benefit of hindsight, it definitely looks like this was all part of a coordinated PR campaign for UFO disclosure.

Hal Puthoff (left) and the gang that couldn't do science straight

Hal Puthoff (left) and the gang that couldn't do science straight

Parapsychologist Harold E. “Hal” Puthoff, age 85, is both a PhD electrical engineer from Stanford University and an Operating Thetan (OT VII) from the Church of Scientology. In 1972, while employed by Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), Puthoff and physicist Russell Targ worked in the CIA’s psychic spying program. Remote viewing (or clairvoyance) was one of the powers claimed by L. Ron Hubbard, and the impact of Scientology on the program cannot be overstated. In addition to Puthoff, SRI Scientologists included Ingo Swann and Pat Price. Edwin May, who became the program’s director in 1985, dabbled in Scientology as well.

After studying and confirming the powers of spoon-bending Israeli psychic Uri Geller for the U.S. government (despite a whole category of literature that now exists proving Geller was, and continues to be, a fraud), Puthoff founded EarthTech International in 1985. In 1998, he was awarded U.S. Patent 5,845,220, “Communication Method and Apparatus with Signals Comprising Scalar and Vector Potentials Without Electromagnetic Fields.” According to the Wisconsin Law Review, “the Puthoff patent” demonstrates how “even a competent [patent] examiner may fail to distinguish innovation from pseudoscience.”

Puthoff is also a cofounder of TTSA, where he currently serves on its Scientific Advisory Board.

There is a direct line to be drawn from the Church of Scientology to SRI, Robert Bigelow, AAWSAP, and Tom DeLonge’s To The Stars Academy. And Hal Puthoff is present at every step.

Tom DeLonge’s selfie in the halls of power

Tom DeLonge’s selfie in the halls of power

Perhaps the most bizarre feature of the new UFOlogy is how much these people love sucking up to the government.

The military has always had a fundamental role in American UFO mythology, but until recently it was never the good guy. Whether doing its best to make the alien question go away (the real purpose of all those military UFO studies of the 1950s and 1960s) or creating and amplifying outrageous myths to cover up very real tests of high-tech aircraft (google “the Bennewitz Affair”), the government was not to be trusted.

At some point, as America slid further to the right, the UFO community learned to love the government.

Skinwalkers at the Pentagon is a 200-plus page love letter to the military, while UFO whistleblower Lue Elizondo goes out of his way to portray himself as anything but a UFO whistleblower. Instead, he wants us to believe that his reality TV show, speaking gigs, and recently announced memoir are merely continuations of the job he started at the Pentagon. The book, which “promises to reveal shocking never-before-shared details regarding … UFOs and the profound implications for humanity” was purchased by William Morrow after a bidding war, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

But the strangest patriot out there is probably Tom DeLonge himself. TTSA “is about changing the cynical views of youth towards government,” he wrote to Democratic operative John Podesta in an email leaked by WikiLeaks in 2016. Elsewhere too, DeLonge has made his position clear: “Everyone … looks up to the United States government as having the resources, the intellect and the duty to deal with subjects like this,” he told The New York Times in 2019. The government is here to help us sort this extraterrestrial thing out, in other words.

Since at least the 1970s, pseudoscience has had a place in the heart of the military-industrial complex. This isn’t a testament to the soundness of paranormal research, it’s a testament to the tenacity of a small group of paranormal researchers.

It’s also a flaw in the system. A government (and military) obsessed with secrecy and impervious to the democratic process has no mechanism for rejecting ridiculous claims. In the shadows where Congress dares not tread, in the black budget programs with the weird contractors they spawn, people take astral voyages over the Urals, chase orbs of blue light, and blow money analyzing industrial waste in the mistaken belief that it belongs to a crashed UFO.

And sometimes they make a pretty good living doing it.