Part I: Are UFOs Real? Yes, They Are. So What?

Journalist Leslie Kean takes Washington and the world forward to UFOlogy’s past, and to humanity’s possible post-”disclosure” future

December 16, 1957: A government employee photographed a UFO near Holloman Air Development Center in New Mexico. Fair Use. 

The year is 2021. The world is waiting for a Pentagon report that will confirm that “UFOs are real.” Major US newspapers and mainstream sources including the New York Times, USA Today, New Yorker, GQ, Scientific American and all three broadcast networks have all reported on the topic without the previously standard derision about the possibility that UFOs exist. Even 60 Minutes, the prototypical “serious magazine” show, has covered the story with a straight face, and more than once. 

The Washington Post has almost made UFOs a regular beat, publishing more than a dozen items in recent weeks — interviews, news articles, declassified Navy videos, even, in what is arguably a new low for the genre of UFOlogy, a column by its resident libertarian dweeb/sociopath, Megan McArdle. US senators of Both Parties are speaking with straight faces about Possible Threats To National Security, most notably Florida failson Marco Rubio. 

During the dwindling days of June 2021, people around the world — UFOlogists of all stripes and schools, self-identified skeptics, and many more who are simply curious about unexplained things — are asking, “How did UFOs” suddenly become a safe, legitimate topic for elected policymakers to opine about, and for our corporate media to treat in a sustained, non-hostile manner? Or maybe it’s only me putting the question that way?

By now, many readers are no doubt asking, “Wait, the Pentagon is saying UFOs are real? What are you smoking?” 

Indeed, this is a very weird moment in the history of US media. An obvious bombshell of a story — “UFOs are REAL!” — is suddenly not only accepted but nearly omnipresent in “serious” mainstream media mainstream sources. At the same time, many in the US haven’t even heard about such ostensibly momentous news. 

One major reason is that the UFO story is getting its big, official validation moment in the aftermath of our species entering the age of global pandemics. An online graphic of a Wojak character meeting an alien captured the predominant vibe perfectly: “Man, I got a lot going on lately.” 


Decades of official ridicule, most importantly in US media, made people — including scientists — wary of showing even a vague interest in UFOs. But now the US government seems to be officially designating them a Serious Subject, one with non-trivial National Security implications. 

The story that all these mainstream outlets have been following, to be clear, is well short of the proverbial metal disk landing on the White House lawn. Still, it surely must mean *something* has changed, right? For what it’s worth, this lifelong UFOlogist is not at all sure. 

Still, the answer to the question of what has changed in The Discourse on UFOs since 2017 may be decisive for the future of a former fringe topic, one now quite purposely linked to National Security. 

So, comrades, let’s take a little trip into the state of UFOlogy and US political culture in what may be humanity’s final century.

Artist’s rendering? Or is that a photograph? Fair Use.

To begin answering the question of where the study of UFOs — “UFOlogy” – and the larger realm of “supernatural” phenomena in which it resides — currently stands in science, politics and culture after this apparent change in official attitudes, we must begin with a front-page New York Times article and absolute triumph for independent journalist Leslie Kean

On December 16, 2017, the Times published an article bylined by Kean and two staff reporters that detailed a previously unknown, $22-million Pentagon project called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). The Times spoke to the self-identified director of the project, US intelligence officer Luis Elizondo, who discussed his work investigating sightings of what are commonly called UFOs. Or, as the Times described them, “aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift.”
Fair Use.

Elizondo told the Times that his work was official, with congressionally appropriated Defense Department funding from 2007 to 2012. He also asserted that the program’s mission and his work continued — carried out by Navy and CIA personnel — after its formal funding expired, but that he quit in October of 2017 owing to what he felt was continued neglect of an important subject of military inquiry. In his resignation letter, directed to the secretary of defense, Elizondo asked, “Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?”

The videos published with the AATIP story captured images said to be recorded by cameras on US Navy FA-18 Hornets, showing apparent airborne objects with anomalous flight patterns and speeds that are impossible for Earthly technology, suggesting an unknown means of propulsion. One pilot compared what he saw to “a 40-foot long Tic-Tac.” After the Times broke the AATIP story, Elizondo continued to speak to major US media outlets. The Pentagon “officially” released and thereby confirmed the legitimacy of the supposed AATIP videos published by the Times, further stoking the story

The Times taking UFOs seriously — as a “known unknown,” or legitimately anomalous phenomena that is apparently unexplainable by reference to known human technology or even our current understandings of physics — was unprecedented. Even more interesting, the Times covered it *as a Washington story,* by giving clear answers to the immediate question in the minds of any of its DC-based readers: Who is responsible for appropriating the project’s funding and who at the Defense Department authorized serious study of the subject? Fuzzy videos, after all, don’t prove anything. Appropriations, on the other hand, are as real and un-ethereal as it gets in This Town. 

AATIP seemed to be confirmed, by prosaic DC standards, as yet one more legislative outcome effected by an exercise of power. So who was the power player who made it happen?

Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was the congressional sponsor of AATIP. He secured the money when he was Majority Leader during President Barack Obama’s second term. When the Times story came out, Reid, then less than a year into retirement, did not hesitate to take ownership of the initiative. “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” he told the newspaper. “I think it’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service. I’ve done something that no one has done before.”
Fair Use.

Reid cited John Glenn — the late senator, third US astronaut to go into outer space and first to orbit the Earth — who had died the previous December, as having affirmed the value of official inquiry into anomalous aerial sightings by military personnel.
Fair Use.

DC Hill rats could not have failed to note that two legendary appropriators, former Senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Ted Stevens of Alaska, also had supported funding AATIP. The program clearly had serious sponsors with the power to make money go where they wanted it to go, at least for a while. This was not some joke text inserted by a rogue staffer, perhaps loopy or doped up after a long day of mind-numbing legislative drafting, or some Pentagon nobodies trying to play Fox Mulder and Dana Scully from The X-Files.

Fair Use.

In a confirmation of the very real politics of the subject, the bulk of the $22 million in AATIP funding went to Reid donor and known UFO hobbyist and research funder Robert Bigelow. Indeed, AATIP seemed to be verified as a product of the usual backdoor shenanigans in DC when self-proclaimed “Taxpayers for Common Sense” whined about it, despite its infinitesimal scale in federal spending, and its having been expired for five years.

The original, groundbreaking AATIP story generated a boomlet of coverage in December of 2017, from many of the same marquee media sources carrying the story now, among them 60 Minutes. However, the scale and intensity of that earlier media episode was nowhere near as wide and deep as the current cycle. 

The AATIP story, which Kean tracked down and — critically — got Harry Reid to corroborate, caused a crack in the wall of decades of official skepticism and led to the current virtual UFO convention in the media.

In August of 2020, US Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist announced the establishment of an “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.” Norquist assigned the task force the mission “to detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security,” essentially the same work Elizondo has recommended in his resignation letter.

The Pentagon announcement landed less than a month after Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia had requested and received a briefing on AATIP, and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio had inserted language in the 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act directing the director of national intelligence to prepare a summary report on AATIP and UAPs. Rubio’s rider directed the DNI to present to the Committee within 180 days: 

1. A detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena data and intelligence reporting collected or held by the Office of Naval Intelligence, including data and intelligence reporting held by the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force;

2. A detailed analysis of unidentified phenomena data collected by:

a. geospatial intelligence;

b. signals intelligence;

c. human intelligence; and

d. measurement and signals intelligence;

3. A detailed analysis of data of the FBI, which was derived from investigations of intrusions of unidentified aerial phenomena data over restricted United States airspace.

The rider went on to demand an interagency process for collecting UAP reports and centralized analyses, and the naming of an official responsible for the process. The provision also ordered the Pentagon to identify “potential aerospace or other threats posed by the unidentified aerial phenomena to national security, and an assessment of whether this unidentified aerial phenomena activity may be attributed to one or more foreign adversaries.” [Emphasis added.]

Needless to say, the ultimate validation of a subject as legitimate in Washington is its citation as a pretext for increasing the Pentagon’s budget.

In clear legislative text, this was a mandate from the relevant senate committee to gather familiar types of intelligence that the committee believed to be held by the Office of Naval Intelligence and FBI, and perhaps other agencies. 

In June 2021, the UAPTF signaled it would publicly release an unclassified report, with a classified annex. That came to pass last Friday.

The report cited a plethora of evidence, including testimony from credible soldiers, videos, images, and radar returns of airborne objects that exhibited highly anomalous speeds, movements, and means of propulsion, to establish the existence of a true “unknown” and novel phenomenon demanding a military investigation.

Furthermore, the Senate Intelligence Committee received a pre-release briefing on the story last week. Rubio couldn’t help but advertise that he knew something the rest of us mere mortals don’t, telling TMZ, of all outlets, about “spicy” content and even predicting, “Ain’t no way that doesn’t leak.”

Assuming that the findings reported by the NYT are broadly accurate — there are real objects displaying behavior unexplainable by known technology —  what does the UFOlogy field look like now? We find ourselves, I believe, finally beyond the point in time when scientific investigations and even political inquiries were officially shamed out of mainstream discourse, more than 50 years ago, in 1968. 

Having sketched out what happened, and leaving aside for now What It All Means?, it is time to focus on the questions of how we got here and who is most responsible. The answer to both is the same: Leslie Kean, for whom the ongoing wave of mainstream coverage of UFOs marks an astonishing triumph. 

Coming tomorrow: Part II: A Mainstream Politician Pushes UFOs Into Mainstream Journalism

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Daniel Z. Brito is a former US House staffer, lobbyist, and host of Boom Bust, a global, daily, business report.