“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?”
I got my first inkling that something was happening on the afternoon of Sunday, December 17, when I checked my emails and saw that two friends had, independent of each other, sent me links to a pair of stories that appeared the day before on the New York Times website. “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” was one. The other: “2 Navy Airmen and an Object That ‘Accelerated Like Nothing I’ve Ever Seen.'”
In the New York Times????!!!! The Old Gray Lady, the all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-print newspaper, for which UFO sightings were most emphatically not fit to print? Which referred to UFOs, when it felt obliged to speak of them at all, in tones of lofty contempt?
And the Times wasn’t alone. That Saturday evening the Washington Post got into the act, with a story headlined “Head of Pentagon’s secret ‘UFO’ office sought to make evidence public.” The writer was Joby Warrick, described at the bottom of the article as having “joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, the environment and the Middle East and currently writes about terrorism. He is the author of two books, including 2015’s ‘Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,’ which was awarded a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.”
Not, as they say, a lightweight.
The Times bylines were more complex, with three names. Helene Cooper came first in both stories, then Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean, the order reversed in the “2 Navy Airmen” article. Unlike Cooper and Blumenthal, Kean’s name had no link to her archive for the Times. But everybody who’s into UFOs knows of Leslie Kean, author of the 2010 bestseller UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record.
Ralph Blumenthal, a Times regular, is also no stranger to UFOlogy. In 2013, he wrote an excellent piece for Vanity Fair on John Mack and alien abductions. “I’d love to know how the three teamed up,” I wrote to one friend on Sunday evening. The very next day, as it happened, I got my wish.
It took the form of a third Times article, “On the Trail of a Secret Pentagon U.F.O. Program,” which I read as an apologia and explanation for the first two. Published Monday, December 18, it’s attributed to Blumenthal alone. “So how does a story on U.F.O.s get into the New York Times?“ Blumenthal asks rhetorically. (Precisely the same question had occurred to me.) “Not easily, and only after a great deal of vetting, I assure you.”
Blumenthal leads off the article with: “Our readers are plenty interested in unidentified flying objects. [New York Times readers, not National Enquirer junkies–imagine that!] We know that from the huge response to our front-page Sunday article [!!!!!] (published online just after noon on Saturday) revealing a secret Pentagon program to investigate U.F.O.s The piece … has dominated the most emailed and most viewed lists since.”
It began, Blumenthal says, with Kean. Last October she met in Pentagon City with a group of intelligence officials including one Luis Elizondo, “the director of a Pentagon program she had never heard of: the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. She learned it was a secret effort, funded at the initiative of the then Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, starting in 2007, to investigate aerial threats including what the military preferred to call ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ or just ‘objects.'”
(UAP–the term used, not quite accurately, by Hillary Clinton when talking on TV with Jimmy Kimmel in March 2016.)
Kean contacted Blumenthal, whom she’d known “for years” and obviously knew to be sympathetic, and “told me this looked like a story for The Times. I agreed.” There followed discussions with Times editors, as well as more conversations with Elizondo, who emerges as the pivotal figure in the story. Cooper, described as the Times‘ “Pentagon correspondent,” was the last to join the team.
“Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, was well acquainted with Mr. Reid and helped arrange an interview for Helene. She flew to Las Vegas on Dec. 5 and met with the former senator, who confirmed the program with details, saying, ‘I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this going.’
“Leslie interviewed the aerospace magnate Robert Bigelow, who also confirmed his participation, saying Americans were being held back from serious research into U.F.O.’s by ‘a juvenile taboo.’ ” For the past 60 years the Times had dismissed “serious research into U.F.O.’s” with snide, nose-in-the-air mockery. And now it approvingly quotes a characterization of this dismissal as “a juvenile taboo”?
There’s a Yiddish word for twists of this kind: Moshiachzeiten. “Messianic times.” As a teenage UFOlogist, I would have been ecstatic. A pity my Moshiachzeiten had to wait until I hit 70.
Since December 16, the story has exploded through the media. It’s impossible to track all the places it’s appeared: here’s links to the stories on CNN, Politico, and Vox.com. The website of “Omnitalk Radio Network” provides an extremely helpful collection of links to video and audio reports and interviews, which I came upon thanks to postings by Australian UFOlogists Keith Basterfield and Shane Ryan. I can’t fail to mention, also, the fine and thoughtful discussion posted on December 20 to the UFO Trail website.
I feel like someone standing right next to an elephant, and although I’m not blind like the elephantologists in the classic Indian fable, it will take some time and distance before I can get a clear sense of just what this beast is that looms over me. Provisionally, and knowing my sense of the matter is bound to change as I learn more, here are some thoughts and queries:
1) The real “big story,” it seems to me, is not the Pentagon secret project–which seems mostly to have gone nowhere, unearthed nothing of any significance. Nor is it the weird and dramatic 2004 UFO encounter, one of those studied by the project, that’s the subject of the second Cooper-Kean-Blumenthal article. (It’s an impressive sighting. There have been impressive sightings for decades, under the Old Gray Lady’s upturned nose.) The big story is the story itself–why it erupted when and where and how it did. And what it has to say about what UFOs mean for early 21st-century America.
2) Is it standard practice for someone unaffiliated with a newspaper to be given a byline in that newspaper–outside the op-ed page–as Leslie Kean was in the Times stories? Readers familiar with the world of journalism can probably set me straight on this; perhaps it’s not as remarkable as I think. But when a prominent UFO author is made, in effect, an honorary Times correspondent, it feels to me like the newspaper’s endorsement, not necessarily of the truth of her beliefs about UFOs, but at least of their respectability.
3) There’s a split in the media coverage of the UFO program, and it seems to correlate with our current political divisions. Not, however, in the way conventional stereotypes would lead you to expect.
The liberal East Coast media that Donald Trump so loves to bash–the Times, the Post, CNN–have given the story full and respectful coverage. In an op-ed last Saturday (December 23), the Times‘ Ross Douthat speaks with warmth, appreciation, and genuine understanding of the views of the “wonderful” UFOlogist Jacques Vallée. Following Vallée, and in complete accord with the position I’ve taken in this blog, Douthat suggests that in UFOs we confront “an enduring phenomenon whose interpretations shift but whose essentials are consistent” through the ages, “a persistent phenomenon that might be much weirder than a simple visitation from the stars.”
Fox News, by contrast, mocks the whole subject, treating the Pentagon UFO investigation as one more specimen of the “Washington swamp” that Trump is supposed to drain.
On one Fox News panel discussion, a loutish character at one end of the table proclaims alien abductions to be “hypnagogic nightmares”–the Pentagon program had nothing to do with abductions–and cackles at his own crass, tasteless joke about Harry Reid’s 2015 injury on his exercise equipment. (“He got hit by a UFO!”) At the table’s other end, a slender young woman can barely suppress her snickering as she speaks of UFOs. Neither can Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to a reporter’s question about President Trump’s opinions on the subject. Tom Bevan, again on Fox News, declares this to be “a story about corrupt and unaccountable government,” with Reid–who in the 2016 election called Trump a “hateful con man”–cast as villain.
Pure pork, we’re told: millions of taxpayer dollars funneled to Reid’s billionaire crony and fellow-Nevadan Robert Bigelow. The accusation has some plausibility. Reid clearly felt embarrassment and shame at the revelations; otherwise, why make a point of telling Helene Cooper that he didn’t? Yet the revelations didn’t come from Fox News critics but from the sympathetic writers for the New York Times, and it’s possible to see Reid’s actions in a far friendlier light. What if he were sincerely persuaded (by Bigelow?) that UFOs were a problem, not just for science but for national security? And that Bigelow was precisely the man to address them?
My overall impression: at least as far as this episode is concerned, the less you like Donald Trump, the more apt you are to like UFOs. Why this should be, seems to me one of the key questions of the whole affair.
4) It would be important to know how media outside the US have covered the story, if at all. Taede Smedes, in the Netherlands, posts on my Facebook Fan Page that in his country “not a single mainstream newspaper published about the Pentagon study. There were some websites that mentioned it, and some radio shows have done some (small) interviews, but apparently the media in the Netherlands consider it another weird thing coming from across the pond.” On the other hand, the coverage doesn’t seem to be exclusive to the US. Shane Ryan posts a link to a story on the website of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation: “Evidence suggests UFOs may have reached Earth, says former Pentagon official Luis Elizondo.”
5) The most astounding claim in the original Times “Glowing Auras and Black Money” piece is tucked away near the end: “Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena.”
Physical evidence of UFOs!!?? The Holy Grail of UFOlogy, which the skeptics were perpetually challenging us to produce 50+ years ago, and which we could never find a convincing instance of? (The Ubatuba fragments, supposedly retrieved in 1957, were the best we could come up with.) Are there now “metal alloys and other materials … recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena,” stored in Las Vegas and ready to be brought into the lab for examination?
Interviewed on December 17 on MSNBC, Ralph Blumenthal repeated and amplified the article’s claim: “They have, as we reported in the paper, some material from these objects that is being studied so that scientists can try to figure out what accounts for their amazing properties … some kind of compound that they don’t recognize.” If true, this isn’t just “news that’s fit to print.” It’s quite possibly the biggest news in all human history.
Is it true? I’d put the likelihood of that at somewhere near zero, but I’ve been known to be wrong. We’ll see.
by David Halperin
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