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Close Encounters

The U.S. government’s long history of stoking UFO conspiracies

A classified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP), or UFOs in Pentagon-speak, analyzed 366 sightings. It included videos shot by Reaper drones depicting anomalous orbs and close encounters between Navy F-18 fighter pilots and objects that defied the known laws of physics. Only half of them could be explained. Delivered to Congress on October 31, 2022, the briefing was a follow-up to the June 2021 “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” The takeaways were hazy at best, underscoring that UAP “may pose a challenge to U.S. national security” and that further investment in research and development was necessary. While these investigations seemed to mark a shift in the government’s willingness to take UFOs seriously, they were hardly the revelatory disclosure UFO enthusiasts had long pined after.

A major turning point had come in December 2017, when The New York Times revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had financed UFO research with “black money” (off-the-books covert funding) for a decade. The cloak-and-dagger initiative was called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, AATIP’s key sponsor, insisted the program’s research was in the name of science. But he privately justified it in hawkish terms: it would “directly benefit Department of Defense in ways not yet imagined. The technological insight and capability gained will provide the U.S. with a distinct advantage over any foreign threats and allow the U.S. to maintain its preeminence as a world leader.”

UFOs’ persistent crawl through the “American Century” reveals more about the entrenchment of the military-industrial complex than it does about real-life aliens.

The Pentagon refuted the Times’s more outlandish claims, countering that AATIP was solely concerned with foreign aerospace technology. But in 2009 AATIP awarded a multi-million dollar contract to Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS), a firm run by a paranormal-obsessed real estate mogul-cum-defense contractor named Robert Bigelow. BAASS explored the defense applications for a host of exotic technologies, including space-time modifications, wormholes, warp drives, laser weapons, advanced propulsion, and unconventional materials—all of which, according to a BAASS-contracted researcher, constituted a “UFO study that outwardly was not supposed to look like it had anything to do with UFOs.”

Things became even more head-scratching when Luis “Lue” Elizondo, an Army Counterintelligence Special Agent recruited into AATIP, said that the program had not actually ended in 2009 as the DIA suggested. Through a diffuse inter-agency matrix, he said, the government’s secret UFO studies churned on. In 2017, Elizondo grew frustrated with the Pentagon’s red tape. He quit and affiliated with Blink-182 vocalist Tom DeLonge’s E.T. research company, To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science (recall that Enema of the State featured the DeLonge-penned “Aliens Exist”). Then, in an awkward about-face, the defense establishment was suddenly content to lift UFOs from the conspiratorial fringe and began to collaborate with DeLonge and Elizondo. 

 As strange and novel as this all may seem, the current UFO buzz within the U.S. government is not unprecedented. Reaching back into the early years of the Cold War, the feinting dance between conspiracy theory and public policy merits closer inspection. UFOs’ persistent crawl through the “American Century” reveals more about shifting geopolitical concerns, the entrenchment of the military-industrial complex, and the changing relationship of the people to the state than it does about real-life aliens. In part, it is a cautionary tale about the rippling, causal effects of government secrecy. And it’s a reminder to be skeptical—of governments and the intentions of those wielding power, yes, but also of ourselves.

UAP are hardly a new occurrence. In the late-19th century, articles purported that “mystery airships” were spotted hovering over cities across the globe. A round vessel, dubbed utsurobune, or “hollow ship,” materialized on Japan’s coast during the Edo period. One 1567 depiction of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata shows laser-like beams emanating from a high-flying crucifix. Washington Irving’s satirical, proto-postmodern A History of New York features an invasion of Earth by moon-dwelling aliens as a metaphor for colonization. And in 1942, at the apex of wartime paranoia, Los Angeles’s anti-aircraft defenses launched nearly one thousand and five hundred shells at a phantom air raid, killing five bystanders. But 1947 saw the twin-birth of the modern UFO phenomenon and the U.S. security state, in the shadow of the atomic bomb and on the cusp of the Cold War.

On June 24, 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold flew over the Puget Sound in a small CallAir A-2. En route to Oregon for an air show, Arnold thought he might try to locate the wreckage of a Marine Corps C-46 transport plane, the discovery of which promised a $5,000 reward. Approaching Mount Rainier’s snowy peak, Arnold spotted nine glimmering objects flying in a tight echelon formation. Though it was months before the Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager would officially break the sound barrier, Arnold estimated that the craft were traveling faster than one thousand and five hundred miles per hour. Their motion, he told reporters, was “like a saucer if you skip it across water.” The media ran with Arnold’s description and placed a heavy emphasis on the “unidentified” part of UFO, introducing Americans to the flying saucer as an idea and sparking a wave of sightings.

That summer, President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, creating, among other things, the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Council. The U.S.’s new security infrastructure was decidedly global in scope; anxieties about the spread of Soviet-led communism touched off a zero-sum competition for resources and influence, justified the deployment of troops and materiel on an unprecedented scale, and grew an invisible culture of institutional secrecy. The advent of this extensive bureaucracy—along with its effects on both foreign policy and domestic politics—foundationally shaped UFO mythology. That large numbers of Americans were simultaneously made aware of their own vulnerability to aerial attack and detached from the levers of power shed a new, alien light on things seen in the sky.

As reports of UFO sightings flooded government phone lines, federal officials were pressed to investigate their origins. On the one hand, they were unsure if UFOs posed a threat; some speculated that they were Russian planes and weapons that had infiltrated U.S. airspace. On the other, if communication channels were clogged up with bogus stories about flying saucers, legitimate reports might not get through. In possibly the last moment of genuine open-mindedness towards the subject, General Nathan F. Twining, head of the Air Technical Command, established Project Sign to collect and assess information about UFO sightings. But by 1948, analysts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base concluded that most sightings stemmed from mass panic and hallucination, hoax, or a misinterpretation of known objects.

The calls did not stop. Maybe due to the Air Force’s waning enthusiasm, Project Sign was retooled as Project Grudge and tasked with alleviating public anxiety over UFOs—closer to a public relations campaign than a serious inquiry. The Air Force began to feel that official interest in UFOs encouraged the public’s belief in them, contributing to an atmosphere of “war hysteria,” according to a CIA internal history of the subject. Yet military intelligence still felt it was important to monitor sightings, if on a reduced scale, and would continue to do so through the Air Force’s Project Blue Book until its closure in 1969.

Though the CIA largely accepted the Air Force’s theories about UFOs’ origins, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Walter Bedell Smith commissioned an agency-led study following a 1952 sighting over Washington, D.C. To avert the potentially destabilizing public fallout of another high-level UFO investigation, any mention of the CIA’s sponsorship of or involvement was scrubbed from the record—an action that would stoke later theories of a government cover-up. The resulting Robertson Panel released its findings in January 1953 and hewed closely to the Air Force line: UFOs were neither a national security concern nor extraterrestrial in origin.

But the CIA was also quietly expanding an increasingly clandestine playbook. The French theorist Paul Virilio writes that the Cold War and its associated logic of deterrence introduced new terms of military engagement; sight and the manipulation of perception became the “ultimate weapons” of war. From the expansion of surveillance programs—intended to illuminate and make knowable every moment, every place—to stealth technology—the efficacy of which was premised upon its own secrecy—Virilio argues that a “war of pictures and sounds [replaced] the war of objects.” Within this context, DCI Smith wanted to know “what use could be made of the UFO phenomenon in connection with U.S. psychological warfare efforts.”

Few embodied the new Cold War operating ethos more than Richard Bissell. Having cut his teeth doing the unsung work of wartime logistics during World War II, Bissell was acutely aware of information’s decisive power, an insight that he would carry this into his work at the CIA. With a creative bent for the use of illusory forces, he found early success orchestrating the CIA’s 1954 Guatemalan covert regime change operation, codenamed PBSuccess. (A declassified telegram sent from operation headquarters in Florida to CIA stations in Guatemala recommended fabricating a “big human interest story, like flying saucers . . . in [a] remote area to take play away” to draw the public’s attention from the brewing plot.)

Mystery planes and UFOs both came from the Cold War’s cult of secrecy and the clandestine realm of black projects.

In 1953, with covert money from the CIA’s Contingency Reserve Fund, Bissell recruited Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects division, or the “Skunk Works,” to create a state-of-the-art spy plane at “The Ranch,” a dried-up Nevada lakebed nestled within a nuclear test facility run by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The project had a strict need-to-know mandate; engineers and pilots commuted to and from the site in an unmarked, blacked-out Janet Airlines fleet from Burbank and Las Vegas. By August 1955, test flights of the new U-2 reconnaissance plane began at the remote, sun-soaked expanse, better known today as Area 51.

To those not in the know, the space-age silver U-2 prototypes flying at 70,000 feet were unfathomable. CIA analysts later estimated that more than half of all reported UFO sightings in the late 1950s and early ‘60s could be accounted for by experimental aircraft. Consequently, the Air Force made misleading and deceptive statements to shield the U-2 program—and later the Lockheed A-12 and its accompanying drone, codenamed Oxcart—from public scrutiny. Moreover, Air Force officers tasked with handling the sightings were often unaware that the clandestine programs at Area 51 even existed and unwittingly participated in a cover-up. The CIA welcomed the “wilderness of mirrors”—a phrase that CIA chief of counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton lifted from T.S. Eliot to describe intelligence work, with its “myriad of stratagems, deceptions, artifices” and “ever fluid landscape where fact and illusion merge”—that sprung up around the issue.

By 1966, the public was demanding the truth about CIA and Air Force involvement in UFO investigations. Doctor H.P. Robertson, who had chaired the CIA’s 1953 study, appeared on a Walter Cronkite-hosted CBS Reports program, “UFOs: Friend, Foe, or Fantasy,” revealing the agency’s sponsorship of his work to the nation. House Minority leader Gerald Ford also called for congressional hearings on recent sightings. Later that year, the Air Force attempted to lay the issue to rest again with the Condon Committee, which recommended in 1969 that federal UFO studies be discontinued. In the eyes of the U.S. government, UFOs still had everything to do with national security; the threat was not from flying saucers, but from a frenzied public.

The strategic unknowns that the U.S. government embraced in the name of national security, however, would not go away. Area 51 was destined to become a generative site for conspiratorial thinking. Mystery planes and UFOs both came from the Cold War’s cult of secrecy and the clandestine realm of black projects. The Manhattan Project had been the archetype, auguring “a closed world built on the familiar, cozy relationship between Pentagon officials, the military brass, and defense contractors,” in the words of journalist Tim Weiner.

Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s career evokes this intimate circuit. At MIT, Edgerton developed momentary strobe photography, which found defense applications in World War II aerial reconnaissance. The AEC soon enlisted Edgerton to build the “Rapatronic,” a camera capable of photographing the incandescent flash of a nuclear explosion. The firm Edgerton founded with his colleagues Kenneth Germeshausen and Herbert E. Grier, EG&G, became a fixture at Area 51, progressively taking on more and more projects. In 1947, EG&G designed and operated the systems that would actually trigger atomic weapons tests. Covert directives and radical hardware inspired conspiracies that would lead believers on maddening hunts. Ouroboros-like, the emerging UFO mythology, shaped as it was by EG&G’s work at Area 51, would provide cover for some of the base’s real secrets and inspire later calls for answers from the government, reaffirming federal authority over the matter. Taken in this light, Edgerton’s famous 1964 photograph of a .30 caliber bullet ripping through an apple reads as something of an after-the-fact original sin for the atomic age.

In May 1989, the silhouette of a man identified only as “Dennis” appeared on Las Vegas’s KLAS-TV. He claimed to have reverse-engineered alien technology at S-4, which he alleged was an even more secret facility within Area 51. While highly classified projects were the norm at the Nevada base, it was “Dennis”—later revealed to be the self-proclaimed physicist Robert “Bob” Lazar—who would place it on the map of high conspiracy. The truth of the matter aside, Lazar’s story reflected an evolution in UFO lore, recombined and mutated to match the changing world.

A relic of the first saucer craze had resurfaced in 1978 to kick things off. The intelligence arm of the 509th Bomb Wing—whose planes had delivered atomic payloads to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—claimed in a July 1947 press release that they had recovered the wreckage of a “flying disc” near Roswell, New Mexico. The next day they retracted the story, saying the debris was from a downed weather balloon. A ufologist named Stanton T. Friedman—part of an expanding ecosystem of independent UFO researchers and citizen advocacy groups—termed it a “cosmic Watergate” and Roswell became the origin point for the government’s UFO cover-up.

Cover-up theories were conditioned by the prior decade’s erosion of public trust in the U.S. government. The Pentagon Papers exposed the deceptive escalation of the war in Vietnam. High-profile political assassinations shattered the neat logic of historical causality. On the heels of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the Church Committee revealed in 1975 that intelligence agencies had systematically weaponized, surveilled, drugged, and tortured U.S. citizens. Americans’ growing penchant for conspiracy theories was intrinsically linked to power relations and matched the state’s own expanded capacity for conspiratorial conduct. To boot, the nation was gripped by economic woes. Neoliberal policymakers doubled down on free-market orthodoxy in response, rendering wages comatose and deferring distributional conflict to the future.

Geopolitics took a sci-fi turn. On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan introduced the American public to the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars.” Reagan reinvigorated the Cold War, succeeding détente with flaring U.S.-Soviet relations and an aggressive military buildup. And as the U.S.’s focus shifted externally, it prioritized secrecy internally. The black budget for weapons increased drastically: by 1987, the U.S. was shelling out $8.6 billion, up from $892 million in 1981. More futuristic drone technology and radar-invisible stealth planes were developed at Area 51. Behind closed doors, the Pentagon pursued paranormal and Psi techniques with the Stargate Project. Nothing was off the table.

Bob Lazar offered an interpretation of Area 51––a UFO theory of everything––that made all the double-talk, tumult, and mystery make sense. For some UFO buffs, his testimony lent legitimacy to the Project Aquarius and “Majestic 12” legend. In 1983, Stanton T. Friedman and fellow ufologist William L. Moore were slipped copies of a classified 1952 briefing prepared for President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower. They said the government really had recovered alien craft and bodies at Roswell. President Truman had assembled a cabal of scientific, military, and political bigwigs to study UFOs and conduct alien relations.

But Moore confessed at the 1989 Mutual UFO Network convention that he had been recruited by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to spread disinformation within the ufology community. Moore’s alleged Air Force contact, Special Agent Richard Doty, was also said to have driven an Albuquerque-based electrical engineer named Paul Bennewitz mad by fabricating UFO sightings to cover up top-secret projects at the nearby Kirtland Air Force Base. For his cooperation, Moore said that he was promised the truth.

There was no going back. Ufology grew from a vernacular conflict over authority between individuals and the state into a discursively flexible vessel for political and cultural anxieties. Far-out stories percolated on Internet message boards. Some detailed broken treaties between the U.S. government and alien overlords, leading to a shootout between E.T.’s and Delta Force commandos in an underground base. Schisms in the paranoid fringe grew. Learjet scion and one-time CIA pilot John Lear backed Lazar, others broke rank.

 Contradictions stemming from U.S. institutional decadence and social atomization were heightened in the absence of the nation’s animating Cold War nemesis. Accordingly, Jodi Dean suggests in her excellent book Aliens in America that ufology indicated a break in officially sanctioned “consensus reality.” Abduction reframed “passivity, suspicion, paranoia, and loss as, themselves, forms of action.” Disclosure was underwritten by a yearning for truth and accountability, the deferred revelation of which Dean argues became “central to the myth . . . of a populist reclamation of democracy.” Coast to Coast AM, a late-night call-in radio show and forum for UFO debate and discussion, rivaled Howard Stern’s ratings. After all, a 1996 Newsweek poll found that 48 percent of Americans surveyed believed UFOs were real and another 29 percent believed that “we’ve made contact with aliens.”

The U.S. government tried to respond to public pressure about UFOs. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute received federal funding to design intergalactic listening equipment. In July 1994, the Air Force released its first ever report on Roswell following a congressional inquiry. It claimed that the debris recovered were “most likely” from Project Mogul, a top-secret high-altitude balloon program meant to detect Soviet atomic bomb tests. The reaction was mixed, to say the least. The CIA penned a 1997 manuscript entitled “CIA’s Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90,” admitting that the agency had systematically lied to the public throughout the Cold War to guard its classified projects. The admission only added fuel to ufologists’ fire. If the government would own up to this, what were they really hiding?

Familiar faces appeared on the UFO scene: Robert Bigelow founded the National Institute for Discovery Science in 1995 to study UFO and paranormal phenomena, mainly at Skinwalker Ranch, a rumored supernatural hotspot that Bigelow owned. And conspiratorial thinking gelled with capitalism’s expansionist logic. Hollywood picked up UFO lore in blockbusters like Independence Day and played up the Area 51 angle. The X-Files drew broadly from ufology and conspiracy subculture; with his belief in the existence of extraterrestrials shaken, FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder describes the military’s alien cover-up as “a conspiracy wrapped in a plot inside a government agenda.”

UFOs were met with an increasingly ambivalent shrug towards the end of the decade. On March 13, 1997, thousands of people in Arizona and Nevada reported strange, unexplained lights in the night sky. The actor Kurt Russell was the first to call them in as he flew his private plane nearby. At a June 1997 press conference frustrated Phoenix residents demanded answers. Arizona’s Governor Fife Symington announced that he had apprehended the “culprit” and proceeded to trot out his aide, handcuffed and in an alien costume.

Steven Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind depicts a true-to-life moment of flux in UFO discourse. Backgrounded by an earlier period of deference to Cold War technocratic expertise on the subject, the film’s events put rational, every day witnesses at odds with government eggheads unwilling to take their experiences seriously. Close Encounters is undergirded by a growing rift between the U.S. government and its people—the military lurking in its depths—that would only deepen in the years following the film’s release. Indeed, at best, the government’s engagement with the UFO issue has been a mixed bag. At worst, it’s been deceptive—destructive, even. The historical record does not so much shed light on the current interest in studying UFOs as it raises questions about it. “This means something,” says Roy Neary, Spielberg’s protagonist, “This is important.”

If the government would own up to this, what were they really hiding?

The Pentagon’s assessments of UAP present little by way of results. Their refrain is that a lack of evidence and data hampers conclusions. Ever more, expanded studies must follow. But the language in the assessments is couched in national security concerns, a difficult detail to overlook amidst declarations of a “new Cold War,” the continued militarization of space, and the acceleration of an international hypersonic arms race. Are the unidentified objects in question adversarial technology? Could they be top-secret U.S. military planes and weapons for which we don’t yet have a need-to-know? Recalling Virilio’s prescient inquiry, info- and techno-war are at the heart of contemporary geopolitical strategy; have UFOs become a two-for-one state-sanctioned conspiracy theory, serving both security and propaganda functions? To that end, is the government trying the cobble together a new consensus reality, assimilating ufology into the establishment by dangling disclosure before a public so inclined to believe? It’s not even clear what the consensus is in Washington; for some, interest in UAP might well be a genuine projection of existential concern over the U.S.’s changing role in the world.

While the why remains as opaque as ever, the what is more perceptible. The burgeoning UFO-industrial complex presents a familiar financial opportunity for defense and aerospace contractors. It’s worth noting that by some estimates the U.S. defense budget is predicted to surpass $1 trillion per year by 2027 (to say nothing of 2023’s $857 billion). A Pentagon-led UAP initiative also risks further institutionalizing undemocratic and wasteful practices. Case in point, officials interested in studying UAP have called for the development of “something like the post-9/11 fusion centers,” antiterrorism intelligence-sharing sites notorious for violating civil liberties and sapping tax dollars. Uncertain and connected to lobbyists’ bottom line as the whole enterprise is, Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns,” used to justify the cavalier expansion of U.S. militarism during the War on Terror, come to mind. If the recent balloon-mania is any indication, the defense community is nothing if not eager to tether public frenzy to its own agenda, infusing it with bureaucratic paranoia.

The author Phil Patton writes that UFOs were the “first folk emblem to emerge from the realm of technology.” They took root in the public’s minds—and television sets—as Cold War paranoia and concern over technoscientific advancement swelled. And they were embedded within the innermost machinery of the U.S. security state from the start, growing hand-in-hand with secret bases and spy planes, a fraternal bond that they share to this day. UFOs and extraterrestrials might well exist. They may even have observed, visited, and abducted human beings. Or not. Despite The X-Files’ declaration that “The Truth is Out There,” it’s worth remembering that the “truth” is a moving target.