The internet went slightly more bananas than usual last weekend over the New York Times’ story implying that extraterrestrials are real and the U.S. government has been tracking them for years. Appearing first on the web on Saturday, it came out in print on Sunday as a front-page story entitled “Real U.F.O.s? Pentagon Unit Tried to Know.” As if wary of the waters into which it was about to wade, the piece started out in a sober and measured tone, describing the existence of a heretofore little-known Department of Defense program, but then after the jump to page 27 loosened up and gave free rein to claims that the program had found evidence of strange aircraft that flew in seemingly impossible ways.
For Ufologists who had dreamed of being taken seriously by the mainstream media, the story was a dream come true. As BigThink.com put it, “The article is shocking, and arguably represents a historical inflection point in our attitudes regarding UFOs.” Twitter user Space Traveller wrote: “How is everyone not losing it over this Pentagon #UFO report and footage?!” Even inveterate bubble-burster Neil deGrasse Tyson accepted that something was out there, reminding CNN viewers that just because an object was unidentified didn’t necessarily mean it came from outer space.
The tl;dr appeared to be “flying saucers are real.” But a closer reading suggests a murkier proposition.
The main source in the Times article was a former Pentagon employee named Luis Elizondo, who ran a small program called Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification from 2007 until it was shut down in 2012. What made the story Times-worthy was the fact that Elizondo’s account was vouched for by the man who’d arranged for its funding, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, as well as by the billionaire donor who won the contract to manage the program, Robert Bigelow. (Fox News justifiably raised an eyebrow at the men’s lucrative interconnection.)
The fact that the program really existed was the part that the Times touted as its big get, but that wasn’t what set the internet on fire. What got people excited was the implication that the program had collected evidence of encounters with unidentified flying objects. In reporting this part of the story, reporters Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, and Leslie Kean were much less careful about maintaining a critical eye. “The program produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift,” the article asserted, later adding: “The company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. In addition, researchers also studied people who said that they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for physiological changes.”
The straightforward presentation of these assertions implies that the authors believe them to be true. But they beg for elaboration. Were the produced documents credible? In what way were the buildings modified, and why was it necessary to modify them in order to store this material? What does it mean for an object to be associated with a phenomenon? What were the claimed physical effects, and were any physiological changes found?
Making portentous assertions out of context is a powerful technique for creating a sense of mystery and drama. Leaving a question unanswered implies that it is unanswerable. Selectively omitting key details can make a mundane fact seem uncanny. These techniques are great for exciting an audience, but they’re better suited to Ancient Aliens than the pages of the New York Times because the net effect is to cloud rather than illuminate key issues. In this case: What exactly did Elizondo’s team uncover?
The main article is decidedly short on specifics. There’s a brief reference to “footage from a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet showing an aircraft surrounded by some kind of glowing aura traveling at high speed and rotating as it moves.” A more detailed account is provided in an accompanying sidebar entitled “2 Navy Airmen and an Object That ‘Accelerated Like Nothing I’ve Ever Seen.’” In it, former Navy F/A-18 pilot David Fravor relates his experience during a flight from the aircraft carrier Nimitz on November 14, 2004. While en route to a training mission he was vectored toward an unknown radar contact. Arriving on the scene, he witnessed a lozenge-shaped craft that moved over an agitated, churning patch of ocean, then moved so quickly that it appeared to defy physics.
Embedded in the sidebar is a 76-second-long video that is described as having been taken during the 2004 encounter. It shows a fuzzy dot in the center of an infrared-camera monitor that, when zoomed in on, appears lozenge-shaped. There are no visual clues such as clouds or sea, so it is impossible to gauge distance or relative motion. Near the end, the object ducks away to the left. There is nothing about the video that in itself reads as being beyond the realm of normal physics, though it seems eerie given the article’s content.
As UFO sightings go, Fravor’s account ranks as fairly credible. It’s detailed, internally consistent, and is provided by an unusually well-credentialed subject. Not only was Fravor a Navy pilot, he was a cast member of the ten-part documentary series Carrier about life on the USS Nimitz that aired on PBS in 2008.
Neither the story nor the video are new, however. Both have been kicking around the internet for some time. Fravor’s tale first appeared in March, 2015, on the website FighterSweep.com, where writer Paco Chierici presented a detailed story as told to him by “a good buddy of mine and former squadron mate, Dave ‘Sex’ Fravor.” Chierici advises that it’s “one of the most bizarre aviation stories of all time … a story that stretches credibility.”
In a follow-up story for the Times Insider about how the story came to be, reporter Ralph Blumenthal makes it sound like the Times scored an exclusive by getting Elizondo to open up to them, writing that he and two colleagues “met Mr. Elizondo in a nondescript Washington hotel where he sat with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on the door.” The implication is that Elizondo feared the repercussions of leaking sensitive information for the first time.
In fact, when Elizondo spoke to the Times he had left government and was promoting the launch of a new venture called To the Stars … Academy of Arts & Science, a website that is trying to crowdsource donations to study paranormal phenomena. Before the Times told his story, To the Stars’ main shareholder, former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge, had previously promoted the venture on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
And what, exactly, did Elizondo uncover during his five years heading a semi-secret arm of the Pentagon investigating possible extraterrestrial visitations? A visit to the venture’s website raises doubts. A video with the title “2004 USS NIMITZ FLIR1 VIDEO” is the same video seen on the Times’ website, with the addition of a detailed technical description of the infrared-imaging system that took it, along with the claim that “this footage comes with crucial chain-of-custody (CoC) documentation because it is a product of U.S. military sensors, which confirms it is original, unaltered, and not computer generated or artificially fabricated.” But no such documentation is provided.
The description links to a separate page entitled “2004 USS NIMITZ PILOT REPORT.” This is a truly curious document that retells Fravor’s story in the form of a military-style briefing, with his name replaced by the word “Source,” allegedly “to protect sources and methods.” Sections of it have been blacked out, as if by a military censor, though the given date of September 7, 2017, was some 13 years after the event and 5 years after the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification had been shut down. Curiously, the file flubs some well-known aviation technology, such as equating “UAS” with “Unidentified Aerial System.” (It commonly refers to “Unmanned Aircraft System,” or drone.)
It seems that To the Stars is trying to shroud Fravor’s account in a spooky fog of faux top-secrecy. This is a dicey strategy given Fravor’s prominence in online UFO circles, and gives the impression that Elizondo’s company is repackaging timeworn tales from the internet as freshly revealed government X-files. And, by extension, calls into question the Times’ wisdom in taking his claims about extraterrestrial encounters at face value.