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Some years ago, before I became an American citizen, I held a visa that prompted immigration officials to quiz me about my work. These exchanges often went badly. If you want to visit the little Customs and Border Protection room at the airport, you have only to say the words “literary fiction” and your wish will be granted. Usually, I would get to the front of the line and stumble through an explanation of the novel I was writing, a multistrand story set in the Mojave Desert. The figure behind the plexiglass would curl his lip and interrupt to ask whether any of my books had been made into movies. I’d shake my head, and the situation would go one of two ways. Either the official would pity me, a marginal figure doomed to cultural irrelevance, and let me go through to baggage claim, or he would find my answer suspicious. To qualify for the visa, I was supposed to possess “extraordinary ability,” and here I was, more or less admitting to being a loser, if not an outright grifter, someone who deserved to be sent to secondary screening.

Then I hit upon One Simple Trick. My desert novel, Gods Without Men, dealt with, among other things, the emergence of UFO mythology in the years after World War II. If you say that you are writing a book about UFOs, it turns out, you aren’t a snooty, brown, Euro-accented elitist but a truth-seeker contemplating one of the great American questions. Suspicious faces would break into broad smiles. I would be asked whether I believed in them or had ever seen one, told about the time the officer had seen one himself, or how much he wished he had. I once held up the line chatting about the musician Gram Parsons, who spent a lot of time watching the skies in Joshua Tree. After a minute or two of pleasant conversation, my passport would be stamped and I’d be offered a cheery “welcome back”—or even, on occasion, a “welcome home.”

Since videos of alleged UFO sightings by military pilots started circulating online in 2017, we’ve been living through a resurgence of interest in what it’s now polite to call unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP). Whereas previous waves were driven by popular culture, from science fiction paperbacks to The X-Files, this time high-ranking insiders had gone on record about the existence of extraterrestrials. In 2022, Congress held the first public hearing on UAPs in more than fifty years. This July, the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer introduced bipartisan legislation to expedite the disclosure of information related to UAPs. That same month, David Grusch, a retired Air Force intelligence officer, testified before Congress that he “was informed, in the course of [his] official duties, of a multidecade UAP crash-retrieval and reverse-engineering program.” Grusch didn’t personally see evidence of extraterrestrials. Nor did he have direct access to files or reports about them. Instead he presented himself as the mouthpiece for “over forty credentialed intelligence and military personnel.” As if this weren’t enough drama, he also claimed to fear for his life because of his whistleblowing. The lawmakers at the congressional hearing seemed, for the most part, enthralled by his testimony, like kids who’d scored front-row seats to a magic show. UFOs are one of the few truly non-partisan issues in American life. The vast majority of us, regardless of our stances on other subjects, want to believe.

On the day before Grusch testified, I was in Berlin, sitting on a stage in an art gallery. Hanging over my head was a confusing and weirdly compelling mirrored sculpture. As the crowd filed in, it was hard to concentrate, because I was aware of my own reflection, shattered and refracted above me. Titled PALLADIUM Variation #5, the sculpture was created by the artist Trevor Paglen, whose work is based on meticulous and conceptually sophisticated research into the contours of the secret state.

Palladium is the name of a Cold War–era military project that developed technology to make aircraft invisible to radar systems. Scientists experimented with forms and materials, shaping the planes to reduce and absorb radar reflections. Eventually, a team found a way to capture, manipulate, and send back radar signals, altered to seem as if they were picking up aircraft. As the project’s technical leader, Gene Poteat, explained:

We could now simulate an aircraft of any radar cross section from an invisible stealth airplane to one that made a large blip on Soviet radar screens—and anything in between, at any speed and altitude, and fly it along any path.

The ability to get someone to see aircraft that aren’t there goes well with the ability to hide ones that actually are. Paglen’s PALLADIUM was built to fool sensor systems. This is typical of his work, nodding both to the tradition of Minimalist sculpture (think Donald Judd’s reflective boxes) and the questions raised by the existence of high-tech intelligence countermeasures, which have moved unimaginably far beyond the radar spoofing of the Sixties.

Paglen had asked me to come and talk about disinformation, secrecy, belief, and the UFO revival. With us was Mark Pilkington, a writer and publisher who lives somewhere near a stone circle in the west of England with a shed full of analog synthesizers and shelves of books on what is usually called “the Unexplained.” Pilkington knows, I think it’s fair to say, a suspicious amount of practical information about how crop circles are made, which means that he may (or may not) be responsible for blowing thousands of Nineties British raver minds. He is also one of the most judicious and perceptive UFO researchers in the world and the author of Mirage Men, which makes the case that military counterintelligence officials have manipulated the UFO community, stoking paranoia as a way to obfuscate their aerospace research.

Pilkington and Paglen have both interviewed the same former special agent for the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Kirtland Air Force Base, in Albuquerque. As the agent introduces himself in a film Paglen exhibited alongside PALLADIUM, his face fills the screen. “My name is Richard Doty,” he says, with just the hint of a smile. “And my favorite color is gray.”

Doty is an extraordinarily slippery character. He claims to have conducted “deception operations” as part of a local counterintelligence operation to protect the base. His job was to get in with the UFO research community and play both sides, telling some people that their information was fake, while hinting to others that they were on the right track. He claims that he had the resources to undertake elaborate deceptions, bringing in uniformed pilots to confirm sightings, staging crash sites, and even using “anatomically different” actors to perform abductions. He also claims that, in the course of his work, he discovered that the U.S. government really does possess evidence of alien life.

Doty tells a story that incorporates much of the classical matter of UFO mythology: the crash at Roswell, an oval craft, body bags with alien corpses. He describes the film supposedly taken of the crash site in vivid detail. There’s a damaged craft, a government-issue tent, alien artifacts on tables—and then Harry Truman being briefed by a senior officer. The body bags are opened. A quick pan to the corpses. The release and authentication of such a film would be all-important for believers, proof that aliens are real, and that the government knows it.

Doty has maintained since the Eighties that while a lot of the evidence is fake, the aliens are real. He’s not just a harmless trickster. Pilkington has researched the tragic story of Paul Bennewitz, an aeronautical engineer whose mental health collapsed after he became a target of Doty’s disinformation operations. The Bennewitz story is baroque, involving elaborately staged alien activity and the replacement of his computer with a machine that sometimes displayed extraterrestrial transmissions. The idea of such resources being deployed to target an individual might seem far-fetched, but less so in Berlin, where I discussed the subject with Paglen and Pilkington. The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry for State Security (i.e., the Stasi) once had a school in neighboring Potsdam that trained operatives in the psychological demolition of regime opponents, and there are documented cases of East German schemes just as elaborate as the one that allegedly targeted Bennewitz.

Paglen’s Berlin show included a series of large, highly detailed photos of the night sky. Across each one was a streak, the path of one of the 350 unknown objects currently orbiting Earth. To make these images, he used radar information that the government makes available to industry and academia. The orbiting objects are visible, but their purpose is unknown. Some may be satellites. Some may be space debris. Some may be satellites designed to look like space debris. These phenomena are in some ways the epistemological counterpoint to UAPs. We can see them, we have evidence that they exist, but we cannot tell what they mean. Conversely, though we never seem to see UAPs, they are loaded with significance.

As I write, with a Democrat in the White House and an election looming, a lot of people on the right seem to be particularly keen to stand up the UAP story. A trio of Republicans from the saucer-eyed congressional committee—Tim Burchett, Anna Paulina Luna, and Matt Gaetz—recently visited Eglin Air Force Base and demanded to be briefed on UAPs. When the base’s commander rebuffed them, Burchett and Luna accused him of a cover-up. During the hearing, Burchett asked Grusch straightforwardly whether anyone had been murdered for investigating UAPs. Grusch said he had to be careful with that question. He had, he said, “directed people with that knowledge to the appropriate authorities.” If true, his story would confirm one of the MAGA right’s articles of faith: the existence of a deep state devoted to suppressing information and deceiving the American people. If extraterrestrials can be covered up, what else is being hidden? In his closing statement, Grusch expressed the stakes of what is known in the UAP community as “disclosure”:

It is my hope that the revelations we unearth through investigations of the Non-Human Reverse Engineering Programs I have reported will act as an ontological (earth-shattering) shock, a catalyst for a global reassessment of our priorities. . . . The knowledge we stand to gain should spur us toward a more enlightened and sustainable future, one where collective curiosity is ignited, and global cooperation becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

This makes clear the spiritual dimension of the UAP mythology. The idea of fighting against secretive bureaucratic evil to bring about a transcendent moment of collective cooperation is a sort of secularized gnosticism, and it has continued to reappear, in one form or another, since the first sightings in the late Forties. After watching the testimony, I emailed Pilkington to ask whether he thought Grusch was another “mirage man.” Yes, he replied, but perhaps one who believes what he’s saying. Pilkington pointed out that at least some of Grusch’s story (which is similar to Doty’s, including the alien bodies and a long history of crashed craft) was just repetition of publicly debunked rumors. Then he sent links to material analyzing the videos that started the current mania, all of which (disappointingly) appear to have mundane explanations. The one that had most impressed me is probably a bird.

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March 2024

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