UFOs and the U.S. government: The push towards greater transparency
Unexplained aerial phenomena.
Is the government covering up what it knows?
Today, On Point: We dive into 75 years of UFO history and the beginnings of government mistrust.
Garrett Graff, journalist, historian and author covering politics, technology, and national security. Former editor of POLITICO Magazine and now a contributing editor at WIRED. Author of “UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There.”
Ryan Graves, executive director, Americans for Safe Aerospace. Former Lt. U.S. Navy and F/A-18F pilot.
Excerpt from “UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There” by Garrett Graff
The spies and analysts who work in earthly intelligence always try to draw distinctions between secrets and mysteries; their realm and strength, they say, is primarily in uncovering secrets—knowable facts purposefully concealed from public view. (The capabilities of the latest Chinese hypersonic weapon, for example, is a secret; how the Egyptians built the pyramids is a mystery.) Much of the story and history of the popular culture, media, and governmental focus on UFOs has been trying to understand where that critical line is between knowable secrets and unknown mysteries: How much of the UFO phenomena is attributable to secret human technology or visiting extraterrestrial activity versus simple physics, meteorology, and astronomy that we just don’t yet fundamentally understand?
UFOs surely continue to confound us, in part because we know so little about the world around us. As much as we now know about meteorology, astronomy, the heavens, and physics, it’s worth remembering how new (and still evolving) much of that knowledge truly is. Most of the core principles we have uncovered about physics, time, space, and astronomy have been discovered in just a human lifetime or two. In fact, before you even get to the mysteries of space, much of our understanding of our own planet is startlingly new.
Western scientists have only known about the existence of gorillas, our closest living relative, for about 150 years; before 1847, reports of their sightings were dismissed as stories of a mythical* This secret/mystery line was a key part of why the US government recently “rebranded” UFOs as UAPs, unidentified anomalous phenomena, understanding that while some portion of UFO sightings are surely secret advanced aerial craft from the US, China, Russia, or elsewhere, that surely much—and perhaps most or nearly all— of today’s UFO sightings simply reflect basic principles and phenomena of physics, meteorology, and astronomy that today are mysteries, creature akin to a yeti or a unicorn.
The first “dinosaur” was discovered and identified in 1824, and it’s effectively only been in my lifetime that we’ve come to recognize they were wiped out in an asteroid collision and that many dinosaurs were feathered. Giant squids existed as a myth for thousands of years, traceable to Aristotle and ancient Greece, until a French ship actually caught one in 1861, and it wasn’t until 2004 that biologists actually spotted one in its natural habitat. My high school geology teacher, Mr. McGraw, would remind us that the theory of plate tectonics—now widely understood as the way the entire Earth moves—wasn’t even proven when he himself was a student. We still know less about the bottom of the oceans than we do the surface of the moon. “There is a tendency in 20th century science to forget that there will be a 21st century science,” J. Allen Hynek, one of the world’s most influential astronomers and ufologists said, “and, indeed, a 30th century science, from which vantage points our knowledge of the universe may appear quite different.”
This book intertwines two threads from across the last seventy-five years: the military’s on-again-off-again hunt for UFOs here on Earth, and the increasingly serious work conducted by scientists, astronomers, and eventually NASA to search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe. These stories have been traditionally told separately, the UFO tale usually relegated to conspiratorial whodunits and self-published books by obscure small presses, while the more official “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” known as SETI, is the subject of more scholarly work and memoirs by well-respected scientists—but that artificial divide fails to recognize the parallel tracks these two stories have led since World War II, as advancing technology has allowed us to understand the heavens in ways that our ancestors never could have imagined.
Both threads are fundamentally stories of believing—the human desire, at a basic and almost cellular level, to hope even against the longest of odds—and they are different sides of the same coin, the line between the believability of one and the reality of the other deeply intertwined. “The common thread is a sincere desire to understand the universe, to find truth and meaning in a time when we are overwhelmed with astronomical data,” journalist Joel Achenbach writes. What follows is not an attempt to tell the full, exhaustive story of UFOs, alien contact, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence— there are some famous “sightings” that barely merit mention, and others that don’t get any mention at all, and many of the incidents, sightings, and reported encounters in this book have resulted in entire stand-alone books or even shelves of books themselves—nor does it purport to offer comprehensive solutions to every sighting. Instead, it is an effort to tell the story of how the US government, military, and leading scientists have approached these questions over our collective lifetime.
I’ve tried to narrow my focus to those incidents, sightings, and reported encounters that changed the arc of the broader history of UFOs in America and the world beyond during the latter half of the twentieth and the first two decades of the twenty-first centuries. It is a story populated by some of the biggest figures of modern American history, from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, and some of most famous minds of the twentieth century, from Enrico Fermi to Carl Sagan, as well as all manner of strange and colorful characters who span the spectrum from serious scientists to outright grifters, from the nation’s leading nuclear scientists to the man who inspired talk radio conspiracist Alex Jones. It is a story, as one of the field’s most notorious practitioners, James Moseley, once described the field of ufology, of “genuinely mysterious events that always remain somehow just beyond solution while becoming impossibly tangled in a web of wacky human failings and yearnings.”
Part of the challenge in putting it all together is that the government absolutely is covering up the full extent of its interest and investigation into UFOs. Plenty of revelations, declassified documents, and public reports prove an active, ongoing cover-up over decades, and even today, the US government is surely hiding information from us about its knowledge, beliefs, and working theories about what exists in the skies above and beyond us. I know this not because I have any special visibility into what they’re hiding, but simply because the US government routinely hides information important and meaningless on all manner of subjects, regardless of whether there are legitimate national security concerns involved.
Every book I’ve ever written has run up against classified information and decades-old secrets still locked inside archives. Today, especially, the US government remains coy about the extent to which modern-day “UAPs,” an acronym that in recent years first referred to “un-identified aerial phenomena” and now refers to “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” are drones or unmanned vehicles launched by adversaries like Russia and China. What is unclear is whether the government is covering up meaningful information about UFOs or UAPs—the verdict is much more mixed about whether the government has intelligence that would forever alter our understanding of ourselves and our universe.
At the same time, as someone who has spent two decades researching and reporting on US intelligence, national security, and the military, one of my maxims is that government conspiracy theories generally presuppose a level of competence and planning that isn’t on display in the rest of the work that the US government does: sure, secrets can be held for a few years or a few decades, particularly if they’re focused on a small group, but the government just isn’t secretive, creative, or thoughtful enough to execute the grandest conspiracies we see lurking behind the darkest interpretation of events like Roswell, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, or 9 ⁄11.
The deeper I got into this particular subject, the more I came to realize that the government’s UFO cover-up has primarily been a cover-up motivated not by knowledge but of ignorance. It’s not that the government knows something it doesn’t want to tell us; it’s that the government is uncomfortable telling us it doesn’t know anything at all. It’s a bafflement that hints at a more exciting and intriguing truth: there is something out there, and none of us yet know what it is. As Philip Morrison, one of the inventors of the SETI field, said, “Either we’re alone in the universe or we’re not, and either possibility boggles the mind.”
For now, we are left with math, physics, astronomy, and a mystery. Carl Sagan dedicated his life to his hunt, wondering whether humans were alone, a hunt that popularized him even as it caused his peers to sneer at his scientific credentials. As he saw it, “In a very real sense this search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for a cosmic context for mankind, a search for who we are, where we have come from, and what possibilities there are for our future—in a universe vaster both in extent and duration than our forefathers ever dreamed of.” As it turns out, in the end, the story of the hunt for “them” is mostly actually a story about us.
Excerpted from UFO by Garrett M. Graff. Copyright © by Garrett M. Graff. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press.
RYAN GRAVES: My name is Ryan Graves. I’m a former lieutenant and F/A-18 pilot in the U. S. Navy.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: In 2015, Ryan Graves was in the briefing room when his fellow pilots on the USS Theodore Roosevelt came in to talk about what they’d seen in the air.
GRAVES: One of my very good friends from my squadron, they noticed that there were a number of radar contacts that were east of the aircraft carrier. And they went to go check out these objects and then they got closer and started breaking out on the FLIR. That’s when we start to hear some of the communication on the tapes that were released about how they don’t know what the object is.
How they’re looking at the situational awareness page and seeing a whole fleet of these objects.
PILOT #1: There’s a whole fleet of them. Look on the SA.
PILOT #2: My gosh.
PILOT #1: They’re all going against the wind. The wind’s 120 miles to the west.
PILOT #2: Holy [expletive] dude.
GRAVES: The situational awareness page is a God’s eye view with the Aircraft itself in the center. On that screen, you see the gimbal video and you also see the radar information on the situational awareness page that shows the formation of other objects. That were in the gimbal that were flying in what appeared to me as a wedge formation. A wedge formation that executed a turn, 180-degree turn, and the gimbal object essentially stopped and followed that formation.
PILOT VIDEO: That’s not our LNS though, [unintelligible audio] is it? Look at that thing … it’s rotating.
CHAKRABARTI: This wasn’t the first time Graves had heard about pilots seeing things they could not explain. It had happened to him, too. Back in 2014, he was stationed just off Virginia Beach. The aircraft he was flying had been updated with new and improved radar systems.
GRAVES: But as we started flying with these new radars, we started noticing objects on our radar that we weren’t seeing with the older ones.
Objects in our airspace around us, not that far away. And they were performing in strange ways. They weren’t flipping in and out. They were either stationary or they were moving at pretty high speeds and in predictable patterns. And that was our first indication that there was something not right with our airspace.
CHAKRABARTI: Navy protocol demanded a meticulous examination, starting with the most obvious question. Was there a problem with the new radar? The Navy dismissed that theory after other sensors on the aircraft, such as visual and infrared sensors, also picked up the strange objects. So next step, Graves and his fellow pilots tried to verify the objects directly with their own eyes.
GRAVES: I recall doing that myself. We would try to slow down as much as possible, pick an object that was stationary, get below it so that we could look up against the blue sky to try to identify it. We’d have it locked on our radar, our IR systems. Our camera systems, even our missile systems would begin to lock onto these objects to indicate that they were seeing them.
And all those indications are being projected onto my helmet visor, almost as a heads up display. And so as I approach that merge, something we practice all the time at much more challenging parameters, I’d be looking for it and all my sensors in my visor would be telling me where to look. We would fly by and we weren’t able to see them.
There’s nothing there.
CHAKRABARTI: Not normal.
GRAVES: I was 100% expecting to see something when we came up to it. All my training and all my tools and all my sensors up to that point have worked one way. Never have I had that much information about something and then we’re somehow mysteriously unable to see it.
Sure, I might have missed it. But to think that I would miss it multiple times and my backseater would also miss it comes to the conclusion that it’s not likely pilot error that we can’t gain a visual of this object. Something else had to be going on and that was not exciting. That was very unsettling. Because I just put myself into a position where I thought I was going to have the confidence to maintain a safe distance from this object.
And I didn’t even have the ability to see it. I just called into question my ability to further examine this object. And that was terrifying, because now we didn’t, now it’s like I can’t even trust my eyeballs.
CHAKRABARTI: Ryan Graves was in the Navy for more than 10 years. He’s since left the service.
This summer, he testified before the House Subcommittee on National Security, the Border and Foreign Affairs. And he told the representatives that as a pilot and a formally trained engineer, he’d witnessed many phenomena that he could not explain.
GRAVES [Tape]: During a training mission in Warning Area Whiskey 72, 10 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, two F-18 Super Hornets were split by a UAP.
The object, described as a dark gray or black cube inside of a clear sphere, came within 50 feet of the lead aircraft and was estimated to be 5 to 15 feet in diameter. The mission commander terminated the flight immediately and returned to base. Our squadron submitted a safety report, but there was no official acknowledgement of the incident and no further mechanism to report the sightings.
Soon, these encounters became so frequent that aircrew would discuss the risk of UAP as part of their regular preflight briefs.
CHAKRABARTI: Graves now runs an organization called Americans for Safe Aerospace. It’s a non-profit dedicated to understanding unidentified anomalous phenomena as a national security threat.
He says he still doesn’t know what he saw in the skies. Part of the reason for that is that any unidentified aerial phenomenon, as the government now calls them, is automatically highly classified. But he says, whatever they are, they must be taken seriously.
GRAVES: We have to accept that we don’t know what these objects are.
And that’s a big step to do that, and we have to stay in that area of uncertainty. Because once we start jumping to conclusions such as what our media has trained us to think about UFOs and aliens for the past 40 years or so, or for the people that are hardcore on the other side of it, that say that it’s all a joke.
We have to realize that there might be a middle ground there and we have to be comfortable with that uncertainty.
CHAKRABARTI: UFOs have long been both a major sci fi mainstay and a potent conspiracy theory, all of which make the fact that the U. S. government has recently declassified a few pilot videos and held hearings about them, that much more interesting.
To me, the question isn’t so much, are aliens visiting Earth or are they buzzing aircraft carriers? The question is, what has changed to promote a burst of public conversation about UFOs from a normally super secretive Department of Defense?
Garrett Graff is a journalist, historian, and author who covers the intersection of politics, technology, and national security.
He’s published a new book just out today. And it’s called “UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There.” Garrett Graff, welcome back to On Point.
GARRETT GRAFF: Thanks so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, let’s talk a little bit more about Ryan Graves, because in our preshow conversations with you, you said you found him to be the most credible of the witnesses who recently testified before that House subcommittee.
Why is that?
GRAFF: So I think he represents a couple of different things that we see across the history of what were originally called UFO sightings, now called UAP sightings. He is a trained observer. He is an experienced pilot. He has a good sense of what is up there in the sky and what should be up there in the sky.
And then there’s also documentary evidence that backs up his encounters and his experiences. There’s video, there’s testimony from corroborating witnesses. And then to me, there’s another category that’s a little bit more amorphous, but that to me represent the most believable witnesses of encounters, going back across the sort of 80 years or so of the modern UFO age, which are, he has very little to gain and, in fact, quite a lot to lose by coming forward and talking about his encounters with an unknown object.
There are very few instances in life. And this is obviously a part of the theme of today’s conversation and what you’re interested in. But there is a stigma of talking about UFOs. Part of the reason that the U.S. government has rebranded it as UAPs, Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon is to reduce the so-called giggle factor of someone coming forward to talk about UFOs.
Now, the irony is that the way that this whole modern era started was with flying saucer sightings. And it was in fact actually the U.S. government’s early studies of flying saucers in the years after World War II, the dawn of the Cold War, when they first rebranded and popularized the term UFOs, unidentified flying objects, as a way to decrease and destigmatize the giggle factor of talking about flying saucers.
And now, fast forward through a couple of decades and a lot of pop culture and the government is out with a fresh rebranding.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to actually just play another clip from just before the hearings that were held in that House subcommittee this summer. They were called together by House Representative Tim Burchett.
And here’s something that he said in a press conference right before the hearings.
REP. TIM BURCHETT: They do exist, or they don’t exist. They keep telling us they don’t exist, but they block every opportunity for us to get ahold of the information to prove that they do exist. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it, dadgummit, whatever the truth may be. We’re done with the cover up.
CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I wanted to play that because it’s not just, what does the public believe, how much trust they have in government or lacking, but here we have a representative himself, whether you believe him or not, who’s saying we can’t even get our information from other parts of the government on this.
What do you make of that?
GRAFF: So that’s a real problem. One of the big challenges of studying and trying to solve this mystery across the last 80 years has been stonewalling by the government. To me, I’ve spent a couple of years now studying this, going back over the history, reading through declassified documents, interviewing government officials, and there is absolutely a government cover up about its understanding and knowledge around UFOs and UAPs.
There are a couple of legitimate reasons for some of that cloak of secrecy, some chunk of what we consider UAP sightings are our government’s own secret military development and projects and operations. The CIA went back and calculated at one point that actually it believes that about half of all UFO sightings in the 1950s were the U-2 spy plane.
CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I’m going to talk with you a lot more about maybe the government’s reasons for not sharing more of what it knows about UAP sightings, but the history of all this is equally interesting. And we’ll talk about that when we come back. This is On Point.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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