Now, about those nukes …
Just how much momentum The New York Times’ reporting on UFOs will carry into 2018 depends largely on, ahem, The New York Times. Steady followup coverage of its 12/16/17 scoop on the Pentagon’s $22M Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification (AATI) program reminds us of what we already know, that nothing gets traditional media off its ass better than The Grey Lady. Reader traffic has been massive, expectations are high and, as critics point out, The Times has a ton of loose ends to address. Incentives aplenty. But just how far into the uncharted waters of this species of journalism is management willing to swim?
Among the many questions raised in the stampede of copycat reporting: How, exactly, does the Defense Department justify, on national security grounds, investing millions of $$$ in pursuit of The Great Taboo? Well, for starters, retired former Senate majority leader Harry Reid points to veterans’ first-person accounts of UFOs’ apparent fascination with America’s nuclear stockpiles. An amazing story — but will the media take the bait? A leading authority on the mysterious incursions into U.S. missile fields has learned that 40 years of research haven’t accomplished what The Times managed to do in December: create a UFO buzz that lasts at least two consecutive weeks.
Robert Hastings, the 67-year-old author of 2008’s UFOs & Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites and producer of a 2015 documentary by the same name, has been collecting these stories since he was a teenager. In 2010, he thought he’d finally cracked the nut when CNN live-streamed a press conference he arranged at National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For 87 minutes, seven retired military retirees – including a base commander, a combat crew commander, and a missile-targeting officer – told the world how UFOs breached restricted airspace, hovered near WMD platforms, sometimes swept the facilities with lights and, in at least one case, sabotaged communications between launch control and the nuclear warheads.
In short, these guys delivered the sort of testimony that would, were the elusive offenders linked to a foreign country, spark a debate over quality-control protocols safeguarding our extinction-capacity weapons. Media coverage of the press conference, however, was grudging. “It was a short-lived bump,” says Hastings from his home in Colorado. “And a week later, we were back to business as usual. It was as if it never happened.”
A few places, like Stars and Stripes, played it down the middle. Others took their cues from the likes of Washington Post columnist John Kelly, who gave it the brushoff by informing readers he attended the event for the free cookies. Popular Science distanced itself by hiding behind the sci-fi headline “Paging Fox Mulder.” Alluding to reports of UFOs taking U.S. nuclear warheads off-line in North Dakota, a Wired account chimed in, “Earth is being monitored by intergalactic hippies.” And this from a Forbes reporter: “I don’t take this stuff at face value (to say the least), but I do love a grand yarn.”
Hastings has more than 160 veterans’ “grand yarns” on file, but he’s not optimistic about The Times or any other news gatherer taking the UFO story to the next level. For one thing, the next level includes an entrenched, and disjointed, military bureaucracy suffering from sclerotic thinking in the glasnost department. He regards Luis Elizondo, the former Defense Department analyst who spilled the beans on AATI, as a lonely outlier. Though KLAS-TV’s coverage from Las Vegas cites anonymous sources claiming AATI-related projects produced 36 separate and so-far-unreleased reports, Hastings doubts that spigot has much water left.
“Mr. Elizondo said the reason he left the Pentagon was because of resistence from unnamed persons and organizations who don’t want this sort of information out there,” he said. “It’s the same sort of resistance (USAF Project Blue Book director) Captain (Edward) Ruppelt went up against in the 1950s – he was under a lot of pressure to keep this as quiet as possible.”
More ominously, however, Hastings says a discussion that dives deeper than gun-cam video and accounting ledgers would constitute the “beginning of a slippery slope” and lead to an inevitable confrontation with the UFO abduction thing. That’s a path most advocates of government transparency fear to tread. Yet, says Hastings, some veterans from the Strategic Air Command era – not many, but a handful – have reported classic missing-time scenarios that conform neatly to a very creepy and easily ridiculed subculture of “high strangeness.” Newshounds sniffing his website for leads on the WMD controversy will find a little abduction stuff in the mix as well.
“It’s one thing to accept video and radar data,” he says. “But when you drift into the topic of abduction, it’s a much harder sell. It’s like a bridge too far for most people. But surveillance isn’t the only thing going on here, and there’s been a lot of compartmentalization to get around it. And I’m at a point in my life where it would be dishonest for me not to discuss this publicly.”
Abduction tales are largely absent from this blog, however, because it’s been hard enough trying to goad media colleagues into taking a good hard look at simple radar records. That’s been a 10-year project. Plus, I have at least one thing in common with the SETI astronomers: If we’re talking space aliens, I prefer to appreciate them at a safe distance. Even more specifically, I don’t want to think about these whatevers in my bedroom injecting microscopic tracking devices up my whatever. It’d be like running a marathon when I barely trust my ability to walk.
Anyway, here we are, closing the books on 2017, with the press engaged as never before, but on a toehold, tenuous at best. The same rules remain in play: Without the media, there is no way forward. Sustaining that interest – which could evaporate at any time – poses a unique challenge, at least in this country. Aside from The Times flat-out dropping the ball, what might it take to disperse the new-found media crowd? Apathy, or something worse? The possibilities are endless. Most likely, we’ll find out sooner than later. So bring it on.