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A bizarre effort to find UFOs involved Harry Reid and the lead singer of Blink-182

A pair of reports from the New York Times and Politico detail a $22 million under-the-radar Pentagon initiative to investigate UFO sightings.

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Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Harry Reid, the Defense Department, a hotel billionaire, and Blink-182’s lead singer are all tied together in a long and complex effort to investigate UFOs — a wide-ranging push that included a multi-million-dollar program out of the Pentagon.

That’s the big (and bizarre) takeaway from nearly simultaneous reports from the New York Times and Politico on Saturday detailing an under-the-radar initiative with a stranger-than-fiction cast of characters.

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program was a $22 million, multi-year effort pushed by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). It came to an end in 2012, but Defense Department officials have continued to look into reports brought to them.

The officer who ran the initiative resigned in October, in part, because he felt the program’s efforts weren’t being taken seriously. He has since joined a company co-founded by Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge that seeks to explore the “outer edges of science” and technology.

Here’s what the Politico and New York Times stories told us about the federal program, what it found, and the ongoing effort:

1) Harry Reid created a secret government program to find UFOs

The Defense Department spent about $22 million over five years on a program that, among other things, stored material gathered from “unidentified aerial phenomena” and studied people who claimed to have lasting effects from encounters with the objects.

That the government would investigate UFOs is not a surprise. As the Times notes, the Air Force investigated more than 12,000 claimed sightings between 1947 and 1969. The US Air Force facility known as Area 51 in Nevada has long been a source of alien conspiracy theories. Before the 2016 election, the UFO community hoped Hillary Clinton would bolster government efforts to investigate the arena.

The Defense Department program in the Times and Politico reports began in 2007 and was largely funded at Reid’s request. He was persuaded by Bob Bigelow, a fellow Nevadan who founded a hotel chain and aerospace startup. Politico explains:

Reid initiated the program through an earmark after he was persuaded in part by aerospace titan and hotel chain founder Bob Bigelow, a friend and fellow Nevadan who owns Bigelow Aerospace, a space technology company and government contractor. Bigelow was also a regular contributor to Reid’s re-election campaigns, campaign finance records show, at least $10,000 between 1998 and 2008.

Bigelow has spoken openly in recent years about his views that extraterrestrial visitors frequently travel to Earth. He also purchased the Skinwalker Ranch in Utah, the subject of intense interest among believers in UFOs.

Reid also told the Times that the former astronaut and Sen. John Glenn had inspired his interest in the topic after telling him “he thought that the federal government should be looking seriously into UFOs, and should be talking to military service members, particularly pilots, who had reported seeing aircraft they could not identify or explain.”

Late Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) also supported the program. None of them went public about it on the Senate floor, though.

“This was so-called black money,” Reid told the Times, referring to the Pentagon budget for classified programs. “Stevens knows about it, Inouye knows about it. But that was it, and that’s how we wanted it.”

Contracts obtained by the Times show about $22 million went to the UFO-finding program from 2008 through 2011. That money went to Bigelow Aerospace.

According to the Times’s account, Bigelow Aerospace modified Las Vegas buildings for metal alloys and other materials gathered from “unidentified aerial phenomena” to be stored. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from their encounters with the objects and talked to military service members who reported sightings.

2) What they found: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Parts of the program are still classified, according to the New York Times. Neither report outlines exactly what the Reid-backed initiative found, though the Times describes one recording:

The program collected video and audio recordings of reported U.F.O. incidents, including footage from a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet showing an aircraft surrounded by some kind of glowing aura traveling at high speed and rotating as it moves. The Navy pilots can be heard trying to understand what they are seeing. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” one exclaims. Defense officials declined to release the location and date of the incident.

In 2009 in a letter to a deputy defense secretary, Reid said “much progress” had been made “with the identification of several highly sensitive, unconventional aerospace-related findings.” And a 2009 Pentagon briefing of the program asserted that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact.”

A former congressional staffer told Politico that one of the program’s aims was to determine whether a foreign power, such as the Chinese or the Russians, were behind the unexplained incidents.

In interviews with the Times, Luis Elizondo, who headed the program at the Pentagon, said he didn’t think that was the case. As for Reid, he really wasn’t sure:

In the interview, Mr. Elizondo said he and his government colleagues had determined that the phenomena they had studied did not seem to originate from any country. “That fact is not something any government or institution should classify in order to keep secret from the people,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Reid said he did not know where the objects had come from. “If anyone says they have the answers now, they’re fooling themselves,” he said. “We do not know.”

But, he said, “we have to start someplace.”

3) The Pentagon killed the program in 2012 — but its former head hasn’t given up

Pentagon officials told the Times the UFO program ended in 2012 after it was determined that there were “other, higher priority issues that merited funding.” Elizondo said he and others kept up efforts until October, when he resigned in a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to protest excessive secrecy and internal opposition.

“Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?” he wrote in his resignation letter, according to the Times.

This is where Blink-182 comes in: Elizondo is now involved in a for-profit company called To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was co-founded by Blink-182’s DeLonge. (DeLonge has a long history of focusing on UFOs; emails published by WikiLeaks also show that he reached out to Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, about them.)

The company’s mission, per its website, is to be a “powerful vehicle for change by creating a consortium among science, aerospace and entertainment that will work collectively to allow gifted researchers the freedom to explore exotic science and technologies with the infrastructure and resources to rapidly transition them to products that can change the world.”

Christopher Mellon, former deputy assistance secretary of defense for Intelligence, is also part of the venture. DeLonge celebrated the Times story on Twitter.

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