UFOs and the U.S. government: The push towards greater transparency

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Steven Greer, ufologist and founded of the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Disclosure Project, delivers remarks on his UFO and Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) research under an artist rendering of an incident, during a press conference on June 12, 2023 in Washington, DC. Greer spoke on his archive of research on UFOs consisting of government documents, whistleblower testimony and alleged locations of UFO projects sites. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Steven Greer, ufologist and founded of the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Disclosure Project, delivers remarks on his UFO and Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) research under an artist rendering of an incident, during a press conference on June 12, 2023 in Washington, DC. Greer spoke on his archive of research on UFOs consisting of government documents, whistleblower testimony and alleged locations of UFO projects sites. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Unexplained aerial phenomena.

Is the government covering up what it knows?

Today, On Point: We dive into 75 years of UFO history and the beginnings of government mistrust.


Garrett Graff, journalist, historian and author covering politics, technology, and national security. Former editor of POLITICO Magazine and now a contributing editor at WIRED. Author of "UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There."

Also Featured

Ryan Graves, executive director, Americans for Safe Aerospace. Former Lt. U.S. Navy and F/A-18F pilot.

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from "UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There" by Garrett Graff

The spies and analysts who work in earthly intelligence always try to draw distinctions between secrets and mysteries; their realm and strength, they say, is primarily in uncovering secrets—knowable facts purposefully concealed from public view. (The capabilities of the latest Chinese hypersonic weapon, for example, is a secret; how the Egyptians built the pyramids is a mystery.) Much of the story and history of the popular culture, media, and governmental focus on UFOs has been trying to understand where that critical line is between knowable secrets and unknown mysteries: How much of the UFO phenomena is attributable to secret human technology or visiting extraterrestrial activity versus simple physics, meteorology, and astronomy that we just don’t yet fundamentally understand?

UFOs surely continue to confound us, in part because we know so little about the world around us. As much as we now know about meteorology, astronomy, the heavens, and physics, it’s worth remembering how new (and still evolving) much of that knowledge truly is. Most of the core principles we have uncovered about physics, time, space, and astronomy have been discovered in just a human lifetime or two. In fact, before you even get to the mysteries of space, much of our understanding of our own planet is startlingly new.

Western scientists have only known about the existence of gorillas, our closest living relative, for about 150 years; before 1847, reports of their sightings were dismissed as stories of a mythical* This secret/mystery line was a key part of why the US government recently “rebranded” UFOs as UAPs, unidentified anomalous phenomena, understanding that while some portion of UFO sightings are surely secret advanced aerial craft from the US, China, Russia, or elsewhere, that surely much—and perhaps most or nearly all— of today’s UFO sightings simply reflect basic principles and phenomena of physics, meteorology, and astronomy that today are mysteries, creature akin to a yeti or a unicorn.

The first “dinosaur” was discovered and identified in 1824, and it’s effectively only been in my lifetime that we’ve come to recognize they were wiped out in an asteroid collision and that many dinosaurs were feathered. Giant squids existed as a myth for thousands of years, traceable to Aristotle and ancient Greece, until a French ship actually caught one in 1861, and it wasn’t until 2004 that biologists actually spotted one in its natural habitat. My high school geology teacher, Mr. McGraw, would remind us that the theory of plate tectonics—now widely understood as the way the entire Earth moves—wasn’t even proven when he himself was a student. We still know less about the bottom of the oceans than we do the surface of the moon. “There is a tendency in 20th century science to forget that there will be a 21st century science,” J. Allen Hynek, one of the world’s most influential astronomers and ufologists said, “and, indeed, a 30th century science, from which vantage points our knowledge of the universe may appear quite different.”

This book intertwines two threads from across the last seventy-five years: the military’s on-again-off-again hunt for UFOs here on Earth, and the increasingly serious work conducted by scientists, astronomers, and eventually NASA to search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe. These stories have been traditionally told separately, the UFO tale usually relegated to conspiratorial whodunits and self-published books by obscure small presses, while the more official “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” known as SETI, is the subject of more scholarly work and memoirs by well-respected scientists—but that artificial divide fails to recognize the parallel tracks these two stories have led since World War II, as advancing technology has allowed us to understand the heavens in ways that our ancestors never could have imagined.

Both threads are fundamentally stories of believing—the human desire, at a basic and almost cellular level, to hope even against the longest of odds—and they are different sides of the same coin, the line between the believability of one and the reality of the other deeply intertwined. “The common thread is a sincere desire to understand the universe, to find truth and meaning in a time when we are overwhelmed with astronomical data,” journalist Joel Achenbach writes. What follows is not an attempt to tell the full, exhaustive story of UFOs, alien contact, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence— there are some famous “sightings” that barely merit mention, and others that don’t get any mention at all, and many of the incidents, sightings, and reported encounters in this book have resulted in entire stand-alone books or even shelves of books themselves—nor does it purport to offer comprehensive solutions to every sighting. Instead, it is an effort to tell the story of how the US government, military, and leading scientists have approached these questions over our collective lifetime.

I’ve tried to narrow my focus to those incidents, sightings, and reported encounters that changed the arc of the broader history of UFOs in America and the world beyond during the latter half of the twentieth and the first two decades of the twenty-first centuries. It is a story populated by some of the biggest figures of modern American history, from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, and some of most famous minds of the twentieth century, from Enrico Fermi to Carl Sagan, as well as all manner of strange and colorful characters who span the spectrum from serious scientists to outright grifters, from the nation’s leading nuclear scientists to the man who inspired talk radio conspiracist Alex Jones. It is a story, as one of the field’s most notorious practitioners, James Moseley, once described the field of ufology, of “genuinely mysterious events that always remain somehow just beyond solution while becoming impossibly tangled in a web of wacky human failings and yearnings.”

Part of the challenge in putting it all together is that the government absolutely is covering up the full extent of its interest and investigation into UFOs. Plenty of revelations, declassified documents, and public reports prove an active, ongoing cover-up over decades, and even today, the US government is surely hiding information from us about its knowledge, beliefs, and working theories about what exists in the skies above and beyond us. I know this not because I have any special visibility into what they’re hiding, but simply because the US government routinely hides information important and meaningless on all manner of subjects, regardless of whether there are legitimate national security concerns involved.

Every book I’ve ever written has run up against classified information and decades-old secrets still locked inside archives. Today, especially, the US government remains coy about the extent to which modern-day “UAPs,” an acronym that in recent years first referred to “un-identified aerial phenomena” and now refers to “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” are drones or unmanned vehicles launched by adversaries like Russia and China. What is unclear is whether the government is covering up meaningful information about UFOs or UAPs—the verdict is much more mixed about whether the government has intelligence that would forever alter our understanding of ourselves and our universe.

At the same time, as someone who has spent two decades researching and reporting on US intelligence, national security, and the military, one of my maxims is that government conspiracy theories generally presuppose a level of competence and planning that isn’t on display in the rest of the work that the US government does: sure, secrets can be held for a few years or a few decades, particularly if they’re focused on a small group, but the government just isn’t secretive, creative, or thoughtful enough to execute the grandest conspiracies we see lurking behind the darkest interpretation of events like Roswell, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, or 9 ⁄11.

The deeper I got into this particular subject, the more I came to realize that the government’s UFO cover-up has primarily been a cover-up motivated not by knowledge but of ignorance. It’s not that the government knows something it doesn’t want to tell us; it’s that the government is uncomfortable telling us it doesn’t know anything at all. It’s a bafflement that hints at a more exciting and intriguing truth: there is something out there, and none of us yet know what it is. As Philip Morrison, one of the inventors of the SETI field, said, “Either we’re alone in the universe or we’re not, and either possibility boggles the mind.”

For now, we are left with math, physics, astronomy, and a mystery. Carl Sagan dedicated his life to his hunt, wondering whether humans were alone, a hunt that popularized him even as it caused his peers to sneer at his scientific credentials. As he saw it, “In a very real sense this search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for a cosmic context for mankind, a search for who we are, where we have come from, and what possibilities there are for our future—in a universe vaster both in extent and duration than our forefathers ever dreamed of.” As it turns out, in the end, the story of the hunt for “them” is mostly actually a story about us.

Excerpted from UFO by Garrett M. Graff. Copyright © by Garrett M. Graff. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press.

Show Transcript

Part I

RYAN GRAVES: My name is Ryan Graves. I'm a former lieutenant and F/A-18 pilot in the U. S. Navy.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: In 2015, Ryan Graves was in the briefing room when his fellow pilots on the USS Theodore Roosevelt came in to talk about what they'd seen in the air.


GRAVES: One of my very good friends from my squadron, they noticed that there were a number of radar contacts that were east of the aircraft carrier. And they went to go check out these objects and then they got closer and started breaking out on the FLIR. That's when we start to hear some of the communication on the tapes that were released about how they don't know what the object is.

How they're looking at the situational awareness page and seeing a whole fleet of these objects.

PILOT #1: There's a whole fleet of them. Look on the SA.

PILOT #2: My gosh.

PILOT #1: They're all going against the wind. The wind's 120 miles to the west.

PILOT #2: Holy [expletive] dude.

GRAVES: The situational awareness page is a God's eye view with the Aircraft itself in the center. On that screen, you see the gimbal video and you also see the radar information on the situational awareness page that shows the formation of other objects. That were in the gimbal that were flying in what appeared to me as a wedge formation. A wedge formation that executed a turn, 180-degree turn, and the gimbal object essentially stopped and followed that formation.

PILOT VIDEO: That's not our LNS though, [unintelligible audio] is it? Look at that thing … it's rotating.

CHAKRABARTI: This wasn't the first time Graves had heard about pilots seeing things they could not explain. It had happened to him, too. Back in 2014, he was stationed just off Virginia Beach. The aircraft he was flying had been updated with new and improved radar systems.

GRAVES: But as we started flying with these new radars, we started noticing objects on our radar that we weren't seeing with the older ones.

Objects in our airspace around us, not that far away. And they were performing in strange ways. They weren't flipping in and out. They were either stationary or they were moving at pretty high speeds and in predictable patterns. And that was our first indication that there was something not right with our airspace.

CHAKRABARTI: Navy protocol demanded a meticulous examination, starting with the most obvious question. Was there a problem with the new radar? The Navy dismissed that theory after other sensors on the aircraft, such as visual and infrared sensors, also picked up the strange objects. So next step, Graves and his fellow pilots tried to verify the objects directly with their own eyes.

GRAVES: I recall doing that myself. We would try to slow down as much as possible, pick an object that was stationary, get below it so that we could look up against the blue sky to try to identify it. We'd have it locked on our radar, our IR systems. Our camera systems, even our missile systems would begin to lock onto these objects to indicate that they were seeing them.

And all those indications are being projected onto my helmet visor, almost as a heads up display. And so as I approach that merge, something we practice all the time at much more challenging parameters, I'd be looking for it and all my sensors in my visor would be telling me where to look. We would fly by and we weren't able to see them.

There's nothing there.

CHAKRABARTI: Not normal.

GRAVES: I was 100% expecting to see something when we came up to it. All my training and all my tools and all my sensors up to that point have worked one way. Never have I had that much information about something and then we're somehow mysteriously unable to see it.

Sure, I might have missed it. But to think that I would miss it multiple times and my backseater would also miss it comes to the conclusion that it's not likely pilot error that we can't gain a visual of this object. Something else had to be going on and that was not exciting. That was very unsettling. Because I just put myself into a position where I thought I was going to have the confidence to maintain a safe distance from this object.

And I didn't even have the ability to see it. I just called into question my ability to further examine this object. And that was terrifying, because now we didn't, now it's like I can't even trust my eyeballs.

CHAKRABARTI: Ryan Graves was in the Navy for more than 10 years. He's since left the service.

This summer, he testified before the House Subcommittee on National Security, the Border and Foreign Affairs. And he told the representatives that as a pilot and a formally trained engineer, he'd witnessed many phenomena that he could not explain.

GRAVES [Tape]: During a training mission in Warning Area Whiskey 72, 10 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, two F-18 Super Hornets were split by a UAP.

The object, described as a dark gray or black cube inside of a clear sphere, came within 50 feet of the lead aircraft and was estimated to be 5 to 15 feet in diameter. The mission commander terminated the flight immediately and returned to base. Our squadron submitted a safety report, but there was no official acknowledgement of the incident and no further mechanism to report the sightings.

Soon, these encounters became so frequent that aircrew would discuss the risk of UAP as part of their regular preflight briefs.

CHAKRABARTI: Graves now runs an organization called Americans for Safe Aerospace. It's a non-profit dedicated to understanding unidentified anomalous phenomena as a national security threat.

He says he still doesn't know what he saw in the skies. Part of the reason for that is that any unidentified aerial phenomenon, as the government now calls them, is automatically highly classified. But he says, whatever they are, they must be taken seriously.

GRAVES: We have to accept that we don't know what these objects are.

And that's a big step to do that, and we have to stay in that area of uncertainty. Because once we start jumping to conclusions such as what our media has trained us to think about UFOs and aliens for the past 40 years or so, or for the people that are hardcore on the other side of it, that say that it's all a joke.

We have to realize that there might be a middle ground there and we have to be comfortable with that uncertainty.

CHAKRABARTI: UFOs have long been both a major sci fi mainstay and a potent conspiracy theory, all of which make the fact that the U. S. government has recently declassified a few pilot videos and held hearings about them, that much more interesting.

To me, the question isn't so much, are aliens visiting Earth or are they buzzing aircraft carriers? The question is, what has changed to promote a burst of public conversation about UFOs from a normally super secretive Department of Defense?

Garrett Graff is a journalist, historian, and author who covers the intersection of politics, technology, and national security.

He's published a new book just out today. And it's called "UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There." Garrett Graff, welcome back to On Point.

GARRETT GRAFF: Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, let's talk a little bit more about Ryan Graves, because in our preshow conversations with you, you said you found him to be the most credible of the witnesses who recently testified before that House subcommittee.

Why is that?

GRAFF: So I think he represents a couple of different things that we see across the history of what were originally called UFO sightings, now called UAP sightings. He is a trained observer. He is an experienced pilot. He has a good sense of what is up there in the sky and what should be up there in the sky.

And then there's also documentary evidence that backs up his encounters and his experiences. There's video, there's testimony from corroborating witnesses. And then to me, there's another category that's a little bit more amorphous, but that to me represent the most believable witnesses of encounters, going back across the sort of 80 years or so of the modern UFO age, which are, he has very little to gain and, in fact, quite a lot to lose by coming forward and talking about his encounters with an unknown object.

There are very few instances in life. And this is obviously a part of the theme of today's conversation and what you're interested in. But there is a stigma of talking about UFOs. Part of the reason that the U.S. government has rebranded it as UAPs, Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon is to reduce the so-called giggle factor of someone coming forward to talk about UFOs.

Now, the irony is that the way that this whole modern era started was with flying saucer sightings. And it was in fact actually the U.S. government's early studies of flying saucers in the years after World War II, the dawn of the Cold War, when they first rebranded and popularized the term UFOs, unidentified flying objects, as a way to decrease and destigmatize the giggle factor of talking about flying saucers.

And now, fast forward through a couple of decades and a lot of pop culture and the government is out with a fresh rebranding.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to actually just play another clip from just before the hearings that were held in that House subcommittee this summer. They were called together by House Representative Tim Burchett.

And here's something that he said in a press conference right before the hearings.

REP. TIM BURCHETT: They do exist, or they don't exist. They keep telling us they don't exist, but they block every opportunity for us to get ahold of the information to prove that they do exist. And we're going to get to the bottom of it, dadgummit, whatever the truth may be. We're done with the cover up.

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I wanted to play that because it's not just, what does the public believe, how much trust they have in government or lacking, but here we have a representative himself, whether you believe him or not, who's saying we can't even get our information from other parts of the government on this.

What do you make of that?

GRAFF: So that's a real problem. One of the big challenges of studying and trying to solve this mystery across the last 80 years has been stonewalling by the government. To me, I've spent a couple of years now studying this, going back over the history, reading through declassified documents, interviewing government officials, and there is absolutely a government cover up about its understanding and knowledge around UFOs and UAPs.

There are a couple of legitimate reasons for some of that cloak of secrecy, some chunk of what we consider UAP sightings are our government's own secret military development and projects and operations. The CIA went back and calculated at one point that actually it believes that about half of all UFO sightings in the 1950s were the U-2 spy plane.

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I'm going to talk with you a lot more about maybe the government's reasons for not sharing more of what it knows about UAP sightings, but the history of all this is equally interesting. And we'll talk about that when we come back. This is On Point.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I just want to come clean with my own deep interest in this subject, because as regular listeners know, I'm very passionate about science fiction. Absolutely love it. So there's an ingrained interest there. I dedicated a good chunk of the '90s to watching X Files. But in addition, I have to say the universe is so vast, I have no doubt at all, whatsoever, that out there somewhere, or many somewheres, there are other forms of life.

That's just like scientific plausibility easily explained to me. But whether or not we have been visited by other, distant civilizations is a completely different story, and I tend to doubt it for a lot of reasons. But I just wanted to just hear from you a little bit about that? Because there is a completely legitimate aspect to thinking about life on other planets. NASA dedicates quite a bit of its research dollars to pursuing that very question.

GRAFF: Not as much as they should, but yes.


GRAFF: To me, one of the things I really tried to do with this book was to weave together these twin threads over the last 80 years.

The military hunt for UFOs here. And the expanding and evolving astronomy and scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence out there. They are normally stories that journalists and historians tell totally differently. That there are these kooky UFO people here, and then there's serious scientists who are doing serious science work out in space.

And to me, they're actually very related conversations because it is this sort of public fascination with this topic, this question of, "Are we alone?" is probably one of the two or three most fundamental questions of human existence. It is up there with questions like, "What happens after death?" And, "Is there a God?"

And it ends up being a very spiritual story, a very spiritual question in many ways, and by the way, those three questions don't necessarily all seem totally unrelated. Is there a God? Are we alone? And what happens after death? That's all wrapped up in the sort of same cloak of spirituality and belief systems.

CHAKRABARTI: And I can tell you, though, of those three major questions you asked, I only have a definitive answer to one of them, which is, Are we alone?


CHAKRABARTI: Absolutely not. The universe is just too vast. It would be such a waste of space otherwise.

GRAFF: But yes, and that to me is actually one of the big, it is actually one of the most fundamental revolutions in human knowledge that we have had in the last 20 years. Is the true understanding of the size and scale and scope of the universe, as late as the 1990s, we did not know that there were any so-called exoplanets, that there were not any.

We didn't know that there were any planets beyond our own solar system. We now believe that there are effectively planets around every star in the universe, and that when you even narrow down to just habitable planets, planets that exist in the like temperature bands that we believe that life would need to exist.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, the Goldilocks zone.

GRAFF: Yep, you are the sort of current estimate is somewhere around one sextillion planets. Wow. That's a billion, trillion habitable planets across the universe. Sure, life could be rare. Intelligent life could be rare. But do you really think it's a one in sextillion chance? I don't.


GRAFF: And I think that actually the math is very much on the side of aliens. And that part of the challenge for us is how we misunderstand what that means for what I refer to as the first contact challenge. What we would expect to first encounter with aliens.

CHAKRABARTI: And I just want to say that if first contact ever happens, I do absolutely want it to be the Star Trek version with Vulcans. I'm not joking. Because I think that would be fantastic. This gets us to the more sort of the darker conspiracy side of things with UFOs or UAPs or what have you.

And that is answering the question of "Are we alone?" carries with it a great deal of fear. Because if we're not alone and if UFOs or extraterrestrial life has visited or will eventually visit Earth, there's the great danger of that it would be harmful to us. And I think, is that part of what propels people to amplify their doubt when the government doesn't say more about the information that it has or doesn't have.

GRAFF: Yes, absolutely. What's interesting, though, is we probably think about this entirely wrong. That Hollywood has given us these like two versions of the first contact scenario.

There's the Jodie Foster "Contact," the sort of message from outer space version. Then there's the "Independence Day," take me to your leader, alien mothership over the White House, here to conquer us, or, harvest our organs for food, or, do whatever.

The most likely scenario, as you begin to get into this, is that if there are aliens and advanced civilizations out there, they're not only too far away to care, for us to know, we are too insignificant for them to notice or care about. That we are actually an incredibly young civilization.

We exist on a pretty ordinary planet around a pretty ordinary star and the chances that anyone would have noticed our existence, it's incredibly small. Carl Sagan, the sort of famous astronomer of the 20th century, he was one of the biggest proponents of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence out there. He's a major character in the book. But he was, you know, probably one of the premier skeptics of UFOs being alien visitors here.

But his argument was statistically, Aliens probably visit Earth every couple hundred thousand years. Not because they actually care about Earth, but because they are treating us like a way station on the Jersey Turnpike. Stopping by on their way from one place of interest to another.

And so his argument counterintuitively was that aliens visit Earth, sure. But the chances that sort of last Tuesday, them buzzing the USS Theodore Roosevelt happens to be the one day in the last 200,000 years that they stopped by, seems pretty unlikely.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I'll tell you my theory of when we might confirm a first contact.

Because we've been focusing on advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. I think our first contact is definitely going to be on the microbial level. Because either as we go and explore other planets, or we will eventually find, some kind of meteor or asteroidal remnant on Earth that contains evidence of a microbe that isn't terrestrial.

Smaller is what I think is going to actually happen. But Garrett, before we get into, we've spent too much of the show theorizing on what first contact might look like. I want to get back to talking about this history that you lay out in the book and why, again, that combination of accepting the unknown or not accepting it, conspiracy theories, and this overall view of our place in the universe, why they come together.

And you have written, it's particularly interesting to me that you wrote a book about UFOs. Because you've also written another book called "Watergate: A New History," you got a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize on that, and "The Only Plane in the Sky" was an oral history of 9/11. Now, both of those major events in U.S. history have along with them a very strong vein or numerous groups of people who believe in conspiracies around those events.

And in the case of Watergate, there was actually a conspiracy, right? With the Nixon administration. So can you talk to me a little bit about this? What was it about UFOs that sort of matched the kinds of research and history that you'd done before?

GRAFF: Yeah, I did not ever expect that I would start out, or that I would end up writing a book about UFOs.

I am not what people in the field call a ufologist. Someone who professionally or semiprofessionally studies this. I am a national security writer. I've covered national security in Washington for 20 years, around the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, cyber security, counter terrorism.

And one of the things you mentioned as you introduced the show was how this conversation around UFOs and UAPs has changed in government circles over the last really seven years. In 2017, there was this blockbuster series of reporting by the New York Times and with follow up by POLITICO around a secret Pentagon program that studied UAPs and actually paranormal phenomenon as well, that Harry Reid, then Senator, had backed and funded with Las Vegas businessman named Robert Bigelow.

CHAKRABARTI: That is one of my favorite parts of your book, by the way.

GRAFF: Thank you. It's an incredibly weird story. Because it also ends up featuring in a big way the Blink 182 frontman, Tom DeLonge. This sort of Skinwalker Ranch out west, where they see, they believe that they see a lot of paranormal activity, et cetera, et cetera.

It's a very bizarre story. But those stories in 2017 restarted this conversation, and you began to see serious people talking seriously about this. And for me, there was one very specific moment that stood out, which was in December 2020, John Brennan, who at that point had just wrapped up the better part of a decade as President Obama's CIA director.

And White House Homeland Security advisor. He was a career intelligence officer, had risen through the ranks of the CIA, eventually ended up as director and he gave an interview to a Washington journalist and economist named Tyler Cowen, where he said, effectively, "There's some stuff flying around up there. We don't know what it is. It puzzles us, and I think it may end up being some new form of life."

It's not a direct quote, it's a paraphrase, but --

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I have that.

GRAFF: Oh perfect.

CHAKRABARTI: We actually have that moment from when Brennan said that, so this is former CIA Director John Brennan in 2020.

JOHN BRENNAN: I think 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.

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I suppose it wasn't just that the CIA director was saying, "Oh there's stuff that we don't know or don't fully understand." It was that he went as far as to say, "It might constitute a different form of life," that caught your attention.

GRAFF: Yes. And there just aren't that many things that probably puzzle John Brennan, he had spent a decade at the top of the intelligence community in the United States. When John Brennan woke up in the morning, if he had a question, there were tens of thousands of analysts, and officers, and signal intelligence intercept networks, and sensor systems and surveillance networks and satellites that would try to answer his question.

And so if he's leaving that decade at the top ranks of the administration, and he's still, "This is some weird stuff, and we don't know what it is." That felt to me like something worth diving into. And it begins to get into, it is this incredibly interesting history. Because it's pop culture, it's advances in military technology, it's the space race, it's the Cold War and then it's this advancing science.

Because what you end up with is this sort of incredible new sense of, to me, sort of humility about how little we actually understand about our world around us. Because, and we've touched on this a little bit in our conversation already today, UFOs are real. UAPs are real.

There is something there. We don't know what it is. There are incredibly meaningful, and interesting, and insightful, and world changing answers that mystery could be, even if it never turns out to be aliens. And to me the sort of quest for understanding here, and why I think it's so important that we dedicate resources as a government and society to solving this mystery, is I think it's going to fundamentally change the way that we understand the world.

CHAKRABARTI: So can I just jump in here for a second on that? I completely agree with you. Because I think anything that we can't explain initially and eventually find a way through science and observation to explain it is, even if it's a small discovery, is fundamentally world changing. But there's a difference between UFOs and, say, the ongoing necessary exploration of the deep oceans of the planet, right?

I don't think the government very frequently, in terms of research that it funds for deep ocean exploration, that it just automatically classifies it. So beyond they could be our own experimental vehicles in the atmosphere. Or, the government doesn't want us to want people to know about potential national security threats, beyond those two reasons, which are not insignificant.

What is it about UAPs, I'll use the government's language here, that automatically puts them in such a highly secretive and classified area of observation.

GRAFF: So here we get to what I think is the actual government cover-up around UAPs, which is, as we started to talk about, there are two layers of the cloaks of secrecy that are obvious and that we understand. One is some chunk of this is our own government's secret programs and developments.

Some chunk of this is also adversary technology being tested against us, and the government is squirrelly about saying what its sensors and radars and systems pick up and detect. We know, though, that some chunk of this is adversary technology. Because one of the things that the government has actually said, as it has reopened UAP investigations since 2017 and in the last couple of years, is that one of the government's discoveries has been a heretofore unknown transmedium Chinese drone, which is to say a government drone from China that comes up out of the water and opens into flight. To me though, the core of the coverup, the government doesn't actually know what this is.

John Brennan is right.

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett Graff, hang on for just a moment. Much more to discuss about. UFOs, UAPs, and what we, as everyday Americans, think about them. Back in a moment. This is On Point.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett, I wanted to just play perhaps one of the most famous moments of alien sightings in modern history, it happened on the evening of October 30th, 1938, when Americans were listening to evening radio shows and the programs were interrupted by this.

CARL PHILIPS (REPORTER): What's that? There's a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they're turning into flame! Now the whole field's caught fire. The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . . it's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill. Evidently there's some difficulty with our field transmission.

CHAKRABARTI: Of course, that is "The War of the Worlds," Orson Welles' 1938 adaptation of the great H. G. Wells novel that was so realistic for its time that it put a lot of America into an actual panic. Now, Garrett, the reason why I wanted to play that moment is not only do you start your book with it, but I think it really underscores one of the important threads throughout each of the sort of UFO ages that you go through in your history here. And that is, I think the interest or fear around extraterrestrial life waxes and wanes depending on the current state of technology, right? Because, Orson Welles had access to the radio.

Many people relied on the radio for all their information in the '30s. Then we get to the age of more sophisticated military flight. Then we get to the age of the Cold War, right? And Sputnik and all that. And of course, now in more modern times, just leaps and bounds of advances in science regarding just what we can observe from satellites and the search for life out there.

How important is that to understand, in the fact that the government's both been pushing some of these advances and then, ironically, it suffers the consequence of them.

GRAFF: These stories of the government's focus, the military's focus, and pop culture are inextricably linked across the last 80 years.

And you see these cycles of sightings driving popular culture driving sightings, the sightings driving government attention, the, the government getting frustrated. Because again, going back to what we were talking about just before the break, I think really the truth is the government doesn't know what these things are.

And I think that's an incredibly uncomfortable place for the bureaucracy to be over the last 80 years. The modern flying saucer age really begins in 1947, with an Idaho businessman flying over the Pacific Northwest, who reports that he sees nine saucer shaped objects flying at tremendous speeds.

That's really where Flying Saucers, the imagery of Flying Saucers is born. That launches this incredible summer of UFO sightings across the country. There are sightings of flying saucers reported in more than 34 states. The crash at Roswell is one of that summer's sort of now main events in history.

Roswell wasn't actually that big at the time, for reasons that I go into and talk about in the book. But what is the government really scrambling over the course of 1947 to figure out what these things are. This is the dawn of the Cold War. '47 is this incredibly important moment in the history of our government, in geopolitics and national security. The Air Force is actually being created as a standalone military service.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is created, the National Security Council, the CIA is created as the first peacetime intelligence agency, and the Air Force is confronting really its first big crisis, which is these flying saucers that no one knows what they are. And the FBI gets involved, the Air Force is dispatching intelligence officers all over the country to figure out what these things are.

The military doesn't initially worry that these are aliens. The idea that UFOs are aliens comes a little bit later in the public imagination. What the Air Force is worried about in that summer is that these are secret Soviet craft being built by kidnapped Nazi rocket scientists.

Because what is the U. S. government doing that summer? It has brought Nazi rocket scientists to the New Mexico desert to build its own rockets. This is the dawn of the space race. And what it is terrified about is that there are these things flying all over the United States, dawn of the nuclear age, dawn of the Cold War, and that maybe these are Soviet craft that could attack us that we don't know about.

CHAKRABARTI: And we have similar examples with every sort of rise in UFO fervor, I would say. But they also draw this very interesting, what should I call it, thread through the boo. And that is, and has particularly, or specifically has to do with the power of conspiracy theories and how UFOs really proved that in the United States, in American culture and American politics.

And, in fact, you've said that you can draw a line from early UFO conspiracy theories all the way to January 6th, 2021, when a mob attacked Congress.

GRAFF: Yeah, you mentioned earlier that my last book was a history of Watergate and one of the things that was surprising to me getting into this research was how closely those two books end up being related. Because really the second half of the UFO story in American history is the story of the collapse of truth and trust in government institutions post-Watergate. The Pentagon Papers, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the church committee, all of these revelations in the 1970s are what lay the groundwork for the sort of dark UFO conspiracies that begin to gin up in the late '70s and early '80s, including Roswell.

That, that's actually the moment that Roswell emerges into the public consciousness, amid this conspiracy that the government recovered spacecraft and recovered even potentially alien bodies at Roswell in that summer of '47. And that really in some ways, the idea of the deep state is born in these dark UFO conspiracies in the '70s, '80s and '90s.

And you see some of the major figures including one in particular, Bill Cooper, who are the founding members of the UFO conspiracies in the '80s, then become some of the founding voices of the far-right fringe and conservative talk radio in the '90s. And Bill Cooper actually is the inspiration for a local public access talk show host in Austin, Texas named Alex Jones.

And the two of them end up in this sort of small stakes feud in the latter part of the 1990s as Alex Jones drifts into ever more conspiratorial territory. Bill Cooper is trying to hold on to what he sees as the truth, because he believes he is someone who actually is actually telling the truth, even about these dark UFO conspiracies and coverups, whereas he thinks that Alex Jones is just making stuff up.

The two of them have a real falling out around 9/11 as Alex Jones drifts into what we now call 9/11 trutherism. And then actually, Bill Cooper, has gone far enough down that far right fringe that he's become, a tax protester, anti-government protester and he dies in a police shootout in December of 2001.

When police come to arrest him, and he opens fire on sheriff's deputies and shoots one of them. And they return fire and kill him. And that really is in ways that I think most Americans don't realize where sort of conspiracies were born in our political culture in UFO land.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So what I think is so important about this idea that you introduced about the connection between the two, is that they both deeply have to do with mistrust of government. But also, a very, as you said, fervent belief in the conspiracy's version of truth. I'm going to elaborate on that in a second, but I just want to play a moment from an episode of 60 Minutes in Australia because you'll hear that sincere belief in the voices of two people who talk about their experiences, or what they believe to be their experiences, with aliens visiting them.

WOMAN:  I can remember as far back as six years old, you know, being in my room, just going to bed and then aware that there were six light shafts coming down through the ceiling and would stand around my bed. And start turning into a human like looking form.

MAN: They do seem to be able to walk through walls and materialize. I thought for a while they were ghosts when I was younger, but these beings materialize into a physical form, so it's hard to say. They might be from another dimension, so to speak, or anything like that.

CHAKRABARTI: So Garrett, here's the connection I see. In fact, to me it's more plausible that one day some of these folks who say they've been visited by aliens might be presented with evidence to the contrary, and maybe they'll change their minds.

But of course, the people who rioted in Congress on January 6th, no amount of evidence, no amount of evidence, court cases, the testimony of state elections officials, et cetera, would change their minds about the uncertainty created by Donald Trump's constant lying about the election. And the power of conspiracy theories is that it eliminates uncertainty in favor of a particular type of certainty, right?

And whether or not that new version, that new certainty is true or not. So that makes it very, it makes conspiracy theories very resistance resistant to collapse. So if the government is trying to, say, "Hey, there's stuff about UAP that we just don't know."

It's not going to change very many people's minds, is it?

GRAFF: No, and I think one of the shames of it is it makes it harder to have real conversations about this subject. Which is, the way that UFO conspiracies have captured so much of the public imagination around this subject makes it harder for government officials to try to have serious public conversations about this without being laughed at.

And this comes back to one of the things that we've touched on over this hour, which is, I think, that there there's something real here that may not be aliens. But is still worth figuring out. And what are UAPs? What are UFOs? I think it's going to end up being science that we don't yet understand, that it's going to be meteorological, astronomical, and atmospheric science that we don't yet understand. And then I think there's actually going to be an incredibly weird category, one that we are totally unprepared for as a society, that is the physics that we don't understand yet.

We need to be humble about how little of the world we actually understand. That almost everything that we have learned about modern physics, we have learned in the last 100 years. Harvard astronomy chair Avi Loeb points out that in January, the world's oldest woman died. She was a French nun. She was 118 years old.

In her lifetime, everything that we have learned as humans about relativity and quantum physics we learned in her single lifetime. Imagine what we will learn about physics in the next 100 years, the next 500 years, the next 10,000 years if our civilization lasts that long. And to me, going back then to those alien abduction stories, I don't know enough about the underlying science. But it's possible that there are parallel dimensions that we're going to be discovering.

That there's going to be time travel that we come to understand is possible. And that when you talk to people who report being abducted by aliens, the people who have dedicated their lives to studying them, they report and show up as true victims of trauma, that sort of something has happened to them and we don't yet understand what it is.

That doesn't mean that I'm saying here that I think that they were abducted by aliens.

CHAKRABARTI: But they had some kind of trauma for sure.

GRAFF: That they had some type of experience that we do not yet understand. And we need to be humble, I think, in this search for understanding about what UFOs and UAPs actually are going to turn out to be.

CHAKRABARTI: And with that, one of the major thoughts I came away with in reading your book is that even though we're talking about alien life and what might be out there, this is really a story about humanity, right? And on the one hand, we are compelled to want to know what's out there, while simultaneously feeling much more vulnerable, and small and insignificant, the more that we learn.

And sometimes people try to protect against that vulnerability.

So Garrett, I just adored the book. It's called "UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There." And I thank you so much for joining us today.

GRAFF: Thanks so much for a great conversation.

This program aired on November 14, 2023.


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Hilary McQuilkin Producer, On Point
Hilary McQuilkin is a producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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