A Billionaire, a Spy and a Rock Star Walk into a Bar…
On a clear, starry night in rural Nevada, a young boy laid on an old mattress and gazed into the sky. He spent many evenings during the 1940s and ‘50s marveling at the frequent shooting stars and other lights above, unobscured by light pollution in his small mining town of about 300 residents. Decades later, his childhood wonder about space transformed into a fascination with UFOs, and as Senate majority leader he would spearhead the U.S. government’s effort to investigate what euphemistically came to be called unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP).
“Harry, there’s something you have to attend.” It was 1996, and the voice on the other end of the telephone was George Knapp, an investigative reporter and friend of Reid. He had called to invite the Nevada senator to a UFO conference being held in an office tower near the Las Vegas airport. The growing group of academics, engineers, former military officials, former astronauts, scientists and, as Reid put it, “a few oddballs,” which had convened periodically since the year prior, openly discussed whether the government was hiding a captured alien or crashed spacecraft. Their professional, scientific language impressed Reid, who secretly attended the meetings throughout the following years before taking their ideas straight to the federal government. “I was hooked,” he later recalled.
Whether he knew it or not, Reid had been sucked into a bizarre underworld of conspiracy theories and paranormal investigations led by a colorful cast of characters including a billionaire hotel magnate, an international rock star and a military spy. Knapp acted as the conduit between them and the senator, and together they crammed UFOs through the media circuit, halls of Congress and public imagination, culminating in last month’s Pentagon report.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Northern California, George Knapp began his journalistic career in 1979 when he arrived in Las Vegas. He worked as a cameraman and production assistant at KLVX-TV Channel 10, then got hired as a reporter for KLAS-TV two years later. With his “give ‘em hell” attitude, sardonic sense of humor and distinctive mustache, he quickly rose to become one of the city’s most popular anchors. One day, when a UFO researcher entered the office and dumped a stack of documents on another reporter’s desk, he was turned away. Knapp, however, took an interest and began his dive into the world of extraterrestrials and government cover-ups.
A Whistleblower Named “Dennis”
Knapp’s career took a strange turn on May 24, 1989, when he sat down for a live interview with a government whistleblower named Dennis. He told stories of flying saucers, antimatter reactors and other alien technology supposedly being hidden at Area 51, the secretive military base where he claimed to have worked as a scientist. Months later, he revealed his true identity: Bob Lazar. Portions of the interview were broadcasted in six European countries and Japan, solidifying his legendary status in UFO lore. After going quiet for many years, he recently emerged to promote a Netflix documentaryabout his life, featuring George Knapp, and to appear on the massively popular Joe Rogan podcast.
There are several problems with Lazar’s story. Despite claiming to have earned degrees in physics from MIT and electronic technology from Caltech, neither university has any record of his attendance or graduation. He also claimed that the spacecraft at Area 51 moved using a mysterious element 115, which generated gravity waves that could create an artificial downhill in any direction. But when Russian scientists synthesized the element that fit the 115th slot on the periodic table in 2003, naming it Moscovium, they discovered it has a half-life of 0.65 seconds, far too unstable to be fuel for anything, much less a spacecraft. Apart from the UFO coffee mugs sold on his company’s website for $15.00, there remains no evidence that any such alien tech exists, nor that Lazar ever stepped foot inside Area 51.
But Knapp never gave up. Three decades later, he is still talking about UFOs and has suggested that the Navy pilot videos released in 2017 confirm Lazar’s claims.
His 1989 interview caught the eye of one hotel magnate with a hefty pile of cash to throw at UFO pet projects. Robert Bigelow, the Nevada owner of Budget Suites of America, had an interest in extraterrestrials since his grandparents told him stories of their own encounters with UFOs when he was a child. He soon met Lazar, bought into his story and began hanging out with him in the Nevada desert.
Bigelow also funded the “research” of Bud Hopkins, the founder of the alien abduction movement who believed aliens were crossbreeding with humans, and John Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist who fell into disrepute after he coaxed abduction stories out of his patients through hypnosis. But it did not take long for another shiny object to snag Bigelow’s attention.
On June 30, 1996, Deseret News published a story about a 480-acre ranch in Uintah County, Utah, where Terry and Gwen Sherman had experienced inexplicable happenings for over a year since they settled into their new home. On top of the typical UFOs with varying shapes and lights, they and their children attested to witnessing disembodied voices speaking strange languages, missing or mutilated cattle, and perfectly circular impressions in the grass on and nearby the ranch. Bigelow purchased the ranch within three months. He created the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), hired a team of researchers, and installed surveillance equipment all over the property, which would eventually come to be known as Skinwalker Ranch. They immediately got to work.
The list of strange phenomena expanded to include an invincible, mysteriously vanishing wolf, a disappearing, red-haired beast, an invisible, roaring monster resembling the alien from the movie Predator, nine-foot-tall Bigfoots, the sound of heavy machinery beneath the Earth, flying blue orbs, apparitions inside the family home, dark creatures peering in through the windows, identical nightmares, nasty smells and blinding lights. All of these, however, were only experienced by the Sherman’s or some neighbors. Bigelow wanted proof.
The NIDS team claimed to see the blue orbs described by the Sherman’s, as well as other anomalous aerial phenomena, but they failed to photograph or document any of it. According to them, if they set up cameras and personnel in one section of the ranch, the activity popped up in another. In one instance, a camera installation was found shredded. Staffers began to believe a “pre-cognitive sentient intelligence” was present at the ranch.
Despite some extravagant stories from staffers, the investigation turned up no meaningful physical evidence, and NIDS disbanded in 2004. Before closing it down, Bigelow allowed George Knapp access to the ranch and its researchers, which had otherwise been shut off to outside observers, and in 2005 he co-authored a book, Hunt for the Skinwalker, with biochemist Colm Kelleher, who had worked for NIDS and claimed to have seen a yellow-eyed humanoid creature watching the team from atop a tree. “It was as if someone had ordered up the weirdness pizza with everything on it,” Knapp wrote.
The NIDS advisory board contained some individuals who had a history pushing pseudoscience and the paranormal and would play key roles in later UFO investigations. One notable figure was Hal Puthoff, an ex-Scientologist and electrical engineer who directed a CIA/DIA-funded program during the 1970s and ‘80s called Project Stargate. The mission? Conduct experiments with psychic powers for potential espionage against the Soviet Union. A classified report claiming the Soviets had been pouring money into ESP and psychokinesis had sent military and intelligence communities into a panic, and Stargate was their response. The program was a total dud.
Puthoff championed notorious spoon-bending mind reader Uri Geller, a worldwide darling for ESP enthusiasts who made millions by doing “psychic prospecting” for oil and mining companies and was called out for being a fraud by stage magicians. Former astronaut and paranormal researcher Edgar D. Mitchell, who supervised some of Geller’s tests, also sat on the board of NIDS.
Surrounded by people like Puthoff at Skinwalker Ranch, the supposed site of portals to alternate dimensions, Bigelow unsurprisingly became amenable to ideas more paranormal than the typical UFO. In 2017, he told 60 Minutes extraterrestrials are already here, “right under our noses.” In January of this year, he suggested that “look-alike” aliens might be hiding “among the population” and when asked whether “spirits” like those found at the ranch are also among us, he replied, “they absolutely are.”
The search for such otherworldly phenomena did not stop with Skinwalker. After closing up shop at the ranch, Bigelow tapped a connection he made as far back as 1996. That year, the Republican businessman met a Democratic senator who was invited to a UFO conference hosted by the newly spawned NIDS in an office tower near the Las Vegas Airport.
Harry Reid befriended Bigelow, and the latter became a regular donor to his reelection campaigns, contributing at least $10,000 between 1998 and 2008. He thought Bigelow was “brilliant.” Apparently, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) scientist agreed. At some point, the scientist sent a letter to Bigelow expressing interest in the ranch, and after meeting both him and Reid, Reid decided the government needed to get involved in the UFO business.
“Well, if you were me, what would you say to people in power in the United States Senate who have huge control over the spending of defense money?” Reid asked the scientist.
“What I will do is prepare something for you that anyone can look at it that wants to, it’s strictly science,” he replied, according to Reid.
AAWSAP and AATIP have been shrouded in mystery and confusion ever since. Together, the programs began in 2007 and ran out of funding in 2012. Their total budget was $22 million. When The New York Times broke the existence of AATIP in 2017, it reported two facts that would later be disputed by the Pentagon, involved officials and declassified documents: (1) that the program’s purpose was to study UFOs, and (2) that a former defense official and spy named Luis Elizondo directed the program.
In January 2019, 38 reports produced by the program were released via FOIA request, revealing that none of their titles included anything mentioning UFOs or UAPs. A few months later, Pentagon spokesperson Christopher Sherwood told the New York Post that AATIP did investigate UAPs. That same year, Sherwood’s statement was contradicted by another Pentagon spokesperson, Susan Gough, who told The Black Vault that neither AAWSAP nor AATIP were UAP-related, adding, “the purpose of AATIP was to investigate foreign advanced aerospace weapons system applications with future technology projections over the next 40 years, and to create a center of expertise on advanced aerospace technologies.”
Asked about the discrepancy by the reporter, Gough said, “at the time, Mr. Sherwood was repeating the information that had been provided by a previous spokesperson some two years earlier. That previous spokesperson is no longer with my organization, and I cannot comment on why that person’s explanation of AATIP included that it had looked at anomalous events.”
To complicate matters further, both Harry Reid and Luis Elizondo, the former Pentagon official who claims to have directed AATIP, maintain that the program did investigate UFOs and UAPs. Remarkably, despite being paraded throughout the media sphere by The New York Times, The Washington Post and nearlyeverymajorcablenewsoutlet as a credible source on the topic, there is no evidence that Elizondo ever worked for, never mind directed, AATIP or any other government UFO program.
Elizondo says that AATIP continued its work informally after disbanding officially in 2012, but the Pentagon has denied that claim and refutes his involvement in the program. In December 2017, Pentagon Spokesperson Dana White told Politico that Elizondo did head AATIP, but in the following year Sherwood, the spokesperson who first claimed AATIP investigated UFOs, said he could not confirm her statement. Sherwood says he checked with leadership at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, where Elizondo was based from 2008 until 2017, including individuals who were still there from that time.
The details are convoluted and contradictory, made worse by uncritical reporting from most of the press. A look back at the origins of AATIP may clarify things.
After meeting the Skinwalker Ranch-curious DIA scientist in 2007, Reid approached two of his friends in the Senate — Republican Ted Stevens and Democrat Daniel Inouye — both influential committee chairs, with his proposal for the program. In Reid’s words, the DIA source dressed it up in “scientific language,” and the small appropriation would be slipped into the defense budget before anyone could notice. “What we decided to do — it would be black money, we wouldn’t have a big debate on the Senate floor over it,” he said. “… The purpose of it was to study aerial phenomena.”
Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS)
The contract for the program went, unsurprisingly, to Reid’s old friend and campaign donor, Robert Bigelow. He was the sole bidder, and his new company, Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS), got to work studying UFOs and paranormal phenomena. Only this time it was under the purview of the United States federal government.
Bigelow brought along his friends from Skinwalker Ranch. Colm Kelleher, Hal Puthoff, Eric Davis and Jacques Vallée all hopped from NIDS to BAASS, and Puthoff’s firm, EarthTech International, produced the 38 reports concluding the study’s findings. They included titles as wacky as “Invisibility Cloaking,” “Warp Drive, Dark Energy and the Manipulation of Extra Dimensions,” and “Traversable Wormholes, Stargates and Negative Energy.” One of the reports titled “Field Effects on Biological Tissues” was authored by Christopher (Kit) Green, a doctor who worked for the CIA on what would become Project Stargate.
BAASS also subcontracted some of the work to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a nonprofit that collects and investigates reports of UFOs. For less than a year, Bigelow paid MUFON $312,000 to send investigators on fact-finding missions and share data, though he did not disclose that he was giving it Pentagon funds.
Bigelow did not try too hard to conceal the kind of work he was doing. In September 2008, he appeared on George Knapp’s show, Coast to Coast AM, and announced the creation of BAASS, explaining that the company’s goal would be to find technologies akin to UFO propulsion methods. “We would love to find something that levitates,” he said. At one point, the FAA’s website even referred persons with UFO sightings directly to Bigelow Aerospace.
AATIP had its skeptics from the beginning. “I thought it was a little bizarre at the time,” a former senior intelligence official told Politico. “… I was concerned the money was being funneled through it to somebody else who was an associate of Harry Reid’s. The whole circle was kind of a bizarre piece.”
By 2012, with nothing of practical value produced by the program, Congress had let AATIP die a “slow death,” in the words of one former staffer from the same source. In retrospect, the picture that emerges is of a Pentagon with the impression that its money was being spent on national security research, and a well-connected billionaire using that money, not so subtly, to legitimize his obsession with interdimensional aliens.
What remains unclear is Elizondo’s role, if any, in AATIP. Whatever the case, he retired from his post at the Defense Department in 2017 and jumped into the private sector, where he was greeted with open arms by none other than the former lead singer and guitarist of Blink-182: Tom DeLonge.
The Rock Star
On a San Diego street lined on one side with surf and skate shops and on the other with fish taco restaurants, an office building houses the headquarters of the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science (TTSA). DeLonge, its founder and CEO, set up the company in 2017 as a cutting-edge research and entertainment conglomerate with a stated mission to “empower new scientific discoveries and communicate forward-looking ideas.” In less abstract terms, it studies and promotes UFOs.
On top of skating, listening to punk rock and getting chased by security guards, another of teenage DeLonge’s hobbies was researching UFOs. In his artistic career, the side passion bled into his work with songs like “Aliens Exist” and novels like Sekret Machines Book 1: Chasing Shadows, in which the government has been in possession of secret alien technology for decades. But after breaking up with his band in 2015, he left packed stadium performances behind and stage-dived into ufology headfirst.
DeLonge’s imagination takes him far from typical ufology, however. “We have so many lifeforms which are interacting with us which we don’t even know about. Not just UFOs, but things like ghosts and Bigfoot, too,” he said in an interview. “The universe is basically this one giant mind – like the mind of God – with trillions of stacked frequencies of thought.”
Gnarly, right? The punk singer would fit right in at Skinwalker Ranch. It is not surprising, then, that Hal Puthoff, who hopscotched from Project Stargate to NIDS to BAASS, is now TTSA’s co-founder and vice president of science and technology. Nor is it a shock that Colm Kelleher, the NIDS researcher and co-author of Hunt for the Skinwalker, was TTSA’s biotech consultant. Nor is it particularly stunning that TTSA’s imprint, Interstellar, published Bob Lazar’s autobiography.
TTSA, then, was the perfect place for Elizondo. Since seducing the news media in 2017, he has been one of the most ardent defenders of the extraterrestrial hypothesis regarding the Navy’s UFO videos and has even suggested they may be “extradimensional” in origin. In an all but explicit nod to Skinwalker, he told journalist Matt Farwell that individuals having experienced close encounters with UFOs could suffer “biological effects,” then relayed the story of a DoD staff officer’s roommate experiencing poltergeist phenomena, with books flying off shelves. He was hired as director of global security and special programs for TTSA, but his expertise was far from his most valuable asset.
When Elizondo brought his knowledge of AATIP’s existence to DeLong’s crew at TTSA, Chris Mellon, an investor and former defense official, had an idea. He reached out to Leslie Kean, a reporter and UFO enthusiast whom he had met at UFODATA, a UFO research organization for which both are board members. He thought she could help get the story into the spotlight.
Kean has a history of flirting with the weird side of ufology, to say the least. In 2010, she wrote a book, favorably reviewed by Hal Puthoff and with a forward by John Podesta, in which she describes numerous “unexplained” UFO sightings, ignoring evidence that would contradict her beliefs. At the time it was published, she had been mingling in UFO circles for over a decade and was romantically involved with Bud Hopkins, the founder of the alien abduction movement whose research Bigelow funded in the 1990s.
On October 4, 2017, TTSA met with Kean, who then reached out to Ralph Blumenthal, a retired New York Times reporter who was working on a biography of John Mack, Hopkins’ colleague, and had met her previously in alien abduction groups. He called the Times, pitched Elizondo’s story, and the rest is history.
What, then, do we make of UFOs?
The Pentagon’s UAP report, produced by the UAP Task Force, itself produced by Congress, pressured by media and public hype following the Times’ front-page story, said it could not explain 143 out of 144 cases due to a lack of data. The 144th was attributed to a large, deflating weather balloon.
If the nine-page length is any indicator, the report’s authors probably rushed it out under a tight budget. That would also elucidate why they seemingly ignored the work of civilian investigators like Mick West, who has offered plausible natural explanations of the videos captured by Navy pilots. According to his analysis, the anomalous behavior of the UFOs observed in the three most famous videos— “FLIR,” “GIMBAL” and “GOFAST” — can be explained by changes in camera types, diffraction, the parallax effect and other answers that are dry as rubber compared to flying saucers and interdimensional space beings.
I asked West how, given their extensive training and experience, Navy pilots could be confused by something so clear to him. Given the millions of experiences they have, he told me, some fraction of sightings inevitably falls within what he called the “low-information zone,” the set of circumstances under which a phenomenon cannot be identified. Investigations like the UAP Task Force have a selection bias for such events, and they end up lumping disparate phenomena into the single, illusory category of “UFO.” On a more basic level, pilots, by virtue of their humanity, are fallible creatures. They make mistakes, just like the rest of us. J. Allen Hynek, the famed ufologist and astronomer who inspired Close Encounters of the Third Kind and consulted for Project Bluebook, the U.S. Air Force’s investigation into UFOs from 1952 to 1969, admitted how unreliable pilot testimony could be. In his 1977 book, The Hynek UFO Report, he remarked, “Surprisingly, commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses.” Even the UAP report suggested some of the cases may be attributable to “observer misperceptions.”
Regardless of the ambiguity surrounding each UFO encounter, the fact remains that the network of individuals invested in promoting them are not merely agnostic; they claim to know that the released videos, photographs and testimonies are not only spectacular but likely evidence of alien life and possibly even paranormal activity.
“With the UAP report, I think what we’re seeing is really a PR campaign by people interested in getting disclosure from the government about what it knows about UFOs,” West said. “… I would say it’s essentially the same kind of thing that has happened before except magnified via a well-orchestrated campaign by the UFO believers who have inherited the Bigelow legacy within government.”
Kate Dorsch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies UFOs, echoed West’s sentiment. “It turns out that historically the main driving force behind a lot of the narrative has always been just a handful of figures who have written a couple of prominent books and perpetuated each other’s stories,” she said. “I don’t think there is something special about the Navy sightings. … I think the people doing the PR for them are very good at their jobs.”
Although most of the media coverage has faithfully accepted the stories spun by Knapp, Bigelow, Reid, Elizondo and DeLonge, there have emerged dissenting voices. A crack team of independent researchers, many of them ufologists turned skeptics, include West, Jason Colavito, Robert Sheaffer, John Greenewald, Jr. and others. Only time will tell which side prevails.
As Arthur C. Clarkeonce said, “the phenomenon of UFO doesn’t say anything about the presence of intelligence in space. It just shows how rare it is here on the Earth.”
Frank White has authored or coauthored numerous books on topics ranging from space exploration to climate change to artificial intelligence. His best-known work, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human...
Micah helps people understand and participate in the global space economy, commercial space companies, entrepreneurial activity, finance, government budgets and programs, or space policy. In his role as President of...
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