The Politics of UFOs

In the past few years the world of UFO “researchers” has been afflicted by the kinds of conspiratorial cracks that have appeared throughout American culture: Who can be trusted?

Anna Merlan| Adapted from Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power| Metropolitan Books | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,579 words)

Corey Goode was barely in grade school when he was classified as “an anomaly.”

“Apparently, I was identified as being on the intuitive empath spectrum,” he told a rapt audience one hot summer morning in 2017. Goode claims that he was soon placed in alternative classes. His parents, he says, gave permission for that. But what they didn’t know was that he’d been tapped to take part in a military program: Every morning he’d wait outside with his lunchbox to be picked up by a white van, which would drive him to Carswell Air Force Base, in Texas. From there, they’d go through a back gate, across two runways, through another security gate, and into a motor pool hangar, down a cargo elevator into a secret underground facility where nine to 15 other children would be waiting.

Some time around 1986, Goode says, he was drafted into the Secret Space Program, a purported hidden government entity doing clandestine research and fighting secret wars with extraterrestrials in outer space. He was not yet 17. Goode says that when his space military service came to an end, he returned to Earth, where his government handlers performed an “age regression.” He awoke as a child again, in his bedroom at home, with his mother unaware that he’d ever been gone.

There’s plenty more to Goode’s story, but a little of this goes a long way. Goode has told his account at many places, but I heard it at the annual meeting of the Mutual UFO Network, known as MUFON. It is the oldest UFO research group in the United States, active since 1969, and it presents itself as a scientific organization seeking hard evidence of the UFO phenomenon and pursuing that evidence wherever it might lead.

Most of the year, state MUFON chapters investigate tips of UFO sightings, hundreds of which pour into their email and voicemail each month. But on a blazing summer day in Summerlin, a wealthy suburb of northwest Las Vegas, the MUFON members were all together, and things were tense. Earlier, another well-respected speaker, Richard Dolan, called Goode a liar and quite possibly a plant. “I’m not accusing anybody of anything,” Dolan said delicately at the start of his talk, in the manner of someone about to accuse someone of something. “But it’s absolutely a fact of U.S. history that there’s been government interference in many organizations. Many of you have heard of COINTELPRO. And that goes on to this day.”

 

Although broad discussion of UFOs has been eclipsed in the general culture by fresher, shinier conspiratorial ideas — birtherism, false flags, pedophile rings — a remarkably high number of Americans believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The poll numbers can vary wildly and frustratingly. In 1997, a CNN/Time poll showed that a whopping 80 percent of the adult population believed the government was hiding “knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life-forms.” In 2015, a YouGov survey found that 54 percent of the adult population believed that alien life exists, while 30 percent were convinced, in the poll’s words, that “extra-terrestrial intelligent life has already contacted us but the government has covered it up.” According to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears that same year, 42.6 percent of respondents thought the government was concealing what it knows about alien encounters. The Chapman survey noted that more Americans believe in UFOs than believe in natural selection or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

The belief is strong, but, as with so many research communities, it’s not uniform or unaffected by controversy. In the past few years the UFO world has been afflicted by the kinds of conspiratorial cracks that have appeared throughout American culture: Who can be trusted? What is true? What constitutes an acceptable standard of proof? Who is a spy, a plant, an agent? Is the government engaged in covert actions to disrupt communities it deems dangerous?

Dolan has been a respected UFO researcher for a long time, which means the same thing here that it means in a lot of conspiracy subcultures: You might not know who he is, but he’s indisputably a giant in his field. He is far from the first of his kind to suggest that the government has planted misleading information to throw the field into chaos. And MUFON itself is frequently accused of pursuing and promoting pseudoscience. The Center for Skeptical Inquiry wrote in 2013 that local MUFON chapters were following “decidedly unscientific” avenues of inquiry, scheduling “talks on alien abduction, conspiracy theories, human-ET hybrids, hypnotic regression, and repressed memories.”

“There are a few very conservative people who want to just talk about the nuts and bolts of the crafts,” Jan Harzan, MUFON’s executive director, told me, referring to spacecraft. “But this is what people are interested in: the whistleblowers. They want to know what’s really going on.” The whistleblowers, as Harzan and others call them, are the men in the UFO world, Goode among them, who make colorful and eye-popping claims about the roles they played in the government’s secret space programs.

More Americans believe in UFOs than believe in natural selection or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

In conspiracy subcultures, “whistleblowing” is a common phenomenon. For every government plot and dark scheme, someone will eventually show up claiming to have been part of it. That happened during the 1980s Satanic panic; it began to occur with Pizzagate; and in the mid-2000s the newest crop arrived in the UFO world, when a man named Andrew Basiago claimed to have gone on a series of missions to Mars with a young Barack Obama. In 2014, Goode appeared on the scene. A year later, the two whistleblowers were joined by another man, Randy Kramer, who claims to be a former marine who served on Mars for 17 years and on a secret spaceship for three more.

Among earlier generations of UFO whistleblowers, the most famous was Bob Lazar, who maintained that he worked as a scientist at a subsidiary facility of Area 51 called S-4. His task was to “reverse-engineer” alien spaceships to figure out how they worked. But the new whistleblowers are in a league of their own, having apparently been to reaches of space that humans have never touched before, having had repeated and direct interaction with aliens, and, if I understand Basiago’s assertions correctly, having been chased around by dinosaurs on Mars. (I admit to leaving his lecture early due to a sudden, inexplicable headache.)

Goode has an unusual skill — the ability to make outlandish claims but to weave them together with common and popular UFO positions. Among the more fantastical threads that he manages to pull in: The engineers who work on secret space technologies are part of “secret societies and occult rituals.” But he also peddles the more traditional beliefs: The government isn’t just hiding what it knows about aliens and UFOs, but also about the advanced technologies that aliens have revealed to humans. Those include “healing and anti-aging technologies” and “zero-point energy,” or free energy.


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Next to the lecture hall where the talks took place, there was a big room filled with tables and merchandise. As I walked among the misshapen ceramic aliens and chatted with the vendors, it occurred to me that UFO lore might represent conspiracy culture at its best: our interest in the hidden, the unknown, the ineffable, the magic of what’s yet to be revealed. “The UFO mystery holds a mirror to our own fantasies,” famed UFO researcher and computer scientist Jacques Vallée once wrote. “It expresses our secret longings for a wisdom that might come down from the stars in new, improved, easy to-use packaging, to reveal the secrets of life and tell us, at long last, who we are.”

The alien world wasn’t always that exalted. Alien mythology was born, as many people know, in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, when something … crashed. One summer morning a ranch foreman working close to Roswell found something bizarre while walking the property. It was what Kathryn Olmsted in Real Enemies describes as “a pile of sticks, tinfoil thick paper, and smoky-gray rubber, all stuck together with scotch tape.”

The foreman called Roswell’s sheriff, who sent out two deputies, then phoned the Roswell Army Air Force Base, wondering if it was something of theirs. The base’s public information officer announced that a “flying disc” had been recovered. But by the next day, the story had changed: The region’s commanding general reported that what had actually been recovered was a “high altitude weather balloon.”

For every government plot and dark scheme, someone will eventually show up claiming to have been part of it.

Public interest in the story faded. But by the late 1970s, alien researchers started to suspect there had been a cover-up at Roswell. Around 1991, Glenn Dennis, a self-proclaimed eyewitness, came forward, saying that he had worked at a Roswell funeral home at the time and that the military had requested “child-sized caskets” for tiny alien bodies. Dennis’s version of the story took off, transforming the Roswell story as we all commonly know it. In later years, popular imagination moved the location of the little gray bodies, iced over like mysterious pearlescent fish sticks, to Area 51.

In 1994, a genuine conspiracy came to light: An Air Force report commissioned by the federal General Accounting Office revealed that the downed balloon was probably debris from a top secret surveillance program known as Project MOGUL, which sought to record audio evidence of Soviet atomic tests. And in 1997, a second report found a possible explanation for the witnesses who reported seeing alien bodies pulled from the wreckage: The crash-test dummies routinely dropped during other military test operations involving high-altitude balloons.

Most mainstream news sources presented the reports as evidence that there were definitively no UFOs. “No bodies. No bulbous heads,” wrote William J. Broad of the New York Times News Service in 1997. “No secret autopsies. No spaceship. No crash. No extraterrestrials or alien artifacts of any sort. And most emphatically of all, no Government cover-up.”

But the 1994 report did provide proof that the Air Force had lied about a top secret program, which fed certainty among UFO researchers that there were other cover-ups yet to be discovered. The history of UFOs is a perfect illustration of the way in which genuine government secrecy feeds citizen paranoia. The disclosure of hidden Air Force programs made just about anything seem possible, and over the next few decades, it was joined by wave after wave of revelations, some of them real and some imagined, until the field of ufology became a morass of competing claims and high suspicion that everyone is a government agent and no one is to be trusted.

The number of UFO-related conspiracy theories is dizzying and too numerous for us to explore each one. Aliens have been linked to everything from the JFK assassination to cattle mutilations, and none of these assertions can ever be settled: There is no evidence the government can produce that will satisfy UFO buffs, and UFO researchers have no evidence to prove any of their claims definitively to a skeptical public.

The CIA concludes its website’s capsule history of the subject on a bit of a resigned note: “Like the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, the UFO issue probably will not go away soon, no matter what the Agency does or says. The belief that we are not alone in the universe is too emotionally appealing and the distrust of our government is too pervasive to make the issue amenable to traditional scientific studies of rational explanation and evidence.”

Nonetheless, Richard Dolan, the UFO researcher, and other more traditional ufologists do try to back up their claims with declassified government memos, eyewitness photos of purported UFOs, interviews with ex-military personnel: Much of it more closely echoes traditional scholarship, although the results are eclectic. Dolan is concerned with what he calls falsifiability. Accepting the claims of someone like Goode makes him nervous. “I do think some of these self-described whistleblowers aren’t particularly credible,” Dolan said, rather grimly, standing in a hallway of the hotel in Summerlin and making no particular effort to keep his voice down. “Believing such stories without genuine evidence takes us down a dangerous road within an already treacherous field,” Dolan wrote in a Facebook post in 2017, one “that is constantly in the crosshairs of a skeptical establishment.” His fear of foul play — government infiltration meant to discredit and confuse the UFO disclosure movement — is grounded in the past. “In U.S. history, we’re replete with provocateurs and disinformation coming from U.S. government channels.”

The history of UFOs is a perfect illustration of the way in which genuine government secrecy feeds citizen paranoia.

Dolan’s suspicions echo those of earlier UFO researchers. In his 1991 book Revelations: Alien Contact and Human Deception, Vallée, the famous ufologist, wrote that he had come to believe many UFO events were hoaxes, engineered sometimes by delusional private citizens and sometimes by government agencies with bigger aims in mind.

Lorin Cutts is another UFO researcher I’ve come to know, someone who believes in the existence of alien beings even as he doubts and detests almost every facet of modern UFO theorizing. He takes a complex middle ground on the UFO issue, somewhere between Dolan and Goode. “Extraterrestrials almost certainly exist,” he told me in an email exchange. “What they have to do with the phenomenon of UFOs is questionable and largely a cultural and mythological construct — I don’t believe that we can know for certain right now.”

In a way, the suspicions felt by Cutts reveal the profound and continuing legacy of the US government’s tactics of disinformation. COINTELPRO was, after all, a disinformation campaign created by the FBI to disrupt and discredit American activist groups. The fact that UFO researchers — and Pizzagaters, and every other conspiracy community — are so paranoid about plants and saboteurs in their ranks shows just how well that program worked to destabilize many different kinds of dialogue and research.

So what will bring all of this arguing and debating and finger-pointing to an end? UFO researchers call it “disclosure,” the time when the world’s governments will finally reveal everything they know about UFOs, extraterrestrials, and alien technology. It is a day that they yearn for and urgently seek: Their talk about it echoes the language of end-times preachers who describe a coming climactic battle, a grand revelation, a final decisive moment when humanity will be divided into the drowned and the saved.

John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, has been a vocal advocate for disclosure. When he served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, he recently told CNN, he asked the president to disclose “some information about some of these things, and in particular, some information about what was going on at Area 51.” Asked if he believes in aliens, he responded, “There are a lot of planets out there. The American people can handle the truth.”

Hillary Clinton herself signaled a willingness to entertain disclosure, telling one radio interviewer, “I want to open the files as much as we can.” When asked if she believed in UFOs, she responded, “I don’t know. I want to see what the information shows.” But, she added, “There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up.”

A core part of Goode’s message has always been that disclosure is nearly upon us. However, Goode believes that “true disclosure can only come from the people,” as he told his MUFON audience. “If we sit back and wait for someone to walk to a podium and make an announcement, I think we’re just going to keep waiting.”

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Anna Merlan is a New Mexico-born, New York-based journalist focusing on conspiracy theories, religion, politics, subcultures and women’s lives. She has been accused of being a lizard person and a CIA agent, but never at the same time.

From the book Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power by Anna Merlan, published by Metropolitan Books. Copyright © 2019 by Anna Merlan.

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