— In the $600 billion annual Defense Department budgets, the $22
million spent on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program
was almost impossible to find.
was how the Pentagon wanted it.
years, the program investigated reports of unidentified flying
objects, according to Defense Department officials, interviews with
program participants and records obtained by The New York Times. It
was run by a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, on the
fifth floor of the Pentagon’s C Ring, deep within the building’s maze.
Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the
program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that,
while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the
program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say,
officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes
brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their
other Defense Department duties.
shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and
initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the
Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who
has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to
an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and
longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently
working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in
CBS’s “60 Minutes” in May, Mr. Bigelow said he was “absolutely
convinced” that aliens exist and that U.F.O.s have visited Earth.
with Mr. Bigelow’s Las Vegas-based company, the program produced
documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at
very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that
hovered with no apparent means of lift.
with the program have also studied videos of encounters between
unknown objects and American military aircraft — including one
released in August of a whitish oval object, about the size of a
commercial plane, chased by two Navy F/A-18F fighter jets from the
aircraft carrier Nimitz off the coast of San Diego in 2004.
Reid, who retired from Congress this year, said he was proud of the
program. “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing
going,” Mr. Reid said in a recent interview in Nevada. “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.”
other former senators and top members of a defense spending
subcommittee — Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, and Daniel K.
Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat — also supported the program. Mr. Stevens
died in 2010, and Mr. Inouye in 2012.
not addressing the merits of the program, Sara Seager, an
astrophysicist at M.I.T., cautioned that not knowing the origin of an
object does not mean that it is from another planet or galaxy. “When
people claim to observe truly unusual phenomena, sometimes it’s worth
investigating seriously,” she said. But, she added, “what people
sometimes don’t get about science is that we often have phenomena that
E. Oberg, a former NASA space shuttle engineer and the author of 10
books on spaceflight who often debunks U.F.O. sightings, was also
doubtful. “There are plenty of prosaic events and human perceptual
traits that can account for these stories,” Mr. Oberg said. “Lots of
people are active in the air and don’t want others to know about it.
They are happy to lurk unrecognized in the noise, or even to stir it
up as camouflage.”
Mr. Oberg said he welcomed research. “There could well be a pearl
there,” he said.
response to questions from The Times, Pentagon officials this month
acknowledged the existence of the program, which began as part of the
Defense Intelligence Agency. Officials insisted that the effort had
ended after five years, in 2012.
was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that
merited funding, and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a
change,” a Pentagon spokesman, Thomas Crosson, said in an email,
referring to the Department of Defense.
Mr. Elizondo said the only thing that had ended was the effort’s
government funding, which dried up in 2012. From then on, Mr. Elizondo
said in an interview, he worked with officials from the Navy and the
C.I.A. He continued to work out of his Pentagon office until this past
October, when he resigned to protest what he characterized as
excessive secrecy and internal opposition.
aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?” Mr. Elizondo
wrote in a resignation letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Elizondo said that the effort continued and that he had a successor,
whom he declined to name.
have been repeatedly investigated over the decades in the United
States, including by the American military. In 1947, the Air Force
began a series of studies that investigated more than 12,000 claimed
U.F.O. sightings before it was officially ended in 1969. The project,
which included a study code-named Project Blue Book, started in 1952,
concluded that most sightings involved stars, clouds, conventional
aircraft or spy planes, although 701 remained unexplained.
C. Seamans Jr., the secretary of the Air Force at the time, said in a
memorandum announcing the end of Project Blue Book that it “no longer
can be justified either on the ground of national security or in the
interest of science.”
Reid said his interest in U.F.O.s came from Mr. Bigelow. In 2007, Mr.
Reid said in the interview, Mr. Bigelow told him that an official with
the Defense Intelligence Agency had approached him wanting to visit
Mr. Bigelow’s ranch in Utah, where he conducted research.
Reid said he met with agency officials shortly after his meeting with
Mr. Bigelow and learned that they wanted to start a research program
on U.F.O.s. Mr. Reid then summoned Mr. Stevens and Mr. Inouye to a
secure room in the Capitol.
had talked to John Glenn a number of years before,” Mr. Reid said,
referring to the astronaut and former senator from Ohio, who died in
2016. Mr. Glenn, Mr. Reid said, had told him he thought that the
federal government should be looking seriously into U.F.O.s, and
should be talking to military service members, particularly pilots,
who had reported seeing aircraft they could not identify or explain.
sightings were not often reported up the military’s chain of command,
Mr. Reid said, because service members were afraid they would be
laughed at or stigmatized.
meeting with Mr. Stevens and Mr. Inouye, Mr. Reid said, “was one of
the easiest meetings I ever had.”
added, “Ted Stevens said, ‘I’ve been waiting to do this since I was in
the Air Force.’” (The Alaska senator had been a pilot in the Army’s
air force, flying transport missions over China during World War II.)
the meeting, Mr. Reid said, Mr. Stevens recounted being tailed by a
strange aircraft with no known origin, which he said had followed his
plane for miles.
of the three senators wanted a public debate on the Senate floor about
the funding for the program, Mr. Reid said. “This was so-called black
money,” he said. “Stevens knows about it, Inouye knows about it. But
that was it, and that’s how we wanted it.” Mr. Reid was referring to
the Pentagon budget for classified programs.
obtained by The Times show a congressional appropriation of just under
$22 million beginning in late 2008 through 2011. The money was used
for management of the program, research and assessments of the threat
posed by the objects.
funding went to Mr. Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, which hired
subcontractors and solicited research for the program.
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. Researchers also studied people who said they had
experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and
examined them for any physiological changes. In addition, researchers
spoke to military service members who had reported sightings of
sort of in the position of what would happen if you gave Leonardo da
Vinci a garage-door opener,” said Harold E. Puthoff, an engineer who
has conducted research on extrasensory perception for the C.I.A. and
later worked as a contractor for the program. “First of all, he’d try
to figure out what is this plastic stuff. He wouldn’t know anything
about the electromagnetic signals involved or its function.”
program collected video and audio recordings of reported U.F.O.
incidents, including footage from a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet showing
an aircraft surrounded by some kind of glowing aura traveling at high
speed and rotating as it moves. The Navy pilots can be heard trying to
understand what they are seeing. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” one
exclaims. Defense officials declined to release the location and date
of the incident.
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we are the most backward country in the world on this issue,” Mr.
Bigelow said in an interview. “Our scientists are scared of being
ostracized, and our media is scared of the stigma. China and Russia
are much more open and work on this with huge organizations within
their countries. Smaller countries like Belgium, France, England and
South American countries like Chile are more open, too. They are
proactive and willing to discuss this topic, rather than being held
back by a juvenile taboo.”
2009, Mr. Reid decided that the program had made such extraordinary
discoveries that he argued for heightened security to protect it.
“Much progress has been made with the identification of several highly
sensitive, unconventional aerospace-related findings,” Mr. Reid said
in a letter to William Lynn III, a deputy defense secretary at the
time, requesting that it be designated a “restricted special access
program” limited to a few listed officials.
2009 Pentagon briefing summary of the program prepared by its director
at the time asserted that “what was considered science fiction is now
science fact,” and that the United States was incapable of defending
itself against some of the technologies discovered. Mr. Reid’s request
for the special designation was denied.
Elizondo, in his resignation letter of Oct. 4, said there was a need
for more serious attention to “the many accounts from the Navy and
other services of unusual aerial systems interfering with military
weapon platforms and displaying beyond-next-generation capabilities.”
He expressed his frustration with the limitations placed on the
program, telling Mr. Mattis that “there remains a vital need to
ascertain capability and intent of these phenomena for the benefit of
the armed forces and the nation.”
Elizondo has now joined Mr. Puthoff and another former Defense
Department official, Christopher K. Mellon, who was a deputy assistant
secretary of defense for intelligence, in a new commercial venture
called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science. They are speaking
publicly about their efforts as their venture aims to raise money for
research into U.F.O.s.
the interview, Mr. Elizondo said he and his government colleagues had
determined that the phenomena they had studied did not seem to
originate from any country. “That fact is not something any government
or institution should classify in order to keep secret from the
people,” he said.
his part, Mr. Reid said he did not know where the objects had come
from. “If anyone says they have the answers now, they’re fooling
themselves,” he said. “We do not know.”