There’s this woman making the rounds of the talk shows with her new book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record. She’s an earnest, homely progressive named Leslie Kean with a tan semi-afro, wire-rimmed glasses, and the humorless manner of a recent convert to a new faith. She’s arguing that the US government should re-open its investigation into UFOs, because of all the UFOs hovering around. Seriously, the sky is thick with ‘em, as described by all those generals and pilots and officials in her book.
Okey-dokey, I say. Seems like we’ve got kind of a full plate right now, but what the hell. I can always work up an interest in crazy shit going on in the universe. Plus, hiring a staff of sky-watchers would create a few good government jobs, wouldn’t it?
But with an easygoing attitude like that, I’m not the reader Leslie Kean is trying to reach. She’s aiming to shake up fervent skeptics who are sure UFOs are a complete load. So she’s spent ten years of her life compiling just-the-facts-ma’am interviews with “credible witnesses,” full of precise dates and flight coordinates and scads of acronyms.
Boy, what a slog! It’s not everybody who could take a subject as lurid as UFOs and make it read like homework.
Here’s a sample quote from a French government official in charge of investigating UAPs (Unidentified Aerospace Phenomenon, the term adopted by those who want to avoid the tainted UFO acronym):
“Captain Duboc reported the incident to authorities at the Reims air navigation control center, which had no information about any aircraft in the location. A report was then sent to SEPRA, which classified it as Type C, meaning it was insufficiently documented for identification. However, Reims contacted the Taverny air defense operation center, CODA, and we later learned something important that allowed us to reclassify this event as a clear Type D: CODA recorded a radar track at their control center in Cinq-Mars-le-Pile that corresponded in both location and time to the observation of the crew of Air France flight 3532…”
To stay interested in this account, you’d have to be Hermes the lovable bureaucrat on Futurama.
It’s not as if “a clear Type D” is anything thrilling like a space alien showing up carrying a book titled To Serve Man. No, it’s the same as all the other Type Ds in the book: something aloft that’s perceived by multiple credible witnesses and can’t be slotted into the usual weather balloon or swamp gas categories. But we don’t know what the hell it is.
Unless you’re a real fanatic, a little Type D goes a long way. But you can see how it all becomes part of Kean’s persuasive strategy: she’ll make UFOs so boring that they’ll become respectable, and then nobody will object to studying them. Boring things are supposed to be studied; exciting things are supposed to be rigidly ignored or condemned in a frenzied manner until they can be made boring through tedious pontificating and co-opting by earnest progressives. (See also: Sex, Movies.)
To be fair, there are some interesting parts of the book, usually when somebody’s first-person account conveys a little drama, despite the officialese. For example, there are recordings quoted at length between air traffic controllers and pilots who are trying to describe the weird things they’re experiencing in the air. The most enjoyably Twilight Zone–esque one is the tape of twenty-year-old Frederick Valentich’s last known words, spoken to Melbourne Airport air traffic controller Steve Robey in 1978. Valentich is clearly losing it as he pilots his little private plane on a night-flight over Australia and describes the UFO that’s harrying him. Robey keeps telling him no aircraft are showing up around him on radar. It builds to a nice incoherent flourish:
“Ah, Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again…it is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.”
Metallic pulsating noise follows, then nothing. “End of transcript.” His plane is lost over Australia’s Bass Strait.
Of course, recreational drugs, pilot hallucinations, engine failure, and a crash into deep water might account for a lot of this too. Just saying.
There’s also an entertaining story by a retired pilot formerly with the Peruvian Air Force, Commandante Oscar Santa Maria Huertas, recalling his “close combat with a UFO” in 1980, when he was a young hotdog, a “top aerial marksman with great skill at shooting from the air.” He gets sent up to deal with a UFO hanging in their airspace that’s refusing to either communicate or shove off. It’s a huge round metallic thing with no visible means of staying aloft, and his mission is to shoot it down. But for all his “great skill” he can’t touch it. In split-seconds, it seems to hop up effortlessly out of the way of his shells. So he tries flying above it and firing down, and it bobs up to hugging distance with his plane, too close to shoot at.
The damn thing’s dissing him! And nobody disses Commandante Oscar Santa Maria Huertas!
Or as he tells it: “Then it became a personal thing for me. I had to get it.”
But he doesn’t get it. He keeps madly harassing the UFO till he’s almost out of fuel and finally has to coast back to base on fumes. But nothing human could have eluded his tremendous shooting skills!
Kean spends almost 300 pages documenting these international puzzlers. She uses this evidence to further her overarching goal, which is to demonstrate that there’s something fishy about way the US government refuses to investigate the odd stuff people see in the sky. In places like France and England and Brazil, they go right on patiently logging in the reported phenomena, figuring out that 95% of it is really military flares and that sort of thing, but 5% is unidentifiable and merits study. Is this 5% evidence of the existence of extra-terrestrial beings visiting Earth? They don’t know. They just put it in the file. And anyone who wants to can pore over the blurry photos and crudely drawn diagrams and official accounts of shiny saucers flying at impossible speeds.
But not in America. In 1970 the US government shut down “Project Blue Book” and classified all the documents related to UFO sightings. According to Kean’s reporting, a strident publicity campaign followed intended to debunk all UFO sightings, past, present, and future. It worked so well that to this day the vast majority of Americans sneer automatically at the mention of UFOs. Apparently there are still a lot of UFO sightings, even mass ones, like the mystery disc-shaped craft that hung over O’Hare Airport for at least five minutes in broad daylight on November 7, 2006, while crowds stared and air traffic controllers speculated. Then it “took off and left a hole in the clouds like Wile E. Coyote” as Stephen Colbert aptly summarized it during his interview with Kean.
But such is the force of the forty-year debunking campaign, Kean says, that nobody wanted to talk about the O’Hare UFO publicly. Aviation industry employees feared for their reputations and jobs; the media didn’t cover it till months later, starting in January with a Chicago Tribune article; then the FAA trotted out a pat weather-related explanation for the cloud-hole effect, which was generally accepted by the media etc.
Kean says this policy of “Move along, folks! Nothing to see up there!” only serves to ratchet up the level of paranoia and conspiracy theory as people come up with crazy X-Files-type explanations to account for what the big secret is. So the government should declassify the UFO docs and then set up an investigating body to look into further sightings, run by NASA or somebody. And in his forward to the book, John Podesta, former President Clinton’s chief of staff and current honcho at the Center for American Progress, agrees with these worthy goals.
Okay, fine. But with all Kean’s investigative journalism going on, I couldn’t help but wish she would advance a theory of her own, even a crazy one, about what the US government is getting out of this UFO policy. In a chapter entitled ”The Roots of UFO Debunking in America” Kean seems like she’s teeing up to offer a theory when she documents the CIAs close monitoring of UFOs after World War II, and subsequent manipulation of public opinion:
In short, a group of scientists selected by the CIA advised our government to encourage all agencies within the intelligence community to influence mass media and infiltrate civilian research groups for the purpose of debunking UFOs. Media could then become a tool for covertly controlling public perception, a mouthpiece for government policy and propaganda, to “debunk” or ridicule, UFOs. Public interest in UFO incidents was to be strongly discouraged and diminished through these tactics, and intelligence operatives could make sure that the facts were kept from leading researchers through disinformation. In the name of national security, the subject was fair game for the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus. All of these recommendations were written in black and white and by the CIA panel and then classified….
You can see where the plot of The X-Files came from. But what’s the real story underneath the UFO debunking, if it’s not a covert human-alien breeding program? Kean doesn’t say. Though there are some good theories out there. Thanks to Mark Ames for tipping me off about this one:
…[T]he UFO thing—it’s often used as a “cover” for the crazy shit that the CIA or intel ops like that get involved in, those weird human experiments that they’ve done over the years. They conflate it a lot with UFO stuff to automatically discredit the real shit that’s going on–dosing unwitting people with psychedelics to “peel open their minds” and induce amnesia and control behavior and all that. So that when journalists or investigators get on the trail, they’re also on the trail of UFO hunters, and then they make fools of themselves. Actually quite a clever cover.
Kean doesn’t go into a lot of things that might have goosed up the read considerably, like “mind-peels” and alien abductions and anal-probes and all that. She also doesn’t discuss the sober, institutionally validated, highly public scientific pursuit of alien life forms that’s currently in progress. How come scientists who are working hard to locate extraterrestrials don’t seem impressed by these flocks of UFOs? There’s no secret about their ET-hunt; actor Morgan Freeman just told us all about it on that Science Channel series Through the Wormhole. (Yeah, I do like my scientific information presented at a ninth-grade level by actor Morgan Freeman—you wanna make something of it?) They’re aiming huge zillion-dollar radio-receivers at the sky trying to record even the tiniest alien cough, and so far coming up with nothing, while all the time there’s a flying saucer hanging out over O’Hare Airport? Hm!
They don’t call it “unexplained phenomena” for nothing.
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