The UAP Policy and Discursive Shift - changing narratives on UAPs and its effect on policy.
1. Introduction. 2
2. Methodology. 3
3. Mapping the Actors. 4
a) AAWSAP and AATIP. 4
b) TTSA. 5
c) Speculative Pentagon Factions 6
d) Legislative Branch and Former Executive Branch Officials. 7
e) Journalists 8
4. Initial Analysis and Conclusion. 8
This paper sets out to map out the actors involved in the recent policy and discursive shift around UAP, based on publicly available documents and journalistic research, predicated on the understanding that the 2021 UAP report signals such a shift in the US government’s approach to UAP. The methods are based in critical policy analysis and utilizes the Policy Analysis Triangle framework. The overall aim is to elucidate the underlying tensions and disagreements among policy-makers and interest-groups, to have a clearer understanding why such a radical policy shift has occurred.
The findings show that a broad coalition of interest groups and individuals, known as the Aviary Network or the Invisible College, dating back to the late 1970s, have actively pursued avenues for the continued study of UAP, utilizing personal connections with legislative and defense officials and backed by billionaire Robert Bigelow. These efforts were then amplified by Tom DeLonge’s TTSA, bringing together important military and intelligence officials, as well as scientists and engineers with long history of work with secret government programs. Through the efforts of TTSA, particularly through Chris Mellon, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and Luis Elizondo, former director of AATIP, Congress passed legislation explicitly asking for an unclassified report on UAP. Most surprisingly, the report, after its publication, created an immediate response through a memorandum, setting the groundwork for a substantial policy shift within the Department of Defense. Speculatively, some evidence is highlighted to show different factions within the Pentagon, some who seem to actively pursue greater UAP data collection and analysis, and others who do not.
Lastly, some initial reasons are raised as to why the policy and discursive shift has occurred now, through three main hypotheses – that these aforementioned interest groups have completely succeeded in influencing Congress based on nothing but their tenacity and contacts, that the shifting geopolitical space around drone technology and foreign adversarial spying has made existing sociocultural stigmas actively dangerous from a defense perspective and, to avoid embarrassment, they have utilized the popular imagination of UFOs to implement policy changes, or that there truly is advanced craft of unknown origin that display breakthrough technology, which has become untenable for the Pentagon to continue to ignore.
On the 25th of June, 2021, the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released the ‘Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’ report, as directed to by a provision buried in the COVID-19 Relief Bill signed into law December 27th, 2020. This report, which will be referred to as the UAP report, can be viewed as a milestone moment in the discourse around Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), more commonly known as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), due to it explicitly reversing the conclusions reached by the Condon Report in 1969, which led to the closure of Project Blue Book, the last publicly known systematic study on UAPs until revelations of a secret program called Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) came out in the New York Times in 2017 (Cooper et al, 2017).
The conclusions reached by the Condon report was threefold (Condon, 1969):
- That no UFO ever indicated any threat to national security;
- That there was no evidence UFOs represented technological developments or principles beyond modern scientific knowledge;
- That there was no evidence indicating that any sightings were extraterrestrial vehicles.
- UAP represent a flight safety issue, and may represent a threat to national security (pg. 3)
- UAP may represent technological developments (breakthrough technology), and may need scientific advances to study (pg. 6)
- Extraterrestrial hypothesis not mentioned, but also not explicitly ruled out.
Perhaps even more significantly, the UAP report provoked an immediate response based on its recommendations, with the Deputy Secretary of Defense issuing a memorandum directing the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security to develop a plan to formalize the mission that had been performed by the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), who penned the report, seeking to involve every level of the US military, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretaries of the Military Departments, military commanders, the Department of National Intelligence (DNI) and all other ‘relevant interagency partners’, to establish procedures to centralize collecting, reporting, and analyzing UAP (Hicks, 2021). This would also move the new mission to a central institution from the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), noting that the report confirmed that the scope of UAP activity was beyond this purview. This memorandum indicates a significant policy shift on the federal level regarding UAP, reversing the Condon report not only of its conclusions but also in implementation.
As such, this paper seeks to set out how and why there has been such a sudden shift in policy regarding UAP, from general denial and underfunded research to active data collection and analysis, as well as noting a discursive shift around UAP from the top level of the US executive branch and the US military. This paper will specifically focus on the actors involved, and the potential power dynamics behind the scene, with additional papers down the line on other aspects of US government and military engagement around UAP. It should be noted that this paper does not aim to make any speculation on the nature of UAP, but rather to look at the potential power dynamics at play that has led to a significant change in policy regarding UAP, and the discursive shift that has occurred simultaneously.
This paper is a critical policy analysis of the process that led to the publication of the UAP report, and the subsequent shift in policy regarding UAP, utilizing a Policy Analysis Triangle framework (Gilson et al, 2008). Ostensibly, the Policy Analysis Triangle maps out the relationship between actors and the context, content and process of a policy. This first paper on the subject will look specifically at the individuals, groups and institutions ostensibly involved, which is publicly known, to try to map out the actors, power dynamics and interests that led to this remarkable shift in policy. The research was done exclusively through desk research in lieu of funding, utilizing keyword searches and passive participation in Ufology communities.
The academic literature highlights how policy is a highly negotiated process, both in its formulation and application, subjected to both framing and interpretation throughout the policy process. Policymaking can vary from rare radical restructuring in intent, to a series of tweaking and adjusting of that which already exists, informed from its own policy path dependency as well as the surrounding context, more often than sudden monumental changes or key decisions (Rist, 2000). Policy processes are conditioned by the historical direction of past policy, based upon the agreed norms and operating rules of the processes and institutions involved, leading to what is known as ‘path dependency’, meaning that policy is often hard to significantly change (Coff et al, 2013). The UAP Report and subsequent policy shift is noteworthy precisely due to what can be seen as a radical shift in policy regarding UAPs set by the historical precedent of the Condon Report.
It should be noted that policies do not necessarily take the shape of a single document or piece of legislation, resulting often from decisions taken across different sectors, which may or may not lead to a unified outcome. Explicitly stated goals by the main institution involved is not the sole arbiter of policy, with tangential policies that inform it (Rist, 2000; Cairney, 2012). These dynamics create a space for internal disagreements, not only between institutions, but also within institutions. Policy can thus be conceived as subjected to a variety of influences, including actors with and without any formal authority, as well as covering the space of actions taken, as well as decisions not to take action (Cairney, 2012).
It can be argued that UAP policies are inherently nebulous, due to the stigma surrounding the subject and the inherent secrecy attached to policies carried out by military institutions. As a result, the last publicly-known systematic study on UFOs, Project Blue Book, will be used as the measure to which policy has shifted from. Furthermore, it should be noted that analyzing policies is inherently value-laden and prescriptive, being fundamentally contestable (Goodin et al, 2006). As such, while the role of policy-makers, policy proponents, experts and ultimate beneficiaries, and their positions, arguments, assumptions and expressed views, can all be seen as part of the policy process, there is no one definitive ‘correct’ answer.
This analysis also utilizes Foucault’s approach to power, looking at how power is operated and deployed within society (Segev, 2019). Actors in commanding positions within economic, social, political, and military circles and organizations are argued to reproduce the power that comes from structure, commonly understood to be a ‘power elite’; however, there is no one ‘power elite’, with different interest groups influencing policy areas, and the influence of interest groups may mean certain issues never make it on to a political agenda. Curiously, an issue that has long held stigma in the public eye has precisely become a central topic of debate.
2. Mapping the Actors
AAWSAP and AATIP
The seed of the revival of UAP discourse in the public sphere stemmed from the relationship between former Senator Harry Reid, George Knapp, a journalist who has long covered UFOs, and billionaire Robert Bigelow, who has had a very public, long-standing interest in paranormal topics, such as UFOs and remote viewing (Bender, 2021a; Colavito, 2021, McMillan, 2021).
After the closure of Project Stargate in 1995, having been established in 1978 to investigate psychic phenomena for military and intelligence applications (Ronson, 2004), Robert Bigelow harnessed a group of government and military scientists who were part of the ‘Aviary Network’, a military insider group of UFO true believers who tried to internally investigate UFOs within the military, as well as the tangentially-related ‘Invisible College’, an informal group of scientists with interest in the paranormal, some of whom who were involved in Project Stargate, including Col. John Alexander and scientist Hal Puthoff. Bigelow established the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) to study the paranormal, as well as UFOs, until its closure in 2004. Importantly, NIDS worked closely with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), particularly through DIA nuclear scientist Dr. James Lacatski, who would go on to be the program manager of the Advanced Aerospace Weapons Systems Application Program (AAWSAP), the specific contract on technical reports under the umbrella program of AATIP (McMillan, 2021; Greenewald, 2019).
Due to this close working relationship with the DIA and his personal relationship with Senator Harry Reid, Bigelow’s umbrella company, Bigelow Aerospace, won a tender for $22 million dollars over five years to do military research on “aerial threats”, starting AAWSAP under an organization called the Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Study (BAASS), a subsidiary of Bigelow Aerospace (McMillan, 2020; Colavito, 2021). Importantly, AAWSAP was funded by ‘black’ money that did not need congressional approval, having been added into the 2008 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, and co-sponsored by Senators Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye (McMillan, 2020).
As a military research contract, the Pentagon placed the bid via the DIA, which BAASS won as the sole bidder. AAWSAP would then become the program specifically to produce technical reports on ‘breakthrough technologies’, with nothing specified in the tender on UAP or UFO research (McMillan, 2020). AATIP, as the broader program, would subsume AAWSAP, who had brought in contractors like Hal Puthoff, Eric Davis and Kit Green, former NIDS staff with high security clearances and long history of government work, and widen its remit to focus on UAP research, as part of the standard modus operandi of secret black budget programs, including the circumvention of FOIA requests through its private-public structure (McMillan, 2020).
Importantly, AAWSAP, and AATIP, would be completely unclassified work, lacking any security status. Operating on a tiny budget, its existence and role was by most accounts peripheral (Colavito, 2021), although BAASS as an organization disbanded two years before AATIP officially closed in 2012, at the conclusion of the contract between the DIA and AAWSAP. AATIP, as the broader umbrella program, was moved to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (McMillan, 2020). A paper trail revealed by journalist Tim McMillan and researcher John Greenewalde showed that AATIP continued at least until 2017, when Luis Elizondo officially transferred responsibility over AATIP to another DoD employee and resigned, which will be discussed in more detail in the next section (McMillan, 2020; Greenewald, 2021).
Another significant interest group in this policy field is To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science (TTSA), a UFO research group founded by former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge (Bender, 2021; Colavito, 2021; McMillan, 2020). In Tom DeLonge’s own words, from interviews on the Joe Rogan Experience (2018) and Fade to Black with Jimmy Church (2016), TTSA was founded by DeLonge after tracking down military and intelligence personnel that he believed were active within UAP research, who agreed with his assessments and his plan for disclosure. While the veracity of his claims are still unknown, DeLonge was able to attract senior members from a wide range of former military, political, scientific and engineering backgrounds with high security clearances. Among those that have joined TTSA (though some have subsequently left) are scientists from the Aviary Network and the Invisible College, including Col. John Alexander, Hal Puthoff, and Kit Green, former Project Blue Book scientist Jacques Vallée, a former member of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs in Steve Justice, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Chris Mellon, former AATIP head Luis Elizondo, a former Intelligence Officer with the CIA in Jim Semivan, as well as high-ranking former military officials as revealed in the Podesta email leaks, such as General Neil McCasland, former commander of Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) (Wikileaks, 2016; Lewis-Kraus, 2021; Bender, 2021a). This would indicate, at the least, high-level contacts within the DoD, DoD contractors, and among the long-standing Aviary Network/Invisible College.
TTSA’s explicit mission is to pursue both entertainment as well as science and aerospace, having launched a show on the History Channel called ‘Unidentified’ as well as a series of science fiction books, and on the other hand actively engaging with the military on exotic materials. The TTSA has a cooperation with the US Army concerning ‘novel materials’, with the Army attempting to identify TTSA’s claimed metamaterials through a cooperative research and development agreement signed in October 2019 (Trevithick & Tingley, 2019).
The main drivers of the recent discourse around UAP has been through a combined effort of Chris Mellon and Luis Elizondo, now no longer associated with TTSA (Colavito, 2021). Chris Mellon was behind the much-publicized leaks of UAP footage confirmed by the DoD to be from their aircraft (Cooper et al, 2017), confirmed in the 60 Minutes segment on UAP (60 Minutes, 2021). Luis Elizondo, in turn, has become a talking head on a wide range of platforms – from podcasts and YouTube interviews to domestic and international mainstream media segments. Having left the Pentagon acrimoniously in 2017, penning a resignation letter directed at then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Luis Elizondo plays a pivotal role to further mapping potential actors involved in the current policy shift within the Pentagon (Bender, 2021b).
Speculative Pentagon Factions
One significant aspect in mapping the actors involved are the levels of secrecy surrounding military officials. One way to trace any potential factions within the Pentagon can only be done speculatively, and through inference. As a result, this following section should be noted as trying to draw inferences where none may actually be, in an attempt to map out potential internal Pentagon factions.
As mentioned, Luis Elizondo has offered three streams to explore the potential behind-the-scenes dynamics within the Pentagon. One, through his before-mentioned resignation letter, where he explicitly mentions how:
“…certain individuals within the Department remain staunchly opposed to further research on what could be a tactical threat…and perhaps even an existential threat to our national security.” – Luis Elizondo, 2017.
Secondly, these power dynamics at play can also be seen through his complaint to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, claiming a coordinated effort to discredit him, including a top official allegedly threatening to tell others that he was crazy and risk his security clearance (Bender, 2021b). His claim that certain individuals within the Pentagon disparaged and discredited him is backed by multiple public statements by Pentagon spokespersons, telling journalists that Elizondo had ‘no responsibilities’ on AATIP, which was amended to ‘no assigned responsibilities’, (Kloor, 2019; Kaplan & Greenstreet, 2021). One Pentagon spokeperson, in an email exchange with journalist Steven Greenstreet, expressed displeasure at how the story was being handled (Greenstreet, 2021b).
Additionally, FOIA requests by researcher John Greenewald showed that Elizondo’s emails had been destroyed, limiting the opportunity for a clear paper trail (Greenewald, 2021). These paint a picture of specific targeting of a former employee, and the complaint has led to a probe by the Pentagon’s Inspector General, undertaken by the Assistant Inspector General on Space, Intelligence, Engineering and Oversight (Bender, 2021b). The complaint specifically lays out:
“…malicious activities, coordinated disinformation, professional misconduct, whistleblower reprisal, and explicit threats perpetrated by certain senior-level Pentagon officials” – Luis Elizondo Complaint to Pentagon Inspector General, 2021 (Bender, 2021b).
Thirdly, Elizondo’s public utterings on the matter, via his extensive interviews to UFO podcasts and YouTube channels where he expresses himself more candidly than his interviews with established mainstream media, would also indicate an internal pushback – in one interview telling journalist Steven Greenstreet that a senior Pentagon official told him to stop investigating UAP because they were ‘demonic’ (Greenstreet, 2021a), and in another interview with journalist George Knapp that there was pushback on his investigation on ‘religious grounds’ (Knapp & Adams, 2018). These attestations have been corroborated by Eric Davis and Nick Pope, former UFO researcher for the UK’s Ministry of Defense, who had also experienced pushback from senior officials who viewed UAP as ‘satanic’ (Kaplan & Greenstreet, 2021).
There is evidence of evangelical Christians in high levels of authority within the United States Air Force and within the Air Force Academy (Parco, 2013; Kelly, 2005; Rempfer, 2018). A critical position paper by James Parco at the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit oriented towards mitigating pseudoscience and religious influence in government, laid out the growing religious fundamentalism in the U.S. military, in all levels, and how this behavior is tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, approved by senior leadership (Parco, 2013). Moreover, research by NPR showed that 1 in 5 defendants in the January 6th 2021 Capitol Riot had served in the military, including a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, and one of the deaths on the day was of an Air Force veteran (Dreisbach & Anderson, 2021; Stripes, 2021; Pawlyk, 2021). While those involved in the Capitol Riot were not particularly high-ranking, it indicates a continued, pervasive issue within the Air Force, and the military more broadly, of religious fundamentalism.
While the historical collection and analysis of UAP had been almost exclusively through the US Air Force, such as Project Blue Book, Tim McMillan’s research indicates that the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was a major backer of AATIP continuing past the existence of AAWSAP, and also why the ONI is the current home of the UAPTF. With the Navy taking the reins in the current push for policy changes regarding UAP, it is noteworthy that the Air Force has been silent in the public discourse. The UAP report highlights the fact that the Air Force did not even have a standardized reporting mechanism until mid-2020, while the Navy implemented one earlier (DNI, 2021).
While nothing definitive can be said at the present moment, the public evidence points towards different factions within the Pentagon, some willing to pursue a policy shift towards UAP, and others obstinately dragging their feet to in lieu of a federal directive. Some of this pushback likely derives from sociocultural stigma, as Elizondo stated in an interview with the New York Post that he believed General Mattis was not briefed on the subject due to the potential for ridicule if it became public (Kaplan & Greenstreet, 2021).
Legislative Branch and Former Executive Branch Officials
To add to this byzantine web of interest groups are current and former government officials in both the legislative and executive branches speaking out on the UAP topic. While some of the statements to the mainstream media have more to play in the discursive shift around UAP, there are a significant number of members of Congress, particularly senators, who have played a role in applying pressure on the DoD to investigate UAP. While Senator Harry Reid has long-retired, other senators seem to have shown a keen interest on the subject, cutting across party lines.
Chris Mellon’s contacts and ability to navigate Congress helped bring about a series of classified briefings, leading to public statements from members of oversight committees, including Senator Marco Rubio, who is the former acting chairman of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and who should be noted as one of the significant drivers of the stipulation in the 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act for an unclassified UAP report (Bender, 2021a). Mellon effectively drafted the legislation that was adopted by the Senate in its request for the UAP report (Bender, 2021a). The classified briefings were publicly attested to by Senator Mark Warner (McMillan, 2020; Bender, 2021a).
In recent months, a whole range of members of Congress, and former Executive branch officials, have publicly spoken on the topic of UAP, including former DNI John Ratcliffe, former DNI James Clapper, and former CIA Director John Brennan, as well as former presidents Obama and Clinton (Lewis-Kraus, 2021; Tracy, 2021). While this would indicate more of a discursive shift on UAP rather than policy shift, these shifts often go hand-in-hand, and the UAP report specifically mentions the necessity to break the sociocultural stigma associated with UAP reporting (DNI, 2021).
Journalists and independent Researchers
It should also be noted the role that investigative journalists and researchers have played in pushing for greater transparency and information around UAP in the public sphere. These journalists include, and are by no means limited to, Leslie Kean, George Knapp, Tim McMillan, Bryan Bender, Ralph Blumenthal and Steven Greenstreet. Separately, research by John Greenewald of the Black Vault, operating around constant FOIA requests from the government for transparency, has been critical in uncovering documentation of ‘behind-the-scenes’ negotiations. Lastly, it should be noted that filmmaker Jeremy Corbell has played a prominent role in the release of UAP footage from military sources, many of which have been confirmed by the Pentagon as coming from their ongoing investigations (CNN, 2021). This rapid confirmation is striking, and may indicate that Corbell is being utilized by one Pentagon faction or another for the purpose of information dissemination, either to potentially muddy the waters surrounding the topic (if the footage released may have a prosaic explanation), or as a way to keep public interest high in pushing for further policy shifts (if the footage released remains unexplainable). A more in-depth analysis of this would be for another paper, however.
Initial Analysis and Conclusion
Having mapped out the interest groups, journalists, potential Pentagon factions, and government officials involved in the policy and discursive shift around UAP in the last few years, we must turn, at least superficially, as to why this has occurred.
An argument presented by journalist Jason Colavito in Popular Mechanics (2021) is that the influence campaign by TTSA and Luis Elizondo in the mainstream media, such as the 2017 New York Times article and media appearances on 60 Minutes, and the pressure applied in the legislative branch through Chris Mellon, propelled the UAP narrative into the public sphere and directly affected legislation, spurring the UAP report that has now had actual change in policy. This mindset shift within Congress has multiple consequences, particularly around budgeting and legal mandates, where taxpayer money is spent (Bender, 2021a).
However, by most accounts, the UAPTF is an understaffed, under-funded task force – Chris Mellon and Luis Elizondo, in interviews done during 2021, expressed consternation that UAPTF solely consisted of two to three part-time employees, also tasked with other assignments, and with some lacking security clearances to have full access to data (Dolan, 2021; Sears, 2021). This would indicate that within the DoD, the seeming influence of these interest groups is limited. Despite this seeming insignificance, the UAP report immediately spurred a policy response by the DoD, aiming to formalize the program and standardize reporting (Hicks, 2021). This, in turn, would indicate that some factions within the DoD take the topic of UAP seriously.
A speculative reason of this policy shift, while remaining prosaic, is that it is motivated by a changing national security arena where there is a very real possibility that the existing sociocultural stigma has created a willful blind spot in surveillance, failing to identify foreign adversarial drones without proper reporting mechanisms and societal and professional pressure to not report in, or even talk about, inexplicable and unusual aerial phenomena (Rogoway, 2021). As argued by journalist Tyler Rogoway of The Drive, perhaps this policy shift is a necessity to face a changing geopolitical landscape, with the technological capabilities around drones improving drastically in the last few years (Rogoway, 2021). To save political and military ‘face’, this policy shift, necessitated by failures of surveillance, may be masked by a public discourse around UFOs, playing into the popular imagination and fascination with the unknown, rather than having to own up to intelligence failures borne out of pre-existing stigma.
The question remains then, if the disparate groups that are tangentially related to the government have solely through their influence on Congress managed to shift the discourse, and policies, on UAP, or if internal power dynamics of the Pentagon, motivated by a shifting defense landscape, technological advances in drone capabilities, and acknowledging the massive blind spot in surveillance caused by stigma, has been the main driver of the recent policy shift. There is always the possibility as well that this policy shift is motivated by the growing evidence of UAP exhibiting breakthrough technology, which must necessarily be understood by the US military apparatus if it poses a national security threat.
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