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10 June 2023

So is the US government hiding aliens or what?

And if so, isn’t that actually quite comforting?

By Jonn Elledge

The best thing about the Guardian headline is that it’s written so straight. “US urged to reveal UFO evidence after claim that it has intact alien vehicles,” the paper notes, in the exact same tone it’d use to report demands that Kent County Council release some research on the impact of proposed cuts to bus services in the Canterbury area.

The Guardian’s report concerns another report, this one in the Debrief, which in turn concerns the “former intelligence officer turned whistleblower” David Charles Grusch. A decorated former Afghanistan combat veteran, Grusch is also a veteran of a range of impressive acronyms including the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) and NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency). With the former, he served as representative to the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force from 2019-2021; with the latter, he was co-lead for UAP analysis. He left a 14-year career in intelligence last April because, well, we’ll come to that.

UAPs, if you haven’t had the pleasure, are the new, more serious label for what we used to call UFOs, a rebrand clearly introduced because everyone had long come to consider the original label silly. (The “A” at other times stands for “anomalous”.) Grusch is a man whose senior officers have described him as having “the strongest possible moral compass” and being “beyond reproach”, and who has worked for the US government agencies tasked with making sense of the weird stuff in the sky.

And he just said that information was being withheld from Congress about the United States government having within its possession “intact” vehicles of non-human origin. His whistleblowing, he claims, resulted in unspecified “retaliation” from within the US government.

Now, to quote a much used meme, I’m not saying it was aliens… but it was aliens.

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This is obviously nuts, but perhaps not quite as nuts as it might sound on the face of it. In the last few years credible, sensible, not obviously mad – albeit generally American – people have come forward in growing numbers to suggest that, just maybe, we should take the notion of unidentified flying objects a bit more seriously. In 2019 the Washington Post ran an article by the international relations professor Daniel Drezner under the headline “UFOs exist, and everyone needs to adjust to the fact”. In 2020 a US Senate hearing confirmed the existence of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, a programme within the Office of Naval Intelligence whose job was to collect data on the phenomena. The following year it issued a preliminary report.

So: the US government has not only been investigating UFOs, but has admitted the fact. More than that: in an article published in 2021 the New Yorker revealed that the US government had actively attempted to hide its interest by discrediting reports of unexplained stuff in the sky, in 1966 going as far as to hire CBS News’s Walter Cronkite to host a documentary with the magnificent title: UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy?

[See also: Aliens in the age of anxiety]

The government’s reasoning was, essentially, that there were credible reports of stuff in the sky it couldn’t understand; that these might plausibly be, say, terrifyingly advanced Soviet spy planes; and that it didn’t want reports about them to get lost in a flood of hysterical nonsense about aliens. This strategy backfired spectacularly. What actually happened is that pilots and anybody else vaguely credible who thought they’d seen something weird in the sky kept their mouths shut because they didn’t want everyone to think they were a lunatic who probably shouldn’t be allowed near a plane. But it does mean that, when UFO obsessives claimed the US government was attempting to discredit them, they were, hilariously, correct.

All that said, there is quite a big distance between “the US government tried to hush up the fact it cares about UFOs” and “the US government secretly has alien technology”. For one thing, although UFOs (or UAPs; let’s get with the programme) are generally conflated with aliens, they’re not necessarily any such thing: unidentified means just that. One of the things I found while researching the UFO chapter of Conspiracy (the book on this subject I wrote with the other half of my shadowy cabal, Tom Phillips) was that humanity has been seeing unexplained stuff in the skies for as long as it’s been looking up at them – but that it was only in the age of human flight and science fiction that anyone thought to blame it on aliens.

Another issue is that, well, it’s not the first time someone has come forward with a story like Grusch’s. There have been entire books on this sort of thing, such as Lieutenant-Colonel Philip J Corso’s 1997 memoir The Day After Roswell, which in 2001 the Guardian included in its top ten literary hoaxes. People can be sincerely mistaken (Grusch makes no claim to have actually seen any of these “exotic” crafts). People can also lie.

In some ways, though, it would be oddly comforting to discover that Grusch was right. For one thing it would mean aliens had visited us, so there must be a way round the speed of light as the speed limit of the universe, and as someone who grew up watching Star Trek that’s always bugged me. More than that, though, it would mean they existed at all. There are a number of possible resolutions to the Fermi paradox, the apparent contradiction between the number of potentially life-supporting planets in the universe, and the fact we have found no evidence of alien life. But one of the most convincing is that advanced life, of the sort that could transmit radio signals, is incredibly short-lived. Looking around at the world in 2023, would you be surprised to learn that industrial civilisations tend to destroy themselves?

Given all of that, I’d much rather believe that aliens crashed landed in the New Mexico desert and the US government has been covering it up. Conspiracies of silence orchestrated by the US military may be sinister – but at least they’re not existential.

“Conspiracy: A History of B*llocks Theories, and How Not To Fall For Them”, by Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge, is out in paperback now.

[See also: How have 15-minute cities become a conspiracy theory?]

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