How a group of UFO enthusiasts helped mainstream UFOs
The story of how Navy videos depicting UFOs landed on the Times’s front page is its own fascinating saga. The best single account I’ve seen is Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s in the New Yorker, but here’s a summary.
The story begins in 2007, at the instigation of Robert Bigelow, a Nevada businessman with a fortune from extended-stay hotels, an aerospace firm, and a deep, abiding interest in UFOs. That year, Bigelow worked with Sen. Harry Reid — a campaign donation recipient — to secure $22 million in “black budget” money (that is, appropriated by Congress outside public committees) for the DOD to investigate UFO sightings.
The Bigelow-centric phase of the investigation, by all accounts, was fairly conspiratorial, producing documents like a report with a “photo of a supposed tracking device that supposed aliens had supposedly implanted in a supposed abductee,” as Lewis-Kraus, who saw the document, describes it.
Enter veteran DOD counterintelligence officer Luis Elizondo, who in 2010 took over the effort, rechristened as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). AATIP studied videos and encounters like the Nimitz incident, the GIMBAL video, and the GOFAST video, and convinced Elizondo that something bizarre and worthy of exploration was taking place. But Elizondo found himself frustrated by the lack of departmental buy-in.
This is where Blink-182 comes in. Tom DeLonge, the lead vocalist and guitarist behind such classics as “First Date,” “All the Small Things,” and, of course, “Aliens Exist,” has had a longstanding interest in the paranormal.
According to an extensive 2018 profile in the Fader by Kelsey McKinney, DeLonge has “consistently claimed to believe” that “UFOs are real, aliens are real and they visit us episodically, the U.S. government has known about alien life for decades … and the U.S. government has a real live alien species locked up somewhere” — among other things.
To that end, DeLonge began putting together To The Stars Academy, which in his vision would become a leading source of UFO-related expertise and of related media projects. In that role, he became an important convener of ex-government officials with an interest in UFOs — starting with Luis Elizondo, who left the DOD in 2017, and the man who would become his main partner in UFO evangelism, Christopher Mellon.
Mellon, a member of the prominent Mellon family of Pittsburgh who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, had a longstanding interest in UFOs, and began giving interviews arguing for increased disclosure around 2016.
“TO APPROACH UFOS RATIONALLY, WE MUST MAINTAIN THE AGNOSTIC POSITION REGARDING THEIR NATURE OR ORIGIN, BECAUSE WE SIMPLY DON’T KNOW THE ANSWERS YET”
“Tom [DeLonge] called me out of the blue one day,” Mellon recalls. “He saw an article I’d written. … He was starting this organization and was wondering if I would want to get involved.” DeLonge connected him with Elizondo, and both joined To The Stars as advisers.
Mellon had been outside of government for many years at this point, but still had sources in the Pentagon, which is how he and To The Stars got access to the three videos above.
“Somebody met me in the parking lot and passed [the videos] off. It had documentation stating it was approved for public release. It was unclassified,” Mellon told Lewis-Kraus. To the best of my knowledge, the person inside the Pentagon who leaked to Mellon is still unknown.
The To The Stars team then looped in a journalist with an interest in the subject, Leslie Kean.
The New York Times and the mainstreaming of UFO speculation
Kean, like Mellon a scion of a Northeast political dynasty (her uncle, Thomas Kean, served two terms as governor of New Jersey and chaired the 9/11 Commission), had been interested in aliens and UFOs for years.
In 2010, she had published a book compiling firsthand UFO sightings from what she considered credible sources; John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff under Clinton and a huge UFO fan, wrote the foreword.
“To approach UFOs rationally, we must maintain the agnostic position regarding their nature or origin, because we simply don’t know the answers yet,” Kean writes in the book’s introduction.
This is indicative of Kean’s broader approach: She is clearly sympathetic to arguments for extraterrestrial or paranormal explanations of mysterious phenomena, but focuses on cases she views as credible and supportable with empirical evidence, which could be more persuasive to people on the fence.
This is true not just about aliens. Kean’s follow-up to her UFO book was Surviving Death, a decidedly non-agnostic argument (later adapted into a Netflix miniseries) for the reality of an afterlife, reincarnation, and telepathy.
“Human beings have extraordinary mental abilities that science cannot explain,” Kean writes in the book’s introduction, abilities that “may be controversial” but “have been documented by legitimate scientists for many years,” known as “psi” or extrasensory perception (ESP).
Kean’s efforts to the contrary, parapsychological claims like this are not widely accepted in psychology. When a Cornell scientist purported to have conducted lab experiments showing psi is real, the main response in the field was that because psi is obviously fake, the finding meant that prevailing methods in psychology were totally broken.
In any case, Kean continued to maintain a steady interest in UFOs, serving with Mellon on the board of the nonprofit UFODATA, which supports scientific, agnostic investigations in UFOs. Per Lewis-Kraus, Mellon and To The Stars offered her the UFO videos and supporting documentation on the condition that Kean place the story in the New York Times. Kean told me she wasn’t sure the offer was so explicitly conditional, but that the goal was always to place a story in the Times.