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The hidden history of how Washington embraced UFOs

Published: in European News by .

For years, a loose group of enthusiasts—a pop singer, a real-estate magnate, a banking heir, and a terrorist interrogator—has been working to push its pet mystery into the mainstream. This year, it broke through.

Bryan Bender is a senior national correspondent for POLITICO.

The meetings began in 1995, in a conference room in an office tower near the Las Vegas airport. The group started small: there were a handful of scientists and engineers; there was a CIA spy. There was an ex-Army colonel, and two Apollo astronauts.

And there was the person who’d hand-picked the group and invited them to Las Vegas: Robert Bigelow, a Nevada real-estate magnate. He wanted to talk about aliens.

Bigelow, just turning 50 at the time, had made enough money as a commercial developer, opening budget hotels across the Southwest, that he could finally indulge a fascination with UFOs that dated back years, to a close encounter his grandparents had experienced and told him aboutwhen he was three years old. He dubbed the group,somewhat grandly, the National Institute for Discovery Science.

NIDS, as it took shape in those Las Vegas meetings, was mainly interested in two topics: UFOs and consciousness after death. Its members were experts who had gotten used to having their interests disrespected by their peers. The group’s co-founder was John Alexander, a retired Army officer who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and had published books and articles on various aspects of ufology and the paranormal. Another was Hal Puthoff, an engineer and self-described parapsychologist who, while at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1970s and 1980s, had carried out top secret experiments for the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency on “remote viewing,” or using the human mind to sense objects or events far away. “One of the professors at Stanford thought that was all nonsense,” he said. “He wouldn’t let his kids play with my kids because of what I was doing.”

Collectively, the group, which also attracted former astronauts Ed Mitchell, an avowed ufologist, and Harrison Schmitt, who had also served as a U.S. senator from New Mexico a decade earlier, didn’t fret too much about the reputational risks of talking openly about whether the government had captured an alien or retrieved a crashed spacecraft. For them, that was the point of being there.

There was one person at those meetings, however, who did have something to lose by attending: Harry Reid, then serving his second term as a U.S. senator from Nevada.

Reid had been introduced to Bigelow by a well-known Nevada TV journalist named George Knapp, who had written extensively on the subject of UFOs over the years and had recently secured some Russian government documents purporting to shed light on the topic. Knapp knew from covering Reid’s career that the senator had a curiosity about the subject. Reid accepted Bigelow’s invitation, but not before making clear to Knapp that his participation must remain secret. Knapp honored that agreement for the past quarter century until Reid recounted his odyssey in detail over a series of interviews with me in recent months.

“This guy named Bigelow is doing an event at his conference room and has been inviting a bunch of people to talk about these unidentified flying objects,” Reid told me in a recent interview. “He had some people with some weird ideas. Not scientific. A few oddballs. I listened to some of the presentations. That’s how I got started.”

In its way, Reid’s decision to fraternize with the group was as professionally reckless as anything that might have been happening outside on the Vegas Strip. Reid, then 55, had aspirations to lead the Democratic Party. The stuff being discussed around him was pop-culture shorthand for pure nuttiness.

“I had my staff, I had lots of people who said: ‘You are going to get yourself in trouble, stay the hell away from that,’” Reid told me. “A lot of people said it would ruin my career.”

Over the next few years, Reid told me, he went to multiple such meetings. As Bigelow, Alexander and the others were publishing obscure journal articles and compiling a database of UFO sightings, the most influential member of the group quietly broached the topic with some of his colleagues in Washington, including former astronaut and senator John Glenn. Reid ultimately enlisted the support of a handful of powerful committee chairs, including Ted Stevens of Alaska and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, to fund hush-hush UFO research inside the Defense Department. The existence of that program was revealed publicly by POLITICO and the New York Times in mid-December 2017. One of the program’s main beneficiaries was an aerospace company owned by none other than Robert Bigelow.

Next month, the director of national intelligence, acting at the behest of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, is scheduled to release a report that collects from across the government all relevant material on what the officials now call “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Regardless of what ultimately emerges in this report—whether it’s a trove of blockbuster reveals or a disappointing dud—the mere prospect has catalyzed a wave of mainstream coverage of government UFO research, from the New Yorker to “60 Minutes.”A bewildering and still highly controversial subject has achieved a surprising level of public respectability as a national security concern.

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Reid had retired by the time his secret role in the program was revealed. But his willingness to talk openly now about the subject speaks to a profound change in the calculus of political and reputational risk. Far from a blot on his career, Reid sees it as a line to highlight on his legislative resume and he has no regrets about Bigelow benefiting from the program.

“I think that I have opened the door to people not being afraid to talk about it,” Reid now says. “I know that when I first got involved in this, people in the military were afraid to mention it for fear of it hurting their promotions. But now the Pentagon has told them they should report all these things that they see that are unusual. So we made a tremendous amount of progress.”

In just the three years since the existence of the Pentagon UFO office was made public, the federal government has become increasingly less cagey about a subject that was mocked as absurd and feared as taboo; YouTube is now filled withcockpit videos from military pilots, some verified by the Pentagon, of strange encounters with objects that seem to defy known laws of aerodynamics. Just this month a video taken by the USS Omaha off the California coast in 2019 shows an identified spherical aircraft hovering over the water, before disappearing beneath the waves. Even Barack Obama has spoken recently about encounters “we can’t explain.”

The quarter-century saga stretching from Harry Reid’s first attendance at one of Bigelow’s NIDS meetings to the forthcoming release of once-secret documents offers a modern case study in how marginalized ideas can make their way into the mainstream. Last summer, after a series of classified briefings for Congress, including Navy pilots giving direct testimony, the Pentagon announced it was creating the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force “to improve its understanding of, and gain insight into, the nature and origins of UAPs.” In a recent public forum, the Navy’s top officer said the military now has a “well-established process in place…to collect that data and to get it to a separate repository for analysis.” The Pentagon’s internal watchdog announced this month that it is launching its own evaluation “to determine the extent to which the DoD has taken actions regarding Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP).”

Other public and private entities are embracing a subject that once would have been fatal to their institutional credibility. “What if invisible aliens exist among us, already here but unseen by human eyes?” asks a recent blog post from Northrop Grumman, one of the Pentagon’s largest contractors and a bastion of corporate orthodoxy. “Do aliens exist?” asks another entry. “Scientists wonder if extraterrestrial life has visited Earth.” It can sound like a cheesy trailer for a History Channel documentary, except the scientists they’re referring toare working at some of the nation’s most elite schools.

An MIT researcher, Lex Fridman, who specializes in machine learning, commonly delves into the UFO phenomenon on his popular podcast. Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb says he’s confident aliens have flown by Earth. Even Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in America, asked in a recent cover story about UFOs: “Shouldn’t we as scientists choose to investigate and curb the speculation around them?” It answered its own question: “Interdisciplinary teams of scientists should study them.”

The mindset shift inside Congress, in many ways, is the most consequential because of its ability to back up its public discussion with legal mandates and taxpayer dollars. One needn’t believe UFOs are real to recognize that the money that might flow from the Hill very much is.

Rubio, who is widely expected to make a presidential run in 2024, couches his interest in national security terms. “Maybe it’s got a logical explanation,” he recently said. “People want to know, I want to know what it is…There’s stuff flying over the top of our military installations. They don’t know who is flying it. They don’t even know what it is. So that’s a problem. We need to find out if we can.”

Perhaps the clearest sign yet that UFOs have entered the political bloodstream for good was the establishment last week of the first-ever political action committee dedicated to “educating the American public and financially supporting politicians who advocate for the full disclosure of information about unidentified flying objects.”

Who really got us here? The story of how this happened features a network of unlikely characters that grew from its original nucleus to include key political insiders, journalists, a banking dynasty heir, a former terrorist interrogator and even a California rock star, interacting for years in various combinations until they coalesced in a way that created a mutually reinforcing cycle of media coverage and government action. No one is more surprised by what they have accomplished than they are.

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If Robert Bigelow and Harry Reid were the publicity-shy backstage benefactors of modern ufology, Tom DeLonge would be its front man.

DeLonge, now 45, was a founding member of the pop-punk band Blink-182, which had a string of earworm hits in the ’90s and early 2000s. DeLonge had been fixated on UFOs since his youth. But it wasn’t until around 2015 when he left the band that he decided to do something about it. He wanted to force the government to disclose what it knew and he began recruiting a team he felt he needed to do it.

It didn’t take long for DeLonge to emerge as a public figure in ufology circles. In2016,Wikileaks got hold of emails that showed him communicating with former White House chief of staff John Podesta, a confidant of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In one email from 2015, DeLonge offered to introduce Podesta, the ultimate Washington insider, to a pair of “A-Level officials” to discuss “our sensitive topic.”

Not long ago, I visited DeLonge at his office in a renovated garage a few blocks from the beach in the Encinitas neighborhood of San Diego. The space was cluttered with guitars and other music memorabilia. But at least half of the decor was devoted to his other obsession. “It’s so gnarly,” said DeLonge, who still sounds like the California skateboarder of his youth. “There’s more to all this. I personally learned something where I didn’t sleep for three nights.”

Hanging on DeLonge’s wall was what might be considered the medals he’s collected in his struggle: a display case filled with dozens of commemorative coins from his meetings with generals, aerospace contractors and secret government agencies. They trace his visits tothe CIA, to the U.S. Navy, to the “advanced development programs” division at Lockheed Martin’s famously secretive “Skunk Works” in Southern California, where the some of the world’s most advanced spy planes were designed.

Something else stuck out to me: a framed photo of DeLonge posing with two men, one of whom was Bob Bigelow. The photo was taken in late 2017, shortly after DeLonge established his company, To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences, a hybrid research and entertainment entity that DeLonge has used to advance his UFO agenda.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” DeLonge told me of his meeting with Bigelow at the Las Vegas headquarters of Bigelow Aerospace, the company he founded in 1999, which has worked for NASA to design living compartments for the Space Station. “He’s a renegade. I love what he’s done. I think he’s just been a tremendous asset in this field of study. We talked a lot about TTSA and what our plans were.”

To the Stars Academy has since teamed up with the Department of Defense to study “exotic” metals and “beamed energy propulsion.” It has also been lobbying for the new government-wide study on UAPs. But a significant part of To the Stars consists of commercial ventures: lines of movies, books, and video games with paranormal and UFO themes. It is, in effect, an engineered feedback loop between his apparently serious interest in the unknown, and a line of products that benefits from public interest in the mystery. This overt crossing of wires,not to mention his more sensational public claims, have led some skeptics to dismiss him as unserious. Even some of DeLonge’s supporters question whether the profit-driven aspects of TTSA have damaged his efforts to bring mainstream credibility to the issue.

But there is no disputing the role DeLonge played in moving UFOs into the realm of more serious discussion. When DeLonge was setting up To the Stars Academy five years ago, he began to assemble a team of consultants not unlike the group Bigelow had brought together some two decades before, who had connections in the shadowy recesses of the national security agencies needed to unearth new information to help prove his theories. In some cases, they were the exact same people.

“From day one, I figured I needed knights of the round table,” DeLonge told me. “I needed a whole Camelot of scholars and each of them had a different piece that really helped me. It was the military, it was intelligence, it was engineering. It was executive branch.”

One of the first people DeLonge recruited as the academy’s vice president for science and technology was Puthoff, the former Stanford engineer who had carried out experiments in the ’70s for the CIA. After NIDS shut down in 2004, Puthoff became one of the top consultants for Bigelow Aerospace, which, in time, became the primary contractor of Reid’s secret Pentagon program. On Bigelow’s behalf, Puthoff commissioned 38 technical reports, worth a total of $22 million, with sci-fi-like titles such as “Warp Drive, Dark Energy, and The Manipulation of Extra Dimensions” and “Traversable Wormholes, Stargates and Negative Energy.”

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Puthoff recently told me in a telephone interview from Austin, Texas, where he runs a consulting firm EarthTech International. “But on the other hand, there’s a lot we do know, even if it’s not public.”

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Another of DeLonge’s recruits was Jim Semivan, who retired in 2007 after 25 years in the CIA’s clandestine service, where he helped spy on adversaries such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Semivan met DeLonge through Alexander, the Army officer who helped found NIDS with Bigelow. Semivan says he had no official role in studying UFOs for the government,“but I ran into a lot of things that were very strange.” He also told me he had a UFO encounter with his wife that he has never discussed publicly.

Semivan wrote the introduction to DeLonge’s book Sekret Machines: Chasing Shadows, the first volume in a series that DeLonge published in 2016. “UAPs are real. The Phenomenon is real,” Semivan wrote. “There is no way to deny or refute all the evidence accumulated over just the last few decades alone. But what is the Phenomenon, exactly?”

“No one knows what the real story is,” Semivan, who is vice president of operations of DeLonge’s company, told me. “Everyone is in the dark on this.”

DeLonge also enlisted Steve Justice, an aerospace engineer who had spent decades overseeing classified development programs at Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works. Over the years, fellow engineers and other colleagues Justice respected in the cloistered world of the Pentagon’s “black” programs shared with him their experiences with UFO sightings—“some people that I would trust my life with that saw something they could not explain.” But he told me that he remained dubious: “I was in the eyeroll category on this.”

Then in the mid-1990s, after the Skunk Works moved from its original 320-acre location in Burbank to Palmdale, Justice took it upon himself to become its unofficial historian. During the move, he recalled, he came across files from the late Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson, a legendary aeronautical engineer who had helped design the U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird.

“There was this one memo that was stapled together, dated from the 1950s,” Justice said. “It was titled something like ‘sighting of an unidentified flying object by certain Lockheed personnel.’ So I flipped it open. The first page is a memo from Kelly Johnson to somebody, I believe, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, saying ‘Some of us saw this, wanted to send it to you in case it is of interest.’ It was several pages of Kelly Johnson where he was at his ranch and had seen something and drew sketches of it.”

There were other eyewitnesses, too. “What I found really interesting was there were like three or so memos written by members of his flight test team, who were [flying] up in a Constellation and they say the same thing that Kelly did,” Justice said. “Each one of them kind of noted that they were skeptics of this and they had to go back and think about this some more because they couldn’t explain what they saw.”

Justice said that as he kept reading his perspective changed. “I go, ‘Okay, these guys are airplane designers…and they didn’t know what this is. And it was observed from two different perspectives. I decided I am going to put aside all the [UFO] stigma stuff.”

Another veteran of NIDS that DeLonge brought on board to advise the effort was Jacques Vallee, a French-born astronomer and computer scientist. Vallee was the inspiration for the scientist in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, about alien abductions by a seemingly benevolent species that communicated with humans subconsciously. In more recent years, Vallee helped run a venture capital firm that partnered with NASA in 2006 to help the space agency explore emerging technologies.

“In the ’60s and ’70s among astronomers the idea of life in the universe was very much in dispute,” Vallee, 81, told me over Zoom. “There was no evidence for any [Earth-like]planet out there. Now it is proven. We have thousands of planets that are either visible or detected by their motion. Some percentage of them would presumably support life in the same conditions as the Earth. And this comes from mainstream science.”

DeLonge’s team of consultants helped him build his commercial ventures, but the most important thing they did was to give him a sense of whom to call at the Pentagon and other agencies.

“At that time, I was reaching out everywhere to meet people. All agencies and branches, anywhere I could get an audience,” DeLonge told me. “I’d write emails to four-star generals and try to get responses. It was a tough path.”

Finally, in 2016, one of DeLonge’s cold calls unearthed the name of a man who would become one of the most crucial players in publicizing the government’s UFO research: Luis Elizondo.


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