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The Pentagon's Search For UFOs


This is Lulu's log - star date, December, 17, 2017 - where we explore matters of space, the stars and the universe, top secret edition. A decade ago, the Pentagon quietly set up a $22 million program - the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects, UFOs. Bryan Bender is a reporter at Politico, which along with The New York Times, revealed the existence of the program publicly for the first time yesterday. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.

BRYAN BENDER: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Why did the Pentagon care about UFOs?

BENDER: Well, initially, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada cared about UFOs. Back in 2008 into 2009, Reid enlisted a couple of his fellow members and got money inserted into an appropriations bill to start this program that the Pentagon called AATIP as its acronym. And that's how it got started because Harry Reid had some friends in Nevada, including a campaign contributor who was an aerospace executive, who was convinced that these reports that the military was hearing about needed to be investigated, that they could potentially pose a national security threat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So the argument was about national security concerns, not necessarily aliens visiting us from another galaxy?

BENDER: Well, I think it was both. I mean, clearly, these were reports that were coming into the Pentagon. And as we know, there have been lots of reports over the years, not just from pilots, but from the public about unidentified objects that seem to be able to do things that our own modern aircraft can't do.

I think to sell it, if you will, there was a real effort to try and camp down the, you know, we're going to go look for little green men. And so it was kind of couched in this argument that, listen, these are pilots, these are military personnel, these are not kooks who are reporting this stuff. Wouldn't it be in our interest to try and do a little bit more research in the event that they're hostile, whether that's because they're a secret Russian aircraft or Chinese or because it's something from somewhere else?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did the program turn up?

BENDER: Well, from what we can tell from our sources and our reporting, they commissioned a bunch of studies, a lot of interviews, created a lot of paperwork. But as some of our sources told us, after a couple of years - really around 2012 - the program was folded. There wasn't additional money appropriated. And there was kind of this general feeling that, you know, they did some worthwhile investigation, but they didn't really find any aha (ph) findings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The program also collected video and audio recordings of reported UFO sightings. Let's listen to one.


UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: There's a whole fleet of them. Look on the S.A. My gosh, they're all going against the wind. The wind is 120 knots to the west.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That audio was released by The New York Times. And it comes from a video of an encounter between a Navy plane and an unknown object. I mean, it sounds creepy.

BENDER: It sounds creepy. It sounds like - I mean, you could tell from the voices of these pilots that they're seeing things that they're like, what the heck is that? And these jive with a lot of the other reports and testimony from other pilots of these - what they call Tic Tacs. Basically, these aircraft look like a Tic Tac, the breath mint, in terms of this oblong shape that could go, you know, from tens of thousands of feet up, down to the surface level of the ocean in a very short period of time. And again, there were dozens of these reports that this office the Pentagon established in 2009 that were investigated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the other part of this is that we've been hearing for so long that there's been secret government programs looking into UFOs. And you seem to have uncovered that, at least briefly, this was true.

BENDER: Well, I think we uncovered at least one of these government efforts to look at these unexplained phenomena. We were told that there are other programs that other agencies - perhaps, the CIA, perhaps, the individual military branches, the Air Force, the Navy - could likely have their own. But, you know, the Pentagon looking into UFOs or looking into unidentified flying objects is not new. This is sort of the 21st century version of some of the research the Pentagon did many years ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bryan Bender is a reporter at Politico. Thanks so much.

BENDER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSAJ THING'S "REALIZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.