There aren’t many secrets that John Brennan doesn’t know. He spent 25 years in the CIA, became the White House homeland-security adviser, and then returned to the CIA as its director. If a question interested him, he could’ve commanded legions of analysts, officers, surveillance networks, and tools to find the answer. Yet in a December 2020 interview with the economist Tyler Cowen, Brennan admitted, somewhat tortuously, that he was flummoxed by the wave of recent reporting about UFOs: “Some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.”
That roundabout and convoluted comment piqued my interest. Anything that puzzled Brennan was worth looking into. For the next two years, I dove into the history of the U.S. government’s involvement in UFOs as part of writing my new book, and along the way I’ve become convinced that a cover-up is real—it’s just not the one that you think. Plenty of revelations, declassified documents, and public reports suggest active, ongoing deception. Even today, the government is surely hiding information about its knowledge and working theories about what exists in the skies above.
But the cover-up that I believe exists is far more mundane than concealing intelligence that would forever alter our understanding of ourselves and our universe. There are some basic, obvious reasons why the government is withholding knowledge about what are now called “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” or UAPs. Some public UAP reports are likely the government’s secret projects, technologies, or operations. According to the CIA, test and development flights of the U-2 and the Oxcart spy planes “accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s.” The military has more secret test flights, development projects, and special craft than most people realize. (The Pentagon’s new next-generation B-21 stealth bomber just had its first test flight this month.)
Other reported UFO sightings are advanced technologies from foreign adversaries—such as Russia, China, and Iran—being tested against U.S. defenses. The government doesn’t want to give away what’s been detected and what hasn’t. Rare announcements from officials confirm this, such as when the Pentagon said at a congressional hearing in 2022 that what first appeared to be out-of-this-world, glowing, triangle-shaped crafts were actually just terrestrial drones photographed through night-vision lenses. Plenty of strange incidents, like a mysterious swarm of objects that harassed Navy ships off the coast of California in 2019, indicate that there’s a lot more to say about foreign programs being tested against U.S. defenses.
Perhaps certain agencies are silent on those programs because they don’t have enough information. The government is a maze of operations, classified efforts, and so-called Special Access Programs (SAPs) that make up the defense, homeland security, and intelligence world. No single entity or bureaucrat has a full understanding of what the others are doing, leading to repeated confusion about whether a UFO or UAP sighting is genuine. In 1947, after a civilian pilot reported a strange encounter in the Pacific Northwest that sparked a national fascination with “flying saucer” sightings, FBI executives became convinced that these peculiar crafts were a secret military program. A more tragic incident occurred the following year, when Air Force Captain Thomas Mantell was dispatched to pursue a UFO reported to the Kentucky State Police. He died racing after it, crashing on a farm along the Tennessee border. Military officials were perplexed: Did a UFO down a U.S. fighter pilot? The answer remained unknown until the 1950s, when the Air Force’s UFO-hunting unit, Project Blue Book, pieced together that the “UFO” Mantell chased was actually a secret Navy research balloon under development by a defense contractor—the cereal manufacturer General Mills.
However, I believe the UFO cover-up is about more than state secrets. The government routinely hides information important and meaningless on all manner of subjects, regardless of whether legitimate national-security concerns are involved. Its default position is to stonewall, especially to conceal embarrassing revelations. After reading thousands of pages of government reports, I believe that the government’s uneasiness over its sheer ignorance drives its secrecy. It just doesn’t know very much.
Officials are, at the end of the day, clueless about what a certain portion of UFOs and UAPs actually are, and they don’t like to say so. After all, “I don’t know” is a terribly uncomfortable response for a bureaucracy that spends more than $900 billion a year on homeland security and national defense.
Decades of declassified memos, internal reports, and study projects create the sense that the government doesn’t have satisfying answers for the most perplexing sightings. In internal documents written before the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966, officials, who had no sense that ordinary civilians would read their work, admit that they simply lacked credible explanations. In a then-classified 1947 letter that led to the Air Force’s original effort to study these “flying saucer” reports, Lieutenant General Nathan Twining seemed as baffled as anyone, writing that some of the reported craft “lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically, or remotely.” Project Sign, as the effort became known, looked at 273 sightings. After a year, it issued a secret report. Although many UFO sightings were either “errors of the human mind and senses” or “conventional aerial objects,” it said, it couldn’t explain all of them. Some sightings were just too weird to rule on one way or another. “Proof of non-existence is equally impossible to obtain unless a reasonable and convincing explanation is determined for each incident,” the Project Sign team wrote.
Subsequent attempts to “solve” the mystery have consistently come up short. In 1953, the CIA—with its director and the head of scientific intelligence both bewildered by ongoing UFO reports—convened the Robertson Panel, a secret research group chaired by the Caltech physicist Howard P. Robertson. After hearing from experts and examining sighting reports, the panel concluded that there was “no evidence” that UFOs posed a threat to national security. But it used a sleight of hand to arrive at that conclusion: The researchers looked closely at only a small number of sightings, decided they seemed mundane, and extrapolated that the rest probably weren’t very interesting either. The Robertson Panel couldn’t explain all UFO sightings in the end—it just reckoned that, whatever they were, they weren’t threatening.
Similar efforts to identify UFOs and UAPs for the past 80 years have stalled on a stubborn subset that appears truly mysterious. Usually examiners find that 5 to 20 percent of all sightings have no known explanation. Though some of that is surely a data problem—not all sightings contain enough information to solve one way or another—some really are mysteries.
Many people who study UFOs end up frustrated by the government’s ignorance rather than its secrets. J. Allen Hynek, a distinguished Ohio astronomer who was involved with Project Sign and Project Blue Book, came to believe that government agencies tried to dodge questions about UFOs not because they were hiding something but because they had no actual knowledge to hide. For decades, Hynek traveled to UFO sightings around the country. He became so professionally fascinated with them that he wrote several books on the topic, coining the phrase “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and playing a bit part in the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name. He was a constant presence in the government’s UFO work from the 1940s to the 1970s. Along the way, he was repeatedly frustrated by the poor answers military colleagues and higher-ups used to brush away sightings—explanations he doubted as a scientist and ones that didn’t square with witness testimonies. (Once Hynek was told by his Air Force superiors to publicly dismiss a series of high-profile UFO sightings in Michigan as “swamp gas.” The statement, which he delivered at a 1966 Detroit press conference, was widely mocked and so outraged the local congressman, a rising GOP star named Gerald Ford, that he pushed for the first congressional hearings on UFOs later that spring.)
After leaving government and founding the independent Center for UFO Studies, Hynek said he doubted that there was a grand government conspiracy. “There are two kinds of cover-ups,” he explained in 1977. “You can cover up knowledge and you can cover up ignorance. I think there was much more of the latter than of the former.”
After The New York Times and Politico revealed in 2017 that the Pentagon had a small-scale secret program studying UAP sightings and paranormal phenomena, and documenting bizarre encounters with seemingly unexplainable craft, Congress pressed the Department of Defense and the intelligence community to take the subject more seriously. The newly constituted All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office reported in 2022 that of 366 recent UAP sightings it had collected, a little more than half seemed normal—either drones, balloons, or trash in the sky it described as “clutter.” Still, that left 171 incidents unsolved.
The AARO has consistently said that it hasn’t found evidence of extraterrestrials. And the government believes that better data will show that most UAP sightings are “ordinary phenomena,” according to a comprehensive report released last month. On Halloween, AARO’s director, Sean Kirkpatrick, announced that his office had started a big push to collect better data from current military personnel who have UAP encounters and from former government employees or contractors who may have had experience with the subject in the past.
Many—perhaps most or nearly all—UAP sightings have conceivable explanations: classified projects, adversarial technology, sky trash. But there are almost certainly some world-changing revelations hidden among UAP reports, even if none of them turn out to be visiting aliens. Investigating them could lead to new discoveries in meteorology, astronomy, atmospheric science, and physics. Hynek’s words about the government’s cluelessness hint at a more intriguing truth: There is something—or, more likely, many things—out there, and none of us yet know what.
This article has been adapted from Garrett M. Graff’s book UFO: The Inside Story of the U.S. Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—And Out There.
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