[Read Part I of this series here. Part III is coming soon.]
Investigative journalist Leslie Kean’s decisive influence on the development of UFOs as a topic fit for mainstream reporting can be seen in the steady shift in standard terms used to discuss the topic in media and political references. The primary shift is from “UFO” to “UAP,” for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.
The latter was the term Kean launched into the “mainstream” of UFOlogy, and even into the dismal center of US politics, with her 2010 book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. Kean conceded in the book’s introduction that UFO and UAP essentially say the same thing, but UAP is arguably more accurate and carries less baggage.
While running for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton went for extra points on a UFO question from Jimmy Kimmel, one-upping the late-night host. “There’s a new name,” Clinton said. “It’s unexplained aerial phenomenon. U.A.P. That’s the latest nomenclature.”
The Clinton moment in the evolving UFO/UAP discourse was remarkable in several aspects. Here was a heavily presumed major party nominee from what passes for a US political dynasty choosing to comment on a topic once synonymous with outright kookery. Despite the comedic setting, Clinton still chose to treat a question, which she could have laughed off with a bad joke about probes, as worth answering. Even more, she volunteered and even flaunted her interest in the topic by one-upping a known celebrity UFO buff. This after decades when even a whisper of interest in the issue was feared as a potential career-killer only little less severe than, say, undergoing electro-convulsive therapy.
As a disclosure activist Stephen Bassett, “an exopolitical activist and a leading advocate for ending the 65-year government imposed truth embargo regarding an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race,” told Washington Babylon, late-night shows are “highly controlled environments.”
Incidentally, the Clintons already had a place in presidential UFO lore. In the early 90’s, US plutocrat Laurance Rockefeller (Father of NY Governor and US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller) put his resources into the “UFO Disclosure Initiative.” Rockefeller was able to secure a meeting to brief the Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Dr. Jack Gibbons of OSTP, in 1993 to promote the initiative. Rockefeller focused on public release of documents related to the famed Roswell incident. The US Air Force came up with their latest, most implausible explanation for Roswell witness accounts in 1994, perhaps hoping to pre-empt Rockefeller. Nevertheless, Rockefeller was able to brief the Clintons on his efforts in 1995.
Hillary Clinton, in many ways a cautious and careful politician, knew the topic of UFOs was safe to engage on in a late-night comedy setting, and certainly on Kimmel’s show. President Barack Obama had played with a similar question from Kimmel in March of 2015. Obama’s answer was characteristically vague, seeming to suggest an interest in the issue and even that he might have secret presidential knowledge. Obama’s manner throughout the Kimmel bit, typically, left him free to shrug it off as him just being cool and In On The Joke, of course.
A year earlier on the Kimmel show, in March 2014, Obama had gamely answered a prompt from Kimmel on the idea that a US president could choose to order the fabled “disclosure” of official UFO knowledge. Obama did an “if I knew, I couldn’t tell you” line. Once again, it was just normal Obama, winking at you, playing it cool.
Clinton’s choice to demonstrate independent knowledge about UFOs versus UAP’s almost invited the late-night viewing USA public – and electorate – to speculate that she had read a book on the topic. In fact, her response to Kimmel, almost certainly was not some Mookian microtargeting tactic, but the result of personal lobbying by a longtime ClintonCorp insider, John Podesta.
After all, Podesta – former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, former counselor to President Obama, founding president and CEO of the Democratic Party wonk farm and holding pen, the Center for American Progress, younger brother of notorious DC bagman/lobbyist Tony Podesta, and the chairman of the Clinton 2016 campaign – was a known UFO hobbyist who had made modest efforts to use his position to mildly push for government disclosure of any relevant documents.
Six years earlier, in fact, John Podesta had written the foreword to Leslie Kean’s UFO/UAP book, which certainly helped the book to go on to become a bestseller, and ultimately to set in motion the profound, almost seismic, change in mainstream coverage of a previously tabloid topic.
The chapters of Kean’s truly taboo-breaking book – roughly split between Kean and contributors including military pilot witnesses, credible scientists and even the former governor of Arizona – comprised a remarkably solid and well-assembled case for the minimal argument in the UFO debate:
There exists in our skies, worldwide, a solid, physical phenomenon that appears to be under intelligent control and is capable of speeds, maneuverability, and luminosity beyond current known technology.
That is Kean’s first and central premise. She says the case files include UAP incursions – including many with radar documentation and visual identification from knowledgeable military and airline pilots – in both restricted and commercial airspace, raising non-trivial concerns for “national security” and passenger safety.
Sightings at US nuclear missile installations are a well-documented sub-genre, including missiles going offline while classic luminous night-time discs hovered over the air at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Sightings around the Sandia Mountains by rocket, space and weapon scientists of the post-WW II era were so frequent that they were perceived as a nuisance. Their appearances were therefore often not even recorded or acknowledged.
Kean critiques the clear, de facto U.S. government policy of ignoring these reports or issuing false explanations for them as a failure of public safety, at the very least. Most UFOlogists, when pressed to cite an example of a threat to air passengers and pilots, point to the deadly Mantell incident of 1948. Kean chose other, non-fatal but perhaps even more dramatic cases for her dossier.
Most importantly, Kean makes clear her premise that the “extraterrestrial hypothesis” – UFOs are physical spacecraft piloted by humanoid explorers from another planet – “is a rational one and must be taken into account.” Furthermore, “the actual origin and nature of UFOs have not yet been determined by scientists, and remain unknown.” In other words, Kean argues that “UFOs are real,” in the sense that there is a verified, truly anomalous phenomenon to be studied in sighting reports, not just misinterpreted views of airplane lights, the planet Venus or mylar balloons.
The structure and method of Kean’s book, in her selection and sequencing of views from the most credible experts and conventionally reliable witnesses with the most provable aspects of Kean’s argument and the most well-documented, compelling sighting cases, are important to understanding the impressive influence of this volume and its author.
Leslie Kean, as is rarely noted in the growing archive of coverage of her pioneering reporter, hails from a family with a legacy in New Jersey politics that began with her grandfather, Congressman Robert Kean. He served 20 years in the House, starting in 1939 and ending when he failed to advance to the Senate in the 1958 election, an apparent victim of President Eisenhower’s cyclical midterm electoral drag. Congressman Kean voted for the 1957 Civil Rights Act, in line with his brand of pre-Reagan liberal Republicanism, typified and led by its last viable national politician, Nelson Rockefeller.
Robert Kean later chaired the New Jersey Republican party. The family’s legacy in New Jersey politics includes a former governor (Leslie’s uncle, Tom Sr.) and a state senator (her cousin, Tom Jr.). An admiring profile in the UK Guardian noted that Leslie attended the Spence School, a private academy for girls and young women on the Upper East Side of New York City. Her father, Hamilton Fish Kean, is described on Leslie’s Wikipedia page as an “environmentalist and philanthropist.”
Kean’s family background likely contributed to her unprecedented success in taking on this taboo topic without harming her career. It also helped her connect with former two-term Arizona governor J. Fife Symington III, whom she enlisted to as author – as a witness to the most famous mass sighting event, the Phoenix Lights – a chapter of her book. Elected as a Republican, Symington is, like Kean, a descendant of a patrician political family, as the cousin of a late senator and the inaugural secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington III.
Publishing a sighting report written by the former two-term governor (even if he had to resign after being convicted on seven counts of wire fraud in 1997) was no small get. Symington detailed his viewing of “a massive, delta-shaped craft” that drifted across the state and lingered over the metro Phoenix area for hours on March 13, 1997 in plain view of thousands, an experience that he says “defied logic and changed my reality.”
The great strength of Kean’s book, however, is its expansive and even comprehensive assembly of experts and witnesses. She begins the book with her own origin story as a Mainstream Journalist attempting to cover UFOs seriously. By 1999, Kean had already published a book about Burma (1994), established a career as an investigative reporter, and was then hosting a show for a California public radio station. Then, an advance, English-translation copy of a 90-page report arrived in her mail. Sent by a colleague in Paris, the document detailed, serious scientific findings and policy options about UFOs. The unexpected document with the modest title, UFOs and Defense: What Should We Prepare For? was written by a group operating under the appropriately odd acronym of COMETA.
The report listed thirteen authors, some affiliated with the French Institute of Higher Studies for National Defense (IHEDN, in the French acronym). They included a retired four-star general, a three-star admiral, a major general, and the former head of the French equivalent of NASA, CNES. The COMETA study “was not a government-sanctioned one, but was undertaken independently, and then presented to the highest levels of government in France,” Kean wrote.
In Kean’s words, the report’s authors found “that about 5 percent of sightings – those for which there is enough solid documentation to eliminate other possibilities – cannot be easily attributed to earthly sources…This 5 percent seem to be completely unknown flying machines with exceptional performances that are guided by a natural or artificial intelligence.”
The COMETA authors said that anomalous airborne objects reported by reliable witnesses “could be the work of craft of extraterrestrial origin,” and that the ET hypothesis was the most logical and likely explanation. Everyone agrees that if these UFOs were proven to be probes or vehicles from outside Earth, that would be a monumental development in human history, a milestone in civilization,” Kean wrote. “If there was even a slight possibility of such a discovery…it seemed well worth the effort for scientists to try to find out.”
And so, an actual journalist, local public radio host and non-kook, began trying to cover UFOs seriously.
An international perspective served Kean’s case well. Her survey of the most remarkable cases – fantastic accounts with evidence and witnesses – documented radar returns and audio/visual recordings. She starts with the Belgian triangles sighting wave of 1989 to 1990. Kean gives us an extraordinary account from witness Major General Wilfried de Brouwer, the former head of the Operations Division for the Belgian Air Staff.
From Portugal, Kean brings us the 1982 case of Captain Julio Miguel Guerra. The Portugese Air Force pilot described an encounter with a disc-shaped object of metallic appearance. The object “demonstrated a harrowing variety of maneuvers at close proximity to Guerra’s small plane,” and was seen by two other Portuguese pilots who were later scrambled to the scene.
The most well-documented and dramatic case study Kean detailed came from Iran. On the night of September 18, 1976, General Parvis Jafari of the Iranian Air Force was ordered to fly his Phantom F-4 II fighter jet to intercept and investigate an airborne lighted object over Tehran that was causing an unsettling sensation across the capital city. Jafari’s story included an actual “dogfight” in the air with the brilliant, flashing, multi-colored, diamond-shaped object, which gave a return on his radar scope “comparable to that of a 707 tanker.” During the “cat-and-mouse” jousting in the air, Jafari attempted to fire a sidewinder missile at the object. He said his equipment failed just at the moment when he was about to fire.
Kean deftly related these and similar accounts, which are not easily dismissed, alongside her own thematic essays. Her chapters resemble perfectly pedestrian aspects of investigation that you would expect to see in a book on any area of scholarly or scientific inquiry. But UFOs are not just any subject and Kean’s particular assemblage of evidence, expertise, and argument, was uniquely influential in mass media and among institutional political players in Washington.
In short, Kean’s book was an authoritative response to a familiar taunt from ignorant skeptics: “Why do only drunk yokels from the sticks see UFOs, and not scientists and people who know something about flight?” Her book prompted Kean’s peers to finally look at evidence and accounts that had been openly available for decades.
And so we arrive, finally, at the beginning of our story.