As of December 2017, the world population is estimated to be 7.6 billion people. The United States has a population of 323 million people, of whom surveys find that a majority believe that space aliens have visited Earth. And yet, somehow, the same few dozen people are perpetually in charge of contaminating popular culture with ufology narratives. It is difficult to explain how this is even possible, and yet somehow it is. Let’s take a look at how the UFO believers worked together to deliver this past weekend’s dramatic but overblown revelation that the Pentagon spent millions on UFO research from 2007 to 2012. This story broke during my weekend break, but the intervening days have made much clearer the secret connections that help keep the river of UFO money flowing.
On Saturday morning, a coordinated series of articles by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico announced that former Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat, had earmarked $22 million to fund an Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program at the Pentagon, over the apparent objections of Pentagon brass, who did not want to the program. Media reports indicate that most of the money went to a division of hotel billionaire and UFO crank Robert Bigelow’s aerospace company, to which the Pentagon outsourced most of the UFO research. This resulted in exactly zero alien spacecraft identified.
Media outlets quickly noted that Reid and Bigelow are longtime friends, and there is quite a whiff of corruption in the notion that Reid’s friend would both advocate for a UFO program and personally benefit to the tune of millions of dollars from this program.
“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” Reid said in response to the reports. “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.” On Twitter, Reid added that there is “plenty of evidence” to ask whether UFOs are alien spacecraft.
But this was only the start of the story’s deeper connection to the web of UFO hucksters and snake oil salesmen who have created a nearly unstoppable perpetual motion machine to churn out new UFO revelations where none existed.
There is no really good place to begin the story, of course, because the government was involved with UFOs from the beginning. Within days of Kenneth Arnold launching the modern UFO era with his sighting of the so-called “flying saucers” in Washington State in July of 1947, the government has been intimately involved with the creation and maintenance of the UFO myth, both directly and indirectly. Declassified government documents show that the UFO story was originally a fictitious one, created by science fiction editor Raymond Palmer to sell magazines, and embraced by an eager public. FBI records strongly suggest that as early as 1947, the predecessor of the Air Force embraced the emerging UFO myth to provide disinformation and a cover story for Cold War spying and military testing.
Driven in large measure by science fiction, the UFO myth took on a life of its own, even after government investigators determined that anomalies in the sky were not spacecraft from another world and shelved their active investigations into such possibilities. But in Las Vegas, a young Robert Bigelow entered into the common pastime of the 1950s, watching the U.S. government test atom bombs just beyond the city limits. Bigelow claimed later that his exposure to the science culture of the 1950s and early 1960s—his adolescence—forever instilled in him a desire to probe the depths of space. It is certainly no coincidence that this was also the height of the UFO flap.
In the middle 1990s Bigelow began funneling money from his hotel business into the study of fringe science, particularly UFOs and the paranormal. This is when he crossed paths with Las Vegas journalist George Knapp, another longtime Democrat, and UFO nut. Knapp had been reporting incredible (literally and figuratively) stories about Area 51 and government UFO secrets since the 1980s, but in 1991 Knapp left his journalism career to do public relations work for a company representing advocates of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The company attempted unsuccessfully to lobby Sen. Harry Reid, who had been elected in 1987 and opposed the waste site. But the connections formed would play an unwitting role in creating the UFO research funding decades later.
In the mid-1990s, Knapp returned to journalism and published a 1996 story about the Skinwalker Ranch, where anomalous events were said to have occurred. By this time, Bigelow had come to see Knapp’s frequent tales of UFOs and the unexplained as a genuine mystery worthy of exploration. He bought the ranch and funded Knapp’s investigation into it, eventually yielding the 2005 book Hunt for the Skinwalker, which Knapp coauthored with a biochemist. Knapp worked with Bigelow from 1996 until the middle 2000s.
Shortly after Hunt for the Skinwalker was published, Knapp gave a copy to Reid, with whom he was already acquainted. According to Politico, Reid was quite taken with the book that Booklist described as “ultimately short on final answers.” He reportedly told Knapp that if his book were true, it represented a national security threat that the government was obligated to investigate. Well, actually, Knapp reported that Reid said he was obligated to “invest some money.” The subtle difference in wording shows where the real priority lay. After all, Reid did nothing to publicize the issue or ensure that research was conducted in an open, fair, and effective way. Instead, he teamed up with now-deceased senators Ted Stevens of Alaska, who claimed to have seen a UFO, and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who wondered if UFOs were a Russian- or Chinese-created security threat. The three senators funded the program without input from the rest of the Senate, and Reid ensured that the money went more or less directly to his friend Bigelow, who was also a large campaign contributor to Reid’s reelection efforts, to the tune of many thousands of dollars.
By the time the UFO program ended, Reid had also moved to make a Nevada museum with a credulous Roswell crash exhibit an official part of the Smithsonian. The senator had clearly become taken by science fiction narratives and had come to believe in space aliens. He then used that belief to help drive money back to Nevada and his friends. Basically, it was a fig leaf excuse to indulge his buddy Bigelow’s UFO fantasies while providing pork to the hometown crowd.
Weirdly enough, Knapp was happy to trumpet the Pentagon program and Reid’s involvement as legitimizing ufology, despite also believing that the government is engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth about UFOs. Reid happily talks about UFOs now that he is retired but said not a word in office, because he is a pork-barrel hypocrite. The cognitive dissonance is surprising, both on Knapp’s part and Reid’s. If there truly is a conspiracy, what purpose does giving the conspirators more cash serve?
But this is only the start of the tight web of connections.
The program’s funding dried up in 2012, though some reports say that the Pentagon continues to analyze anomalous aerial reports—as they should, since other countries are sending who knows what into the sky! The program’s director resigned with a blistering letter blasting the Pentagon for failure to take the UFO threat seriously. But he didn’t resign in 2012 when the program ended. Instead, Luis Elizondo resigned in October of this year, at exactly the same time that he joined former rock star and current UFO nut Tom DeLonge’s To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a company that launched on October 11.
For this timeline to have occurred, Elizondo had to have started talks with DeLonge before his resignation. Elizondo also provided details of the program to the media, part of an effort by To the Stars to repair the damage done by its money-grubbing launch and DeLonge’s uninformed appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast in October. Elizondo did not explain why he waited five years to resign, or why his outrage was timed to being paid by DeLonge’s for-profit venture. The selective outrage strongly implies motives beyond national security.
The admission of that Elizondo worked for a Pentagon UFO program, and that the Pentagon UFO program was actually a government funnel for cash to Bigelow’s corporate UFO research unit also gives a pretty good indication of the secret UFO programs that DeLonge teased in his interviews promoting sale of To the Stars stock and which DeLonge claimed told him he had come too close to the truth. Here, the timeline makes it quite tempting to see Elizondo and the AATIP program as the actors here, with Elizondo’s status as a true believer in space aliens leading to the supposed statements to DeLonge that he came too close. Indeed, taking DeLonge’s statements at face value, and slotting them in to the timeline provided by the “revelation,” it appears that we can account for most if not all of DeLonge’s interactions with the government if we were to assume that he was mostly just interacting with Elizondo and his staff, along with Bigelow’s corporate unit. This doesn’t account for the claim that a government official confirmed to him in public that an alien had been captured during the Cold War, but then DeLonge claimed he was so uninterested in that claim that he never bothered to ask about the alien.
It does, however, explain DeLonge’s claim that the Pentagon wanted him to promote alien research. If Elizondo was in fact the driving force there, we really just saw him angling for a job with DeLonge by flattering the millionaire rock star, and coming away with a lucrative new job.
The close connection between DeLonge’s claims and Elizondo’s operation can be seen in DeLonge’s somewhat confused statement to Rogan that he had access to a lump of metal with unnatural physical properties. Here is the New York Times writing about how Bigelow’s “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.” These lumps of metal are also likely to be related to those referenced by Jacques Vallée earlier this year. From Vallée we know that these lumps of metal were collected from supposed UFO landing sites, and from the Times wording, it isn’t clear that Bigelow’s investigation of the metal is a Pentagon project provided by the military. It might just as easily be an independent project funded by the government or by Bigelow himself. It is also more than possible that true believers like Elizondo believe things about the metal that are not supported by facts.
However, one piece of evidence suggests a plausible explanation: DeLonge claims that he has access to this metal, so if we take him at his word, then it would strongly imply that the metal that Bigelow is studying is either not U.S. government property or otherwise isn’t considered important. Otherwise, why would the Pentagon give away UFO debris to a random dude who employs the guy who resigned in anger because the Pentagon wasn’t taking UFOs seriously? I suppose there is an outside chance that they laughingly tossed him a lump on the way out the door because they thought nothing of it, but the more likely possibility is that Bigelow and DeLonge are working together in some undisclosed way. And indeed, To the Stars has praised Bigelow and on October 30, DeLonge teased that Bigelow would be joining To the Stars, only to retract the statement, presumably because Bigelow objected.
Oh, and Jacques Vallée is a paid consultant of Bigelow Aerospace and has been working with Bigelow for twenty years, with a non-disclosure agreement about his work with the company. What a coincidence.
It is very tempting to see Elizondo as teasing efforts by Bigelow to study the metal that Vallée collected, though Vallée said in September that the U.S. government had already been doing the same research, presumably referring to Bigelow and his testing of similar lumps of metal. Does this mean that Bigelow has been handing out metal lumps to UFO researchers like Vallée and DeLonge? The fact that both men suddenly had access to supposed space metal within weeks of each other, and that both have connections to Bigelow, who reported was working on the same, simply cannot be a coincidence.
But here is where things take a turn. George Knapp is also the weekend host of Coast to Coast A.M., where he promoted the “revelations” this weekend to the show’s audience of fringe believers. Peter Levenda, who coauthored a bad ancient astronaut book with DeLonge, similarly trumpeted the revelation on his Facebook page, even congratulating his readers for believing in a government conspiracy to study UFOs before the “proof” that such a conspiracy had in fact been outsourced to a major campaign donor with a UFO fetish.
So, the bottom line is this: No evidence of space aliens has come to light, but a small group of people have made a lot of money off of this. Inspired by midcentury sci-fi paranoia, even members of the moneyed class, the media, and the Senate itself indulged in their fantasies of alien contact. Robert Bigelow received most of $22 million earmarked for UFO research. Tom DeLonge leveraged that into millions in investments in his own company, which pays him a minimum of $100,000 per year. Harry Reid received tens of thousands in campaign contributions from Bigelow. And Knapp and Levenda cash in through their media products. This isn’t so much disclosure as it is a multimillion-dollar round-robin cash grab where the truth seems to be lost amidst the many opportunities to trade fantasy for money.
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I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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