That Secret Government Program to Track UFOs? It’s Not the First

The Air Force has been documenting weird aerial happenings since the 1940s.

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Drawing of a reported UFO sighted over Watsonia, Australia, June 25, 1972. Official verdict: Probably a Boeing 727, seen at an altitude of 2,000 feet while approaching a nearby airport.

Reports over the weekend in the New York Times and Washington Post have brought to light a recent, highly secretive government operation called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which for several years was housed in the Pentagon and was dedicated to investigating reports of mysterious objects in the sky. Established in 2007 with the support of U.S. Senators Harry Reid and Ted Stevens, the program was charged, according to the newspaper reports, with looking into sightings of UFOs, especially by members of the U.S. armed forces. The supposed reason was to assess the national security risks these objects might pose, and to consider the possibility of reverse engineering them. The program’s funding was cut off in 2012, but by the end of that year it had spent a total of around $22 million.

Its existence was made public by Luis Elizondo, a career intelligence officer and former head of the program, who says that unfunded investigations are still ongoing. Documentation, including video footage, provided by Elizondo shows what he describes as a flying white object with “no flight surfaces, no apparent type of thrust mechanism, something that is hovering, something that is demonstrating extreme maneuverability.” Elizondo resigned as director of the AATIP in October, complaining to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis that the “excessive secrecy” surrounding the program and the ridicule and stigma faced by its personnel from their Pentagon colleagues chronically hindered their work.

If so, they suffered the same fate as other UFO investigative bodies of the past. In the United States, the first government-sponsored program for looking into UFO sightings was Project Sign, which began in the wake of the first wave of reports of “flying saucers” in 1947. Project Sign ended its work in 1949, having investigated more than 250 cases. It was replaced by Project Grudge, which lasted until 1951, followed by Project Blue Book, the best known of the government UFO studies and the longest-lived. It was disbanded in 1969. All of these programs were run by the U.S. Air Force.

The United States has not been alone in trying to understand these aerial mysteries. Since World War II, several countries have set up offices or agencies to collect data on UFO sightings, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Most UFO desks have worked under the jurisdiction of ministries of defense or the air force—not surprising, as the chief concern of military officials has always been determining whether the objects represented a security threat. While the public has been drawn to speculations about the extraterrestrial origins of UFOs, most government authorities have worried exclusively about their strategic implications.

Archival records show that most military and defense authorities involved in investigating UFOs concluded very early in their work that the objects—regardless of whether they were considered real or not—posed no threat to national security. That said, since the investigations necessarily had to be aware of classified aviation projects that might be mistaken for UFOs, they were typically shrouded in secrecy. 

The recent AATIP effort was unusual, however, in that its very existence was shielded from the public. Beginning with France in 2007, most governments with UFO desks have publicly released their formerly classified documents, having convinced themselves that there was little reason to keep them confidential. As a spokesman for the Danish air force remarked in 2009, “We decided to publish the archives because frankly there is nothing really secret in them…The Air Force has no interest in keeping unusual sightings a secret. Our job is to maintain national security, not investigate UFOs.”

In a number of cases where programs have been shut down, however, there have been people like Elizondo who come forward to complain that the closures were premature. During the 1970s, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, who had been the chief scientific consultant for Project Blue Book, argued that numerous unexplained sightings warranted serious scientific investigation. And in Great Britain, Nick Pope, the man who ran the country’s UFO desk from 1991 to 1994, has been adamant that “whatever the true nature of this phenomenon, it raises important defence, national security and air safety issues.”

One thing is for sure: Such studies are likely to continue, whether funded by governments or private individuals.

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