How the Pentagon Began Taking UFOs Seriously 
  • By ufos-usa
  • / August 9, 2023
  • / USA

On May 9, 2001, Steven M. Greer took the podium at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.C., looking for the truth about unidentified flying objects. Greer, a Virginia emergency physician and outspoken ufologist, believed the government had long kept secret its knowledge of extraterrestrial visits to American citizens. He founded the Disclosure Project in 1993 to try to penetrate the sanctums of conspiracy. According to Greer, about two dozen speakers spoke that day.To support his claims, he produced four hundred and ninety-two pages of documents known as the “Draft Disclosure Information Document.” For those officials who were too busy to absorb such a wide range of suppressed knowledge, Greer prepared a 95-page “Executive Summary of Background to the Disclosure Project.” After clearing their throats a bit, the “Summary” began with a “Summary” containing a series of bullet points describing the greatest mystery of the year
in human history.

According to Greer, countless alien spacecraft have been spotted in our planet’s airspace for several decades; They were capable of reaching extreme speeds without any visible means of lift or propulsion and performing breathtaking maneuvers under the force of gravity that would turn a human pilot into soup. Some of these alien spacecraft “have been shot down, recovered and studied since at least the 1940s and perhaps as early as the 1930s.”Efforts to reverse engineer these remarkable machines have led to “significant technological advances in energy production.” These operations were largely classified as “top secret” and the level of authority was “thirty-eight levels” higher than that normally granted to the commander in chief. Why, Greer asked, did these revolutionary technologies remain hidden for so long? It was obvious. It is about “the social, economic and geopolitical order of the world”.

Greer appeared at the news conference wearing thin glasses, a baggy funeral suit and a crooked red tie with a starched collar. “I know a lot of the media would like to talk about the ‘little green men,’” he said. “But in reality the topic is laughed at as being too serious. I’ve had men who grew up in the Pentagon, members of Congress, calling me and asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Here’s what we’re going to do.We will see if this story is adequately disclosed.

Other speakers included Clifford Stone, a retired Army sergeant, who reportedly visited the disaster sites and saw both living and dead aliens. Stone claimed to have cataloged 57 species, including many humanoids. “There are people who look a lot like you and me who could stand between us and you wouldn’t notice the difference,” he said.

Leslie Kean, independent investigative journalist and aspiring U.The FO researcher who worked with Greer watched the proceedings with concern. He recently published an article in the Boston Globe about compelling new evidence on U.F.She and O.s couldn’t understand why the speaker was making unfounded claims about alien corpses when he could talk about concrete data. In Kean’s view, this truly astonishing series of reports deserves scientific analysis, regardless of what you think about aliens. “There were good people at that conference, but some of them made outrageous and pompous statements,” Kean told me. “That’s when I knew I had to go.Greer hoped the media would cover the event, and they did with playful mockery. He also hopes Congress will hold hearings. Obviously that didn’t happen.

Ufologists consistently believe in the inevitability of disclosure, a term of art for a government’s enthusiastic commitment to its profound U.F.O. Knowled

The government may not have had regular contact with exotic civilizations, but it was hiding something from its citizens. In 2017, Kean wrote a best-selling book about UFOs. books and was known for what she called an “activist and agnostic” approach to the phenomenon, following political scientist Alexander Wendt.AP In blogs and podcasts, ufologists began talking about “December 2017.” as shorthand for the moment when the taboo began to dissolve. Joe Rogan, a popular podcast host, has mentioned this article often and praised Kean’s work as an accelerator of cultural change. “It’s a dangerous subject for someone because you run the risk of being ridiculed,” he said in one of the spring episodes.But now “you can say, ‘Look, this is no longer something to make fun of, there’s something to it.’” Without shame or excuses.Last July, Senator Marco Rubio, former acting chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, spoke on CBS News about mysterious objects flying in restricted airspace. “We don’t know what it is,” he said, “and it’s not ours.” » In December, the former CIA chief spoke in a video interview with economist Tyler CowenDirector John Brennan admitted, somewhat mischievously, that he wasn’t sure what to think: “Some of the phenomena we’re about to experience are still unexplained and could actually be the result of something we don’t yet understand, and could be one.” kind of activity that some don’t understand.” Consider another life form.

Last summer, David Norquist, deputy secretary of defense, announced the formal existence of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. The Intelligence Authorization Act of 2021 was signed into law last December, with the government having a report expected in June. In a recent interview with Fox News, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe emphasized that the issue should no longer be taken lightly.”When we talk about sightings,” he said, “we’re talking about objects that have been seen by Navy or Air Force pilots or captured in satellite images that, quite frankly, are performing actions that are difficult to explain and difficult movements.” to reproduce that we do not have the technical means or means to travel at speeds beyond the sound barrier without sonic booms.

Leslie Kean is a confident woman with a no-nonsense attitude and a shock of curly gray hair. He lives alone in a bright corner apartment on the northern tip of Manhattan, where on the wall behind his desk hangs a framed black-and-white photo that looks like an ultrasonic Frisbee. The photo and treatment documents were provided to him by contacts within the Costa Rican government; In your opinion it is the most beautiful UFO picture.never made public. When I first visited her, she was wearing a black jacket and a T-shirt advertising “The Phenomenon,” a 2020 documentary with surprisingly high production values ​​in a genre known for grainy images of dubious provenance. Kean is opinionated but humble and speaks often about the impact of the Times story and the new UFO series.drew attention to her as if she had not been the main initiator. He told me: “When the article appeared in the New York Times, it said, ‘It’s a UFO.’ People wanted it forever.”'”

Kean is always friendly to “U.F.O.” “Humans,” although he stands out from mainstream ufology. “What Greer said wasn’t necessarily wrong: Maybe there have been alien visits since 1947,” he said.“The idea is that you have to be strategic about what you say in order for it to be taken seriously. Don’t throw away those who talk about foreign objects, even if that is true. Nobody was willing to do that; They didn’t even know the U.F.O.they were real. Kean is certain that UFOs are real.Everything else—what they are, why they are here, why they never set foot on the White House lawn—is speculation.

Kean feels most comfortable on the border between paranormal and scientific phenomena; His latest project examines controversial research into the possibility of consciousness after death. Until recently, she dreaded the inevitable moment when other guests at a party asked her about her job and she had to mumble something about UFOs.S. “Then they laughed,” he said, “and I had to say, ‘There’s actually a lot of serious information there.'” His direct, reserved way of talking about incomprehensible data adds to his honesty. As he leafed through his vast library of canonical texts on ufology during my visit – with titles like “Extraterrestrial Contact” and “Above Top Secret” – he sighed and said: “Unfortunately, most of them are ‘not very good’.”

In his best-selling book, “UFO: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record,” published by Random House in 2010, Kean wrote that “the U.S. government routinely ignores UFOs and, when pressed, provides false explanations.” . “His indifference and/or dismissal are irresponsible, disrespectful to credible, often expert witnesses, and potentially dangerous. » His book clearly reminds us that this was not always the case.In the decades after World War II, about half of Americans, including many in power, took UFOs for granted. Kean sees herself as the keeper of this lost history.In his apartment, a quiet room decorated with a Burmese Buddha and bowls of seashells, Kean sat on the floor, opened filing cabinets, and disappeared into a pile of declassified notes, barely readable teletypes, and yellowed copies of Saturday Night. Posts and Times Magazines with flying saucer covers and long, serious descriptions of the phenomenon.

Kean grew up in New York, the scion of one of the country’s oldest political dynasties. His grandfather, Robert Winthrop Kean, served ten terms in Congress; His ancestors descend from John Kean, a delegate to the Continental Congress from South Carolina, on his father’s side, and from John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, on his mother’s side. He speaks rather abstractly about his family’s legacy, aside from a discussion of abolitionist William Lloyd
Garrison, his grandfather’s great-grandfather, whom he considers a source of inspiration. His uncle is Thomas Kean, who served two terms as governor of New Jersey and then chaired the 9/11 Commission.

Kean attends Spence School and studies in Bard. She has a modest family income and spent her youth as a “spiritual seeker”. After helping to found a Zen center in upstate New York, she worked as a photographer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. After traveling to Burma to interview political prisoners in the late 1990s, she began a career as an investigative journalist. She took a job at KPFA, a radio station in Berkeley, as producer and host of
‘s “Flashpoints,” a left-leaning drive-in news show that covered wrongful convictions, the death penalty and other crimes. -Questions of justice.

In 1999, a Parisian journalist friend sent him a ninety-page report written by a dozen retired French generals, scientists and space experts entitled “UFOs and Defense: What Should We Prepare for?” – “UFOs and Defense”. : What should we prepare for?The authors, a group called Comet, have analyzed numerous UFO finds. Reports with associated radar and photographic evidence. Objects observed up close by military and commercial pilots appeared to defy the laws of physics; The authors noted their “slight supersonic speed without a sonic boom” and “electromagnetic effects that interfere with nearby radio or electrical equipment.”The vast majority of sightings were meteorological or terrestrial in origin or could not be investigated due to lack of evidence, but a small percentage of them appeared to involve, as the report states, “complete strangers with unique feats driven by natural or terrestrial phenomena.” to be “strength”. Artificial intelligence.” Comet decided by elimination that the “alien hypothesis” was the most logical explanation.

Kean had read Whitley Strieber’s Communion, the 1
cult bestseller about alien abductions, but had never become interested in UFOs until the French discoveries.S. “I spent years at KPFA reporting on the horrors, injustice and oppression of the world and giving a voice to the voiceless,” he remembers. As he explored the multitude of strange episodes, he felt as if he had looked beyond our dark reality and the boundaries of conventional thinking and glimpsed an enchanted cosmos. “For me, it went beyond the endless struggle of people,” he told me during a long walk in his neighborhood. “It was the planetary problem of
.He stopped in the middle of the street. He pointed to the heavily clouded sky and said, “Why should we assume that we understand everything there is to know here on this planet from a young age?”

The Focus editor of the Boston Globe, who wrote Kean’s work about Burma, tentatively agreed to work with her on a UFO story.Sister Kean decided not to discuss this issue with her KPFA colleagues because she feared they would view the topic as superficial at best. But she is confident that anyone with access to the French report’s data and findings will understand why she abandoned everything else. He declined to include ironic passages in the article, published on May 21, 2000, as a simple summary of comet research. “But then of course nothing happened,” he added.“And that was the beginning of my education in the power of stigma.”

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“Why should we assume we have it all figured out?” My name is Leslie Kean. Photo: Tonje Thilesen for The New Yorker

Some enthusiasts believe in UFOs. They have been documented since biblical times; In his 1974 book Ezekiel’s Starships, Josef F. Blumrich, a NASA engineer, said that the prophet’s celestial vision, which depicted wheels within wheels, was not an encounter with God but with an alien spacecraft.In “The UFO Controversy in America” ​​(1975), David Jacobs described a series of “airplane” sightings across the country in 1896 and 1897. In our descriptions, the spacecraft has always demonstrated capabilities beyond our horizons, technologies, and ours achievements go beyond. in war they crossed borders. , have become surprisingly impressive. It is widely believed that the U.F.Era O began on June 24, 1947, when private pilot Kenneth Arnold flying a CallAir A-2 spotted a loose formation of nine wave formations near Mount Rainier. They were shaped like boomerangs or manta rays without tails, and he estimated they moved at two or three times the speed of sound. He described their movement as “a saucer skipping across the water.”The newspaper headline talked about “flying saucers.” According to an independent study, U.F.O. By the end of the year, at least 850 similar sightings had been reported nationwide.That same month, Lt. Gen. Nathan F. Twining told the commander in chief of the armed forces in a secret message that “the reported phenomenon is real and not visionary or fictional.” The “Twining Memo,” which has now gained ecclesiastical status among ufologists, expressed fears that a foreign rival—includingOn the other hand, there was no hard evidence – perhaps the wreckage of a crashed flying saucer – and, as a Rand Corporation scientist argued, interstellar travel was simply impossible.

However, inexplicable things continued to happen. In 1948, about a year after Arnold’s sighting, two pilots of an Eastern Airlines DC-3 saw a large cigar-shaped light coming toward them at tremendous speed, then made an incredibly sharp turn and disappeared into the clear sky. The pilot of the second aircraft and several witnesses on the ground provided corroborating statements. This was the first time the U.F.O. was closely watched: two pilots reported seeing a row of portholes passing in front of them. Project Sign researchers have submitted a top-secret “situation assessment” memorandum supporting the extraterrestrial hypothesis. But the opponents claimed that if they were here, wouldn’t they have informed us?

It appeared that such formal notification to the U.S. Army was almost forthcoming in July 1952.According to F.O. They violated the restricted airspace over the White House. The Los Angeles Times headline sounds like a passage from a Philip K. Dick novel: “Flying Objects Near Washington Spotted by Pilots, Radar: Air Force Issues Reports of Something,” perhaps “flat saucers,” moving move slowly but they jump up and down.The air force downplayed the incident and told the newspaper that no defensive measures had been taken, although it later emerged that the army had sent aircraft to intercept the intruders. Maj. Gen. John Samford, the Air Force intelligence director, held the largest news conference since the end of World War II. Samford, who had the serious expression of a lawman in a John Ford movie, narrowed his eyes as he said that “some of this reporting was done by credible observers on relatively unreliable things.”

The following January Year Year C.I.A. secretly convened an advisory group of experts led by Howard P. Robertson, a mathematical physicist at Caltech. The Robertson Committee failed to find that the U.F. visited us.O.S., but we’ve been inundated with too many UFOs. Relationships.This was a real problem: if notifications of actual incursions into American territory had been lost in a whirlwind of bizarre hallucinations, it could have had serious consequences for national security: Soviet spy planes, for example, could have operated with impunity. The Cold War made the United States decisive.It is believed to have complete control of its airspace.

To stem the flood of reports, the panel recommended that “the national security agencies take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired.” It also suggested that civilian U.F.O. groups be infiltrated and monitored, and enlisted the media in the debunking effort.The campaign culminated in a 1966 television special entitled “UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy?” in which CBS host Walter Cronkite patiently relegated UFOs to third-rate obscurity.

Not all soldiers were happy with this position. Vice Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the first director of the CIA, told a Times reporter: “Behind the scenes, senior Air Force officers are seriously concerned about UFOs.”“But official secrets and the ridicule of many citizens lead us to believe that unidentified flying objects are nonsense.”

The government maintained a single public UFO depot. Reports: Project Blue Book, a sequel to Project Sign, which operated from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.Blue Book was an ill-equipped department run by a group of low-ranking officers who would have preferred any other position. The only regular program participant and in-house scientist was Ohio astronomer J. Allen Hynek, a UFO researcher.Skeptic and former Robertson panelist. Originally, Hynek took a “common sense” approach; as he later wrote, “I believed that the lack of ‘consistent’ evidence justified the practical attitude that ‘it simply cannot be.'” 95 percent of UFO claimsIn reality, it had a very diverse origin: isolated clouds, weather balloons, atmospheric temperature inversions. The glowing balls can be assigned to Venus; The silent triangles could be linked to secret military technology. (The U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird were often reported as UFOs.s, a confusion embraced by the counterintelligence community, which was eager to keep these projects secret.) But the remaining five per cent, despite the government’s best efforts, could not be neatly resolved. Hynek, to his surprise, developed sympathy for the people who saw U.F.O.S; They were much more likely to be respectable and humiliated citizens than lunatics, frauds and “U.F.O.” Reinforcement. »

Still, he was expected to do his job. Beginning on March 14, 1966, more than a hundred witnesses from Dexter, Michigan and surrounding areas reported seeing bright lights and large, low-flying soccer balls. When Hynek arrived, the community was in a state “close to hysteria.” At a press conference on March 25, Hynek, under pressure to avert panic, attributed some sightings to the moon and stars, others to spontaneous combustion of rotting vegetation or “swamp gas.”
Michiganders found it an insult.(“Swamp gas” has become a common UFO metonym for condescending government cover-up.) Gerald Ford, a Grand Rapids native and later House minority leader, called for congressional hearings “in the firm belief that American society needs a better Deserves explanation than previously reported”. the air force. During his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Hynek recommended the creation of an independent panel to evaluate the merits of Project Blue Book and ultimately decide the UFO issue.Legitimacy. In seventeen years, Blue Book has investigated about twelve thousand cases; seven hundred and one of them remained unaccounted for.

In late 1966, Edward U. Condon, a physicist at the University of Colorado, was paid three hundred thousand dollars to conduct this research. The project was plagued by internal conflict, particularly after the discovery of a memo written by the coordinator emphasizing that a truly autonomous approach should take into account the fact that the U.SF.O. can exist. This was not an option: their behavior did not correspond to our understanding of universal laws. The associated scientists – suggests the coordinator – should make it clear to their colleagues that they are primarily concerned about the psychological and social situation in the USA.FO believers. In other words, the observations should be understood as metaphors – for fear of the Cold War or for ambivalence towards technology.

The “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects,” or the Condon Report as it was called, was completed in the late fall of 1968.Of the ninety-one Blue Book cases selected for examination, thirty of them remained official mysteries. In a “puzzling and unusual” incident in 1956, a preternaturally fast object was recorded on multiple radars near a U.S. Air Force base in England. One of Condon’s researchers wrote that “the apparently rational, intelligent behavior of the UFO suggests a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation of this sighting.Tim McMillan, a retired police lieutenant who writes about UFOs and national defense, told me, “They didn’t even need the other seven hundred cases.” All it took was for someone like him to say, “Hey, we should look at this.” »

Condon, who proclaimed that UFOs were complete nonsense long before the study was completed, wrote the report’s executive summary and the Conclusions and Recommendations section. Apparently he had only skimmed the remaining nine hundred pages of the report.He stated: “A careful examination of the material available to us leads us to the conclusion that further extensive research into UFOs is unlikely to be justified on the hope that it will advance science.” He recommended that school children not be given credit for to give their work with UFOs.Scientists should put their talents and money elsewhere. Project Blue Book ended in January 1970.

In 1972, Hynek published The UFO Experience: A Scientific Investigation, a damning autopsy of the Blue Book and the Condon Report and a systematic research plan. The mission of the Blue Book was not to try to control the U.F. to explain.O.s., he wrote; it was more about explaining them. Even worse was the Condon Report, which aimed to disprove all theories of alien spacecraft. Instead, an agnostic approach was required that did not favor alien ships, time, or Venus. HAS.POs were by definition unidentified. But as Kean writes in his book, the Condon report allowed scientists and officials to look the other way; In the meantime, “the media could profit from this adventure by making fun of UFOs or relegating them to science fiction.” Robertson’s committee ultimately succeeded in its mission: “The golden age of official investigations, congressional hearings, press conferences, independent ones scientific research, influential civic groups, bestsellers and popular book cover of
magazine is over.”Hynek founded an independent organization to continue his research, but died in 1986 at the age of 75 without changing the course of public opinion.

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When it became clear that UFOs would be his life’s work, Kean decided to join the research tradition started by Hynek. Ufologists like to focus on some historical events, such as Roswell, where any concrete evidence that might have existed in the past is hopelessly mixed with mythology.Kean focused on the “very good cases” that had been reported since the closure of the Blue Book, including those involving professional observers such as pilots and, ideally, multiple witnesses; those supported by photos or radar tracks; especially those where experts have ruled out other interpretations. One of the cases he investigated involved a horrific event that occurred in England in 1980 known as “British Roswell.” Several U.S. Air Force officers claimed that
was a U.F. observed.O. at close range, directly behind the R.A.F. Bentwaters in Rendlesham Forest.The deputy base commander made an audio recording at the same time. The details of the incident described in Kean’s book are nothing short of sensational. Another witness, Sergeant James Penniston, said he got close enough to the silent triangular vehicle to feel its electrical charge and notice hieroglyphs etched into its surface.

Kean always avoided the word “disclosure,” but she was clear that despite the Condon report, the government’s continued interest in the U.F. concealed.OS In 1976, Major Parviz Jafari, a squadron commander in the Iranian Air Force, was sent with an F-4 aircraft to intercept a brilliant diamond near Tehran, near the border with Iran, in the USSR. In Kean’s book, Jafari wrote that as he approached the object, it “emitted an intense red, green, orange and blue light that was so bright that I could not see its body.” He noticed that his weapon and his radio communications were jammed.U.S. intelligence sources in Iran described the incident in a secret four-page memo to Washington. Kean read me the accompanying review from Colonel Roland Evans: “Excellent report. This case is classic and meets all the necessary criteria for a reliable investigation of the UFO phenomenon. She raised her eyebrows and said, “I mean, it’s not often you see information like this in government documents, especially when you’re told they’re not interested.”

Rothschild, then head of energy and environment at PodestaMattoon, remembers telling Kean: “Most people might think there’s something there, but there are also people who think if you start talking about it, you might End of being an idiot.” He continued: “We.” I had to draw a clear line between the people who would have no credibility and the people who would.”

Kean chose an incident that occurred on the 9th In December 1965, in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, a rural village southeast of Pittsburgh, an object the size of a VW Beetle reportedly fell from the sky. According to several witnesses, the acorn-shaped body was carried out of the forest on a flatbed truck while armed soldiers surveyed the area. Kean filed Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain NASA documents, including some that he said contained information about Debris
recovered from the crime scene.NASA claimed the relevant documents were lost in 1
. After an unsuccessful appeal, Kean filed a lawsuit against NASA to force compliance. Rothschild introduced Kean to John Podesta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff, who had a keen interest in both government transparency and UFOs.S. Podestà agreed to publicly support the process. The case took four years until Kean reached a settlement. He received hundreds of irrelevant documents. Podesta told me: “It was a true story, and you know, when the boxes disappeared in the basement and the dog ate my homework.They just didn’t want to admit what really happened. “I was quite prepared to believe that we didn’t want to return the remains of the Soviet satellite, but nothing made that clear to me, and after forty years there was no compelling reason why they couldn’t just say what they wanted. You thought.”

As Kean discovered, UFOs continue to plague the legacy of Cold War paranoia and obstructionism. Editing. Approximately November 7, 2006Around 3:00 p.m., a metallic-looking rotating disk was observed hovering about 1,900 feet above Gate C17 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The object remained aloft for several minutes before accelerating over a large hill, leaving “an almost perfect circle in the cloud layer in which the ship was located,” as an anonymous witness later put it. When the Chicago Tribune published a report on the sighting  no witnesses commented  the article ranked as the 
 most-read article on the newspaper’s website. The Federal Aviation Administration initially denied knowledge of the crash, but media pressure revealed a recorded telephone conversation between a United Airlines supervisor and an air traffic controller.In the recording, a supervisor named Sue asks, “Hey, have you seen the flying saucer at C17?” She was greeted with loud laughter. “Fly…Do you see the flying saucers?  asks the controller. Sue replies, “Well, that’s what the pilot told us on ramp C17. » There is a pause. “Are you celebrating Christmas today?” asks the inspector and then continues:  I didn’t see anything, Sue, and if I did I wouldn’t admit it.

F.A.A. argued that it must be a “perforated cloud”  a distinctly perforated cirrocumulus or altocumulus with a circular gap that sometimes occurs at subzero temperatures.According to meteorologists Kean spoke with, it was too hot that day for pothole clouds to appear. The episode sparked outrage from Kean. As he said in his book, “Those who know the facts about the O’Hare incident continue to distrust our government, which has once again shown that it will avoid confronting UFO incidents at all costs.”

Kean looked abroad for cases that were treated with greater open-mindedness, and did not have to wait long. On Monday, April 23, 2007, an eighteen-passenger plane operated by Aurigny Air Services departed from Southampton, England, for a routine flight to Alderney, one of the Channel Islands. The captain, Ray Bowyer, had been a professional pilot for eighteen years. In the previous decade, he had flown the forty-minute Channel crossing more than a thousand times. That particular day, the plane took off as scheduled, and climbed through a layer of shallow haze before reaching cruising altitude. Bowyer engaged the autopilot and turned his attention to some paperwork.

At 2:06 p.m., Bowyer looked up to discover a gleaming yellow light directly ahead. He first thought that it was sunlight reflecting off the glass vineries of Guernsey’s tomato industry below, but the light did not flicker. Bowyer reached for his binoculars. At a magnification of ten times, the yellow glow took on the contour of a corporeal object. It had a long, thin, cigarlike shape, with sharp edges and pointed ends, like a wheel viewed in profile. It was stationary, and radiated a brilliance that was “difficult to describe,” Bowyer later wrote, but he “was able to look at this fantastic light without discomfort.” Moments later, he saw a second object, which appeared to move in formation with the first. The passenger seated behind Bowyer, whose name was not made public, reached forward to borrow the binoculars. Three rows back, Kate Russell, an Alderney resident, looked up from her book, and she and her husband both saw the “sunlight-colored” objects. When the flight landed in Alderney, Bowyer filed the details with Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority—which has a Mandatory Occurrence Report system—including a sketch of what he’d seen. In his professional opinion, the objects were each about the size of a “reasonably large town.” He had time for a quick cup of tea before his return to Southampton.

Local papers made reference to “The X-Files,” and the C.A.A. refused to provide further information. A number of Freedom of Information Act requests were filed by the sorts of people who regularly foia U.F.O.s. A week after the sighting, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence concluded that, because the flight position reported was in French airspace, a definitive identification was not the British government’s problem. Nevertheless, three weeks later, the British ministry released the available documentation, a packet that included corroborating radar data from an air-traffic controller on the nearby island of Jersey and a statement from a second commercial pilot in the vicinity, who had seen the objects from a different direction.

Ten months later, David Clarke, a known U.F.O. skeptic, along with three collaborators, published an audit. The “Report on Aerial Phenomena Observed Near the Channel Islands, UK, April 23 2007” was drafted with the coöperation of dozens of domain experts—meteorologists, oceanographers, harbormasters—and various French institutes and British ministries, and it culminated with sixteen prevailing hypotheses, ranked by plausibility. Largely ruled out were such atmospheric aberrations as sun dogs and lenticular clouds, and an exceedingly rare and poorly understood seismological phenomenon known as “earthquake lights,” in which tectonic distress expresses itself in bluish auroras or orbs. The report concluded, “In summary, we are unable to explain the UAP sightings satisfactorily.”

Soon after the Alderney encounter, Kean began working with James Fox, the director of the documentary “The Phenomenon,” to organize an event at the National Press Club. She and Fox chose a date that roughly coincided with the first anniversary of the O’Hare sighting. Among the fourteen speakers were Major Jafari, of the “dogfight over Tehran,” and Captain Bowyer, whom Kean encouraged to expound on the differences that he had observed between the official treatment of U.F.O. encounters in the U.K. and the U.S. “I would have been shocked if I was told that the C.A.A. would obstruct an investigation, or if the C.A.A. told me that what I had seen was something entirely different,” Bowyer said at the lectern, contrasting his experience with the episode at O’Hare. “But it seems that pilots in America are used to this kind of thing, as far as I can tell.”

None of the speakers made mention of Roswell, alien bodies, reverse-engineered craft, or government coverups. Over the next two years, Kean collected their accounts, and other reports, for her book. In it, she argued that, for reasons of safety and security, and to encourage people who saw peculiar stuff in the sky to speak out, the government needed some sort of centralized U.F.O. agency. Many other countries had followed the lead set by France, and had either declassified and published U.F.O. files (the U.K., Denmark, Brazil, Russia, Sweden) or formed their own official organizations dedicated to the issue (Peru, Chile). The problem in the U.S., as Kean saw it, was that discrete initiatives had been driven by interested individuals; there was no single clearing house for salient data. She met with her uncle Thomas Kean to discuss the U.F.O. issue and her proposal for a dedicated agency, in the context of his experience as chair of the 9/11 Commission. He told me, “Like a lot of Americans, I had an immense curiosity about U.F.O.s. The government hasn’t come clean about what they have.”

Kean’s book, which was praised by the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku as “the gold standard for U.F.O. research,” and to which John Podesta had contributed a foreword, enhanced and expanded her influence. In June of 2011, Podesta invited Kean to make a confidential presentation at a think tank he founded, the Center for American Progress. Standing alongside a physicist from Johns Hopkins University and foreign military figures, Kean advised the audience—officials from nasa, the Pentagon, and the Department of Transportation, along with congressional staff and retired intelligence officials—that the challenge was “to undo fifty years of reinforcement of U.A.P. as folklore and pseudoscience.”

The seven dwarves confront Snow White.

Podesta told me, “It wasn’t a bunch of people coming in looking like they were going to a ‘Star Wars’-memorabilia convention—it was serious people from the national-security arena who wanted answers to these unexplained phenomena.” Soon after the event, he said, a Democratic senator invited him for a meeting. “I thought it was going to be on food stamps and tax cuts or whatever, and the door closed and they said, ‘I don’t want anybody to know this, but I’m really interested in U.F.O.s, and I know you are, too. So what do you know?’ ”

In August, 2014, Kean visited the West Wing to meet again with Podesta, who was by then an adviser to President Obama. She had scaled down her request, proposing that a single individual in the Office of Science and Technology Policy be assigned to handle the issue. Nothing came of it. She was, however, a well-known figure on the international U.F.O. circuit and had a cordial relationship with the Chilean government’s Comité de Estudios de Fenómenos Aéreos Anómalos (cefaa). She had begun breaking stories from its case files with an atypical recklessness. Kean’s work from this period, mostly published on the Huffington Post, shows signs of agitation and evangelism. In March of 2012, she wrote an article called “UFO Caught on Tape Over Santiago Air Base,” which referred to a video provided by cefaa. Kean described the video as showing “a dome-shaped, flat-bottomed object with no visible means of propulsion . . . flying at velocities too high to be man-made.” She asked, “Is this the case UFO skeptics have been dreading?”

For the most part, people who do not feel that U.F.O.s represent a meaningful category of study regard the opposing view as a harmless curiosity. The world is full of weird, unaccountable convictions: some people believe that leaving your neck exposed in winter makes you ill, and others believe in U.F.O.s. But a small fraction of nonbelievers, known as “debunkers,” mirror ardent belief with equally ardent doubt. When Kean wrote about the cefaa video, debunkers leaped at the chance to point out that the object in the case they had been dreading was in all probability a housefly or a beetle buzzing around the camera lens. Robert Sheaffer, the proprietor of a blog called Bad UFOs, wrote in his column in the Skeptical Inquirer, “Indeed, the very fact that a video of a fly doing loops is being cited by some of the world’s top UFOlogists as among the best UFO images of all time reveals how utterly lightweight even the best UFO photos and videos are.” Kean consulted with four entomologists, who mostly declined to issue a categorical judgment on the matter, and urged patience with cefaa’s ongoing investigation.

“An informed skeptic is a very different thing from a debunker on a mission,” she wrote to me. “There are many out there who are on a mission to debunk UFOs at all costs. They’re not rational and they’re not informed.” Kean thought that they were blinded by zealotry. The skeptic Michael Shermer, for example, in a review of Kean’s book, had idly adduced that a wave of silent black triangles seen over Belgium in 1989 and 1990 were probably experimental, classified stealth bombers—despite official attestations to the fact that any government would be crazy to trot out its latest devices over heavily populated areas of Western Europe.

A tendency to discount or overlook inconvenient facts is a thing debunkers and believers have in common. One dogged British researcher has convincingly shown that the Rendlesham case, or Britain’s Roswell, probably consisted of a concatenation of a meteor, a lighthouse perceived through woods and fog, and the uncanny sounds made by a muntjac deer. Eyewitness reports are subject to considerable embroidery over time, and strings of improbable coincidences can easily be rendered into an occult pattern by a human mind prone to misapprehension and eager for meaning. The researcher had exhaustively demystified the case, and I was perturbed to learn that Kean seemed unfazed by his verdict. When I asked her about it, she did little more than shrug, as though to suggest that such fluky accounts violated Occam’s razor. Even if Rendlesham was “complex,” she said, it was still “one of the top ten U.F.O. encounters of all time.” And, besides, there were always other cases. Hynek, in “The UFO Experience,” had contended that U.F.O. sightings represented a phenomenon that had to be taken in aggregate—hundreds upon hundreds of incredible stories told by credible people.

Many U.F.O. debunkers are overtly hostile, but Mick West has a mild, disarming manner, one that only occasionally recalls the performative deference with which an orderly might cajole a patient back into his straitjacket. He grew up in a small mill town in northern England. His family did not have a television or a phone, and he learned to read with his father’s collection of Marvel comics. He was very good at math, and, after buying an early home computer with his earnings from a newspaper route, he became obsessed with primitive video games. As an adolescent, in the early nineteen-eighties, he loved science fiction, and was bewitched by a magazine called The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space and Time. The periodical was full of “true” stories about U.F.O.s and the paranormal—ghosts and the menacing creatures of cryptozoology. He used to lie in bed at night, as he wrote in his book, “Escaping the Rabbit Hole,” “literally trembling with the thought that some alien could enter my room and spirit me away to perform experiments on me.” Of particular cause for terror was the “Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter,” a 1955 case in which a Kentucky farmhouse was said to have come under attack by little green men.

As West became scientifically literate, he came to trust that the Kelly-Hopkinsville “aliens” were probably owls. Rather than cure his interest in the paranormal, however, this understanding refined it, and he began to take pleasure in the patient dismantling of unsound logic. This practice had, for West, therapeutic value, and as an adult his childhood anxieties are manifested only in a vestigial discomfort with the dark. In the nineties, West moved to California, where he co-founded a video-game studio; he is best known as one of the programmers behind the hugely popular Tony Hawk franchise. In 1999, the company he worked for was acquired by Activision, and, before the age of forty, he more or less retired. He found himself involved in Wikipedia edit wars concerning such contentious topics as homeopathy, scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts, and vegetarian lions. He eventually established his own Web site to combat the widespread misinformation surrounding Morgellons disease, an affliction with no established medical basis, which is characterized by the worry that strange fibres are emerging from one’s skin. Then he took on the chemtrails theory, and engaged with 9/11 truthers. As he put it in his book, “A small part of the reason why I debunk now (and still occasionally address ghost stories) is anger at the fear this nonsense instilled in me as a young child.”

West is a thoughtful, intelligent man. His e-mails feature numbered and lettered lists and light math. Everything he told me was perfectly persuasive, but even an hour on the phone with him left me feeling vaguely demoralized. Morgellons sufferers and chemtrail hysterics, he supposed, would be grateful to be relieved of their baseless fears, just as he had been disburdened of the psychic hazard posed by farmhouse aliens—and he didn’t see why U.F.O. advocates should be any different. He seemed unable to envisage that someone might find solace in the decentering prospect that we are not alone in a universe we ultimately know very little about.

In 2013, West founded Metabunk, an online forum where like-minded contributors examine anomalous phenomena. On January 6, 2017, another skeptic brought to his attention a Huffington Post piece by Kean. In the article, “Groundbreaking UFO Video Just Released by Chilean Navy,” Kean wrote in detail about an “exceptional nine-minute” film, shot on infrared cameras from a helicopter, that cefaa had been studying for two years. West watched the clip with an immediate sense of recognition. He posted the link to Skydentify, a Metabunk subforum, positing his theory that the video’s odd formations were “aerodynamic contrails,” which he was used to seeing as planes flew over his home in Sacramento. By January 11th, the community had ascertained that the purported U.F.O. was IB6830, a regularly scheduled passenger flight from Santiago to Madrid.

U.F.O. inquiries can proceed only through the process of elimination, a style of argument that is highly vulnerable to erroneous assumptions. In this case, as the Metabunk participants extrapolated, the helicopter pilots had inaccurately gauged the distance and altitude of the U.F.O., and viable possibilities—such as its being a commercial airliner in a takeoff climb—had been prematurely ruled out. West was not surprised. Although Kean regards pilots as “the world’s best-trained observers of everything that flies,” even Hynek determined, in 1977, that pilots are particularly prone to error. (He asserted, however, that “they do slightly better in groups.”) As West has written, “You can’t be an expert in the unknown.”

During one of my phone calls with Kean—greatly pleasurable distractions that tended to absorb entire afternoons—I mentioned to her that I had been in touch with Mick West. It was the only time I had known her to grow peevish. “If Mick were really interested in this stuff, he wouldn’t debunk every single video,” she said, almost pityingly. “He would admit that at least some of them are genuinely weird.”

Robert Bigelow was three years old in the spring of 1947, when his grandparents were almost run off the road by a glowing object in the mountains northwest of Las Vegas. The Nevada desert of the early atomic age was one of the few places a child could see nuclear tests or rocket launches from his back yard, and Bigelow’s dreams of space exploration commingled with his curiosity about U.F.O.s. In the late nineteen-sixties, when he was in his early twenties, he began to invest in real estate—first in Las Vegas, then across the Southwest—and eventually he made a fortune with Budget Suites of America, a chain of extended-stay motels. Later, he founded a private company, Bigelow Aerospace, to build inflatable astronaut habitats. In 1995, he established the National Institute for Discovery Science, which described itself as “a privately funded science institute engaged in research of aerial phenomena, animal mutilations, and other related anomalous phenomena.” Among the consultants he hired was Hal Puthoff, whose work in paranormal studies dated back decades, to Project Stargate, a C.I.A. program to investigate how “remote viewing,” a form of long-distance E.S.P., might be useful in Cold War espionage. The next year, Bigelow purchased Skinwalker Ranch, a four-hundred-and-eighty-acre parcel a few hours southeast of Salt Lake City, named for a shape-shifting Navajo witch. Its previous owners had described being driven away by coruscating spheres, exsanguinated cattle, and wolflike creatures impervious to gunshots. In 2004, in the wake of a purported decrease in domestic paranormal activity, Bigelow shut down his institute, but he kept the ranch.

In 2007, Bigelow received a letter from a senior official at the Defense Intelligence Agency who was curious about Skinwalker. Bigelow connected him to an old friend from the Nevada desert, Senator Harry Reid, who was then the Senate Majority Leader, and the two men met to discuss their common interest in U.F.O.s. The D.I.A. official later visited Skinwalker, where, from a double-wide observation trailer on site, he is said to have had a spectral encounter; as one Bigelow affiliate described it, he saw a “topological figure” that “appeared in mid-air” and “went from pretzel-shaped to Möbius-strip-shaped.”

Three people standing in an apartment infested with anteaters.

Reid reached out to Senator Ted Stevens, of Alaska, who believed he’d seen a U.F.O. as a pilot in the Second World War, and Senator Daniel Inouye, of Hawaii. In the 2008 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, twenty-two million dollars of so-called black money was set aside for a new program. The Pentagon was not enthusiastic. As one former intelligence official put it, “There were some government officials who said, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this, this is really ridiculous, this is a waste of money.’ ” He went on, “And then Reid would call them out of a meeting and say, ‘I want you to be doing this. This was appropriated.’ It was sort of like a joke that bordered on an annoyance and people worried that if this all came out, that the government was spending money on this, this will be a bad story.” The Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program was announced in a public solicitation for bids to examine the future of warfare. U.F.O.s were not mentioned, but according to Reid the subtext was clear. Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, or baass, a Bigelow Aerospace subsidiary, was the only bidder. When Bigelow won the government contract, he contacted the same cohort of paranormal investigators he’d worked with at his institute. Other participants were recruited from within the Pentagon’s ranks. In 2008, Luis Elizondo, a longtime counterintelligence officer working in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, was visited by two people who asked him what he thought about U.F.O.s. He replied that he didn’t think about them, which was apparently the correct answer, and he was asked to join.

Bigelow believes, as one source put it to me, that “there are aliens walking around at the supermarket.” According to an article by MJ Banias, on the Web site the Debrief, Bigelow hired investigators to look into reports at Skinwalker of doglike creatures who smelled of sulfur and goblins with long, pendulous arms, as well as U.F.O. activity near Mt. Shasta. The program appears to have produced little more than a series of thirty-eight papers, all unclassified except one, about the kind of technology a U.F.O. might exploit—including work on the theoretical viability of warp drives and “spacetime metric engineering.” Bigelow’s researchers, convinced that crash debris was being hidden in some remote hangar, wanted access to the government’s classified data on U.F.O.s. In June, 2009, Senator Reid filed a request that the program be awarded “restricted special access program,” or sap, status. The following month, baass issued a four-hundred-and-ninety-four-page “Ten Month Report.” The portions of the report that were leaked to Tim McMillan, along with additional sections that I was able to review, were almost exclusively about U.F.O.s, and the information provided was not limited to mere sightings; it included a photo of a supposed tracking device that supposed aliens had supposedly implanted in a supposed abductee. As one former government official told me, “The report arrived here and I read the whole thing and immediately concluded that releasing it would be a disaster.” In November, 2009, the Defense Department peremptorily denied the request for sap status. (A representative of baass declined to comment for this article.)

Soon afterward, Elizondo, the counterintelligence officer, was asked to take over the program. Beginning in 2010, he turned an outsourced study of Utah cryptids into the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or aatip, an in-house effort that focussed on the national-security implications of military U.A.P. encounters. According to Elizondo, the program studied a number of incidents in depth, including what later became known as the “Nimitz encounter.”

The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group was conducting training operations in restricted waters off the coast of San Diego and Baja California in November of 2004, when the advanced SPY-1 radar on one of the ships, the U.S.S. Princeton, began to register some strange presences. They were logged as high as eighty thousand feet, and as low as the ocean’s surface. After about a week of radar observations, Commander David Fravor, a graduate of the élite Topgun fighter-pilot school and the commanding officer of the Black Aces squadron, was sent on an intercept mission. As he approached the location, he looked down and saw a roiling shoal in the water and, hovering above it, a white oval object that resembled a large Tic Tac. He estimated it to be about forty feet long, with no wings or other obvious flight surfaces and no visible means of propulsion. It appeared to bounce around like a Ping-Pong ball. Two other pilots, one seated behind him and one in a nearby plane, gave similar accounts. Fravor descended to chase the object, which reacted to his maneuvers before departing abruptly at high speed. Upon Fravor’s return to the Nimitz, another pilot, Chad Underwood, was dispatched to follow up with more advanced sensory equipment. His aircraft’s targeting pod recorded a video of the object. The clip, known as “flir1”—for “forward-looking infrared,” the technology used to capture the incident—features one minute and sixteen seconds of a blurry ashen dot against a gunmetal background; in the final few seconds, the dot appears to outwit the FLIR track and make a rapid getaway.

Elizondo’s exposure to cases like the Nimitz encounter convinced him that U.A.P.s were real, but the government’s willingness to invest resources in the issue remained uncertain. Elizondo tried repeatedly to brief General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, about aatip’s research, and was blocked by underlings. (General Mattis’s personal assistant at the time does not recall being approached by Elizondo.)

On October 4, 2017, at the behest of Christopher K. Mellon, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Leslie Kean was called to a confidential meeting in the bar of an upscale hotel near the Pentagon. She was greeted by Hal Puthoff, the longtime paranormal investigator, and Jim Semivan, a retired C.I.A. officer, who introduced her to a sturdy, thick-necked, tattooed man with a clipped goatee named Luis Elizondo. The previous day had been his last day of work at the Pentagon. Over the next three hours, Kean was taken through documents that proved the existence of what was, as far as anyone knew, the first government inquiry into U.F.O.s since the close of Project Blue Book, in 1970. The program that Kean had spent years lobbying for had existed the whole time.

After Elizondo resigned, he and other key aatip participants—including Mellon, Puthoff, and Semivan—almost immediately joined To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science, an operation dedicated to U.F.O.-related education, entertainment, and research, and organized by Tom DeLonge, a former front man of the pop-punk outfit Blink-182. Later that month, DeLonge invited Elizondo onstage at a launch event. Elizondo announced that they were “planning to provide never-before-released footage from real U.S. government systems—not blurry amateur photos but real data and real videos.”

Kean was told that she could have the videos, along with chain-of-custody documentation, if she could place a story in the Times. Kean soon developed doubts about DeLonge, after he appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast to discuss his belief that what crashed at Roswell was a reverse-engineered U.F.O. built in Argentina by fugitive Nazi scientists, but she had full confidence in Elizondo. “He had incredible gravitas,” Kean told me. She called Ralph Blumenthal, an old friend and a former Times staffer at work on a biography of the Harvard psychiatrist and alien-abduction researcher John Mack; Blumenthal e-mailed Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, to say that they wanted to pitch “a sensational and highly confidential time-sensitive story” in which a “senior U.S. intelligence official who abruptly quit last month” had decided to expose “a deeply secret program, long mythologized but now confirmed.” After a meeting with representatives from the Washington, D.C., bureau, the Times agreed. The paper assigned a veteran Pentagon correspondent, Helene Cooper, to work with Kean and Blumenthal.

On Saturday, December 16, 2017, their story—“glowing auras and ‘black money’: the pentagon’s mysterious u.f.o. program”—appeared online; it was printed on the front page the next day. Accompanying the piece were two videos, including “flir1.” Senator Reid was quoted as saying, “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this going.” The Pentagon confirmed that the program had existed, but said that it had been closed down in 2012, in favor of other funding priorities. Elizondo claimed that the program had continued in the absence of dedicated funding. The article dwelled not on the reality of the U.F.O. phenomenon—the only actual case discussed at any length was the Nimitz encounter—but on the existence of the covert initiative. The Times article drew millions of readers. Kean noticed a change almost immediately. When people asked her at dinner parties what she did for a living, they no longer giggled at her response but fell rapt. Kean gave all the credit to Elizondo and Mellon for coming forward, but she told me, “I never would have ever imagined I could have ended up writing for the Times. It’s the pinnacle of everything I’ve ever wanted to do—just this miracle that it happened on this great road, great journey.”

It was hard to tell, however, what exactly aatip had accomplished. Elizondo went on to host the History Channel docuseries “Unidentified,” in which he solemnly invokes his security oath like a catchphrase. He insisted to me that aatip had made important strides in understanding the “five observables” of U.A.P. behavior—including “gravity-defying capabilities,” “low observability,” and “transmedium travel.” When I pressed for details, he reminded me of his security oath.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Pentagon project that had begun as a contractor’s investigation into goblins and werewolves, and had been reincarnated under the aegis of a musician best known for an album called “Enema of the State,” aatip was subject to intense scrutiny. Kean is unwavering in her belief that she and an insider exposed something formidable, but a former Pentagon official recently suggested that the story was more complicated: the program she disclosed was of little consequence compared with the one she set in motion. Widespread fascination with the idea that the government cared about U.F.O.s had inspired the government at last to care about U.F.O.s.

Within a month of the Times article’s publication, the Pentagon’s U.A.P. portfolio was reassigned to a civilian intelligence official with a rank equivalent to that of a two-star general. This successor—who did not want to be named, lest U.F.O. nuts swarm his doorstep—had read Kean’s book. He channelled the cascade of media interest to argue that, without a process to handle uncategorizable observations, rigid bureaucracies would overlook anything that didn’t follow a standard pattern. At the height of the Cold War, the government had worried that the noise of lurid phantasmagoria might drown out signals relevant to national security, or even provide cover for adversarial incursions; now, it seemed, the concern was that valuable intelligence wasn’t being reported. (The Nimitz encounter didn’t become subject to official investigation until years after the incident, when an errant file landed on the desk of someone who decided that it merited pursuit.) “What we needed,” the former Pentagon official said, “was something like the post-9/11 fusion centers, where a D.O.D. guy can talk to an F.B.I. guy and an N.R.O. guy—everything we learned from the 9/11 Commission.”

In the summer of 2018, Elizondo’s successor brandished Kean’s article to make this case to members of Congress. According to the former Pentagon official, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee inserted language into the classified annex of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, passed in August of 2018, that obligated the Pentagon to continue the investigations. “The U.A.P. issue is being taken very seriously now even compared to where it was two or three years ago,” the former Pentagon official said.

Ice cream truck with 'I Scream You Scream We All Scream Constantly' written on its side.

The activity intensified. In April of 2019, the Navy revised its official guidelines for pilots, encouraging them to report U.A.P.s without fear of scorn or censure. In June, Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, admitted that he had been briefed on the U.A.P. matter. In September, a spokesperson for the Navy announced that the “flir1” video, along with two videos associated with sightings off the East Coast in 2015, showed “incursions into our military training ranges by unidentified aerial phenomena.” The “unidentified” label had been given an institutional imprimatur.

The debunkers were unimpressed by the designation, and their work continued apace. Mick West devoted multiple YouTube videos to his contention that “flir1” shows, in all likelihood, a distant plane. He maintained that the remainder of the available evidence from the Nimitz encounter was even shakier: he suspects that the presences picked up by the U.S.S. Princeton were probably birds or clouds, registered by a brand-new and likely miscalibrated radar system—the U.S.S. Roosevelt, off the East Coast, had also received a technological upgrade before a similar raft of sightings in 2014 and 2015—and that the Tic Tac-shaped object Commander Fravor saw was something like a target balloon. He has no explanation for what the other pilots saw, but points out that perceptions are subject to illusion, and memory is malleable.

Were our finest pilots and radar operators so inept that they were unable to recognize an airplane in restricted airspace? Or was the government using the word “unidentified” to conceal some deeply classified program that a branch of the service was testing without bothering to notify the Nimitz pilots? The former Pentagon official assured me that West “doesn’t have the whole story. There’s data he will never see—there’s much more that I would include in a classified environment.” He went on, “If Mick West feeds the stigma that allows a potential adversary to fly all over your back yard, then, cool—just because it looks weird, I guess we’ll ignore it.”

The point of using the term “unidentified,” he said, was “to help remove the stigma.” He told me, “At some point, we needed to just admit that there are things in the sky we can’t identify.” Despite the fact that most adults carry around exceptionally good camera technology in their pockets, most U.F.O. photos and videos remain maddeningly indistinct, but the former Pentagon official implied that the government possesses stark visual documentation; Elizondo and Mellon have said the same thing. According to Tim McMillan, in the past two years, the Pentagon’s U.A.P. investigators have distributed two classified intelligence papers, on secure networks, that allegedly contain images and videos of bizarre spectacles, including a cube-shaped object and a large equilateral triangle emerging from the ocean. One report brooked the subject of “alien” or “non-human” technology, but also provided a litany of prosaic possibilities. The former Pentagon official cautioned, “ ‘Unidentified’ doesn’t mean little green men—it just means there’s something there.” He continued, “If it turns out that everything we’ve seen is weather balloons, or a quadcopter designed to look like something else, nobody is going to lose sleep over it.”

Elizondo never got to Mattis, but his successor managed to get briefings in front of Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, as well as the director of National Intelligence, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and several members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Government officials in Japan later divulged to the media that they had discussed the topic in a meeting with Esper in Guam. When I asked the former Pentagon official about other foreign governments, he hesitated, then said, “We would not have moved forward without briefing close allies. This was bigger than the U.S. government.”

In June of 2020, Senator Marco Rubio added text into the 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act requesting—though not requiring—that the director of National Intelligence, along with the Secretary of Defense, produce “a detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena data and intelligence reporting.” This language, which allowed them a hundred and eighty days to produce the report, drew heavily from proposals by Mellon, and it was clear that this concerted effort, at least in theory, was a more productive and more cost-effective iteration of the original vision for aatip. Mellon told me, “This creates an opening and an opportunity, and now the name of the game is to make sure we don’t miss that open window.”

Still, the former Pentagon official told me, “it wasn’t until August of 2020 that the effort was really real.” That month, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Norquist, publicly announced the existence of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, whose report is anticipated in June. The Intelligence Authorization Act finally passed in December. The former Pentagon official worries that an appetite for disclosure has been heedlessly stoked. “The public, I would hope, doesn’t expect to see the crown jewels,” he said.

West was nonchalant. “They’re just U.F.O. fans,” he said of Reid and Rubio. “They’ve been convinced there’s something to it and so are trying to push for disclosure.” The former Pentagon official conceded that there were “a lot of government people who are enthusiasts on the subject who watch the History Channel and eat this stuff up 24/7.” But, he said, the current mood was by no means set by “a small cadre of true believers.”

Virtually all astrobiologists suspect that we are not alone. Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the seti Institute, has wagered that we will find incontrovertible proof of intelligent life by 2036. Astronomers have determined that there may be hundreds of millions of potentially habitable exoplanets in just our galaxy. Interstellar travel by living beings still seems like a wildly remote possibility, but physicists have known since the early nineteen-nineties that faster-than-light travel is possible in theory, and new research has brought this marginally closer to being achievable in practice. These advances—along with the further inference that ours is a mediocre or even inferior civilization, one that could well be millions or billions of years behind our distant neighbors—have lent a bare-bones plausibility to the idea that U.F.O.s have extraterrestrial origins.

Such a prospect, as Hynek wrote in the mid-nineteen-eighties, “overheats the human mental circuits and blows the fuses in a protective mechanism for the mind.” Its destabilizing influence was clear. I would begin interviews with sources who seemed lucid and prudent and who insisted, like Kean, that they were interested only in vetted data, and that they used the term “U.F.O.” in the strictly literal sense—whether the objects were spaceships or drones or clouds, we just didn’t know. An hour later, they would reveal to me that the aliens had been living in secret bases under the ocean for millions of years, had genetically altered primates to become our ancestors, and had taught accounting to the Sumerians.

Since 2017, Kean has covered the U.F.O. beat for the Times, sharing a byline with Ralph Blumenthal on a handful of stories. These have steered clear of such genre mainstays as crop circles and Nazca Lines, but their most recent article, published last July, veered into fringe territory. In it, they referred to “a series of unclassified slides,” of somewhat uncertain lineage but apparently shown at congressional briefings, that mentioned “off-world” vehicles and “crash retrievals.” Kean told me in an uncharacteristically hesitant but nonetheless matter-of-fact way that she had begun to come around to the idea that U.F.O. fragments had been hoarded somewhere. In 2019, Luis Elizondo had suggested to Tucker Carlson that such detritus existed. (He then quickly invoked his security oath.) Kean cited Jacques Vallée, perhaps the most famous living ufologist, and the basis for François Truffaut’s character in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” who has been working with Garry Nolan, a Stanford immunologist, to analyze purported crash material for scientific publication. (Vallée declined to speak about it on the record, concerned that it might undermine the peer-review process, but told me, “We hope it will be the first U.F.O. case published in a refereed scientific journal.”)

In the story, Kean and Blumenthal wrote that Harry Reid “believed that crashes of vehicles from other worlds had occurred and that retrieved materials had been studied secretly for decades, often by aerospace companies under government contracts.” The day after its publication, the Times had to append a correction: Senator Reid did not believe that crash debris had been allocated to private military contractors for study; he believed that U.F.O.s may have crashed, and that, if so, we should be studying the fallout. When I asked Reid about the confusion, he told me that he admired Kean but that he had never seen proof of any remnants—something Kean had never actually claimed. He left no doubt in our conversation as to his personal assessment. “I was told for decades that Lockheed had some of these retrieved materials,” he said. “And I tried to get, as I recall, a classified approval by the Pentagon to have me go look at the stuff. They would not approve that. I don’t know what all the numbers were, what kind of classification it was, but they would not give that to me.” He told me that the Pentagon had not provided a reason. I asked if that was why he’d requested sap status for aatip. He said, “Yeah, that’s why I wanted them to take a look at it. But they wouldn’t give me the clearance.” (A representative of Lockheed Martin declined to comment for this article.)

The former Pentagon official told me that he found Kean’s evidence wanting. “There are terms in Leslie’s slides that we don’t use—stuff we would never say,” he said. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.” But, when I asked him whether he thought that there might be recovered debris somewhere, he paused for a surprisingly long time. He finally said, “I couldn’t say yes, like Lue”—Luis Elizondo—“did. I honestly don’t know.” He continued, “There are guys who spent their lives studying stuff like Roswell and died with no answers. Are we all going to die with no answers?”

Not everyone needs answers, or expects the government to provide them. In February, I spoke to Vincent Aiello, a podcaster and former fighter pilot, who served on the Nimitz at the time of the encounter. He told me that the widespread impression of Commander Fravor’s story back then, thirteen years before it became a news sensation, was that it sounded pretty far out, but that the gossip and laughter on the ship petered out after a day or two. “Most military aviators have a job to do and they do it well,” he said. “Why pursue life’s great mysteries when that’s what Geraldo Rivera is for?”

The mysteries have shown no signs of abatement. In early April, the eminent U.F.O. journalist George Knapp, along with the documentary filmmaker Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell, best known for his participation in an ill-begotten crusade to “storm” Nevada’s Area 51, released a video and a series of photos that had apparently been leaked from the U.A.P. Task Force’s classified intelligence reports. The video, taken with night-vision goggles, shows three airborne triangles, intermittently flashing with eerie incandescence as they rotate against a starry sky. Kean texted me, “Breaking huge story.” She was trying to get to the bottom of the video, but doubted that any of her sources would be willing to authenticate something so hot. The next day, the Department of Defense confirmed that the video was real and said that it had been taken by Navy personnel. Mick West argued, persuasively, that the pyramids were an airplane and two stars, distorted by a lens artifact. Kean, for her part, told me that she was “only just starting to look into the situation,” but volunteered that West was “being reasonable.” The Pentagon refused further comment.

The government may or may not care about the resolution of the U.F.O. enigma. But, in throwing up its hands and granting that there are things it simply cannot figure out, it has relaxed its grip on the taboo. For many, this has been a comfort. In March, I spoke with a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who said that about a decade ago, during combat, he had an extended encounter with a U.F.O., one that registered on two of his plane’s sensors. For all the usual reasons, he had never officially reported the sighting, but every once in a while he’d bring a close friend into his confidence over a beer. He did not want to be named. “Why am I telling you this story?” he asked. “I guess I just want this data out there—hopefully this helps somebody else somehow.”

The object he’d encountered was about forty feet long, disobeyed the principles of aerodynamics as he understood them, and looked exactly like a giant Tic Tac. “When Commander Fravor’s story came out in the New York Times, all my buddies had a jaw-drop moment. Even my old boss called me up and said, ‘I read about the Nimitz, and I wanted to say I’m so sorry I called you an idiot.’ ” ♦

An earlier version of this article misidentified the author of the reporting on Skinwalker Ranch and the Web site where it was published, and inaccurately described the technology used to capture the FLIR1 clip.

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