According to two former Department of Defense officials, the Pentagon office recently tasked with assessing U.S. military encounters with unidentified flying objects (UFOs) is woefully ill-equipped and improperly staffed to tackle its new mission. Moreover, the initiative threatens to derail a congressional proposal that would mandate unprecedented government transparency on UFOs.
In an interview, Luis Elizondo, the former head of an informal Defense Department unit that assessed military UFO reports, told me he had deep reservations about the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security (OUSD(I&S)) leading a government effort to investigate the UFO phenomenon.
According to Elizondo, UFOs are "not solely an intelligence issue. If we want 70 more years of secrecy on this topic, then OUSD(I&S) is the perfect place to put it. They've had four years so far, and we have little in the way of efforts serving the public interest."
Referring to pending legislation drafted by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would mandate unclassified reporting on UFOs and revolutionize the government's study of the phenomena, Elizondo believes that "if we want meaningful change and transparency, then we should keep the spirit of the Gillibrand amendment."
Christopher Mellon, who ran OUSD(I&S)'s predecessor organization during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, echoed Elizondo's concerns. Mellon expressed "shock" that OUSD(I&S) is taking on a permanent mission to analyze UFO encounters.
As Mellon notes, his former office is an oversight - versus an operational - organization, with no relevant "funding, line authority, contracting, command or technical capabilities" to execute the kind of robust UFO investigations Gillibrand's bipartisan legislation demands.
Like Elizondo, Mellon believes that "the inability of [OUSD(I&S)] to engage effectively on the [UFO] issue is why so little has changed or been accomplished since 2004."
Mellon's reference to 2004 is not accidental. That November, four naval aviators observed a mysterious flying object at close range that appeared to demonstrate extraordinary technologies. According to the aircrew, the unknown craft accelerated instantaneously to hypersonic speeds without discernible engines, wings or other control surfaces. The aviators' account of the 2004 incident is corroborated by radar operators aboard a nearby ship and an airborne command and control aircraft.
Intelligence analyses of the encounter ruled out highly advanced Chinese or Russian aircraft as plausible explanations. For their part, the aviators who observed the object believe that it was "not from this world."
The 2004 incident was not an isolated event. In recent years, military personnel briefed members of Congress and spoke publicly about encounters involving unidentified objects operating with apparent impunity in sensitive airspace.
Moreover, reports from multiple highly credible observers of mysterious, "intelligently controlled" craft exhibiting extraordinary technologies date back to the 1940s. With noteworthy parallels to recent intelligence assessments, declassified government analyses from 1947 to 1952 suggested extraordinary explanations for the most compelling UFO encounters.
But after Cold War national security fears sparked seven decades of government obfuscation, derision and belittling of UFO reporting, Elizondo is "not convinced [that] burying this [issue] in the deep, dark bowels of the Pentagon under an intelligence organization is the best way to shed light on a topic that needs a whole-of-government approach."
Likening the UFO problem to climate change, where the government "brought people in from the outside to serve in an advisory role [and] capacity," Elizondo believes that involvement of "[the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], [the Federal Aviation Administration], academia [and] the scientific community" - as mandated by Gillibrand's proposed legislation - is of critical importance.
According to Elizondo, "we've had 70 years to try to figure [the UFO problem] out as a government [while] keeping it in the halls of secrecy, and we haven't come any closer to figuring it out. Why are we going to repeat the same mistake all over again? Are we crazy? That's the very definition of insanity. Have we not learned?"
While praising Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks's attention to the UFO issue, Elizondo expressed concern that Hicks "is being hoodwinked by certain elements and members of her own staff." According to Elizondo, "if [Hicks] had the complete picture, she would not have made the decision" to place the UFO mission under the purview of OUSD(I&S).
Pressed on his reservations over OUSD(I&S) tackling the UFO problem, Elizondo pointed to "a combination of ineptitude, moral objection to the topic [and] classic stigma and taboo." Expanding on this point, Elizondo stated, "Documentation exists that, if made public, would illustrate the sense of urgency and the need for a neutral, unbiased [and] objective office" to investigate the UFO phenomenon.
Elizondo also mentioned his resignation in protest over the lack of high-level attention toward the issue, saying, "In some cases there are individuals who have taken it personally that I left in the manner that I did, and they want this entire topic to go away."
From a strategic perspective, Elizondo believes that senior OUSD(I&S) staff "want to focus on the threats that they can define, not the threats that are undefined."
According to Elizondo, "We in the [Department of Defense] are very good at addressing defined threats, whether it's [weapons of mass destruction], or terrorism or stabilization operations. But when you get to something that is ill-defined - [where] we don't know what it is, we don't know where it's from, we don't know what its capabilities are, we don't know what its intent is [and] we don't know who's behind the wheel - that is a really tough topic to tackle from a national security perspective."
"[But] just because we don't know the origin [of UFOs], doesn't mean we should keep burying our heads in the sand."
Elizondo also expressed concerns over government transparency, stating that "there is plenty of documentation substantiating that certain elements of [OUSD(I&S)] have not been forthcoming. That's one of the reasons why there's [a Department of Defense Inspector General] evaluation, to determine how they are handling or, in this case, mishandling [the UFO] topic over the last four years."
"This is the same office that has bungled up [the UFO issue] so badly and has been telling people, 'Nothing to see here,' to include not just senior [Department of Defense] leadership but also the [Department of Defense Inspector General] and even Congress. When I talk to certain elements within Congress, they all say the same thing: That the [OUSD(I&S)] support has been underwhelming."
While noting that there are "competent," "patriotic" civil servants in OUSD(I&S), Elizondo believes that certain senior leaders in the office are operating in a manner that "is not consistent with the agenda that Congress has for the American people."
Moreover, Elizondo believes that these career OUSD(I&S) officials "do not want [the UFO issue] going public. Because then they're going to have to unwind the tape and admit to a lot of people that they have not been telling the truth on this topic."
But Elizondo expressed cautious optimism that Sen. Gillibrand's historic, bipartisan UFO legislation would become law, saying, "I think we're in a good spot. I think we've come a long way. There seem to be a lot of people really trying to get behind this in a productive - not in a sensational - way."
According to Elizondo, "members of Congress are taking a huge risk by even considering this particular topic. These are people who tend to be risk-averse to begin with, and yet they're willing to put their credibility on the line."
"What does that tell you?" he asked. "That tells you that they've seen information that is compelling enough that they're willing to do what's necessary."
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.