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Tracking the UFOs with Gideon Lewis-Kraus: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with New Yorker staff writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus about the history of UFO sightings and why the Pentagon is taking them seriously

Alright, tell it to us straight - what's the deal with UFOs? In recent years, there's been a steady drip of reporting about UFOs that has penetrated mainstream culture, moving beyond "The X-Files" and straight into the Pentagon. A series of reports not only confirmed the existence of a government program dedicated to understanding UFOs, but also showed eye-grabbing footage of military encounters. So what do we know about them? And what exactly is the government up to? Gideon Lewis-Kraus set out to answer these questions in his phenomenal new piece in The New Yorker, "How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously," and he joins to tell us what he learned.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

CHRIS HAYES: There was an actual government conspiracy, like a genuine and actual one by the CIA, to suppress people's belief in UFOs?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Not only that, this is in the actual report of this meeting and it did come out much later, they say that they want to infiltrate and monitor UFO groups, civilian UFO groups that had started to spring up. So, there really is some kernel of seriousness to the conspiracy mongering here, especially vis-a-vis the government.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. You know how there are things that float at the periphery of your news awareness? You see a story and you have to make this kind of triage, this informational triage decision about, “All right, I'm going to not invest in that one. I'm going to declare bankruptcy on that story.” Because of my job, I don't do that a lot. I end up reading a lot about a lot of things and trying to cram as much information into my brain as possible, but there will be stories where I will sort of float past a periphery.

Well, one story like that that was happening, I think, during a very intensely news-fraught period in all our lives, which was basically 2020 and COVID and the election and all of that, was the story of the Pentagon and UFOs, and it actually stems previous to that.

There had been these disclosures of, in a literal sense, unidentified flying objects, things that Navy pilots had encountered in the skies that they didn't know what they were, they couldn't quite understand what their propulsion system was, how they were making the maneuvers they were making. There were a series of New York Times articles with very mind-blowing headlines, like “The Pentagon Discloses Heretofore Classified UFO Footage.” And a video comes out of a Navy pilot, they're like, "What is that?" And you're like, "Well, what is that?" It was this story that was sort of happening in the background and I was just like, "I don't know, maybe while we're all focused on COVID and Donald Trump and trying to get through this pandemic and keep American democracy alive, it turns out aliens are real. They've been visiting us and it just got disclosed and everyone was too busy with other stuff to figure it out."

As we came out of that dark period, particularly the darkness of COVID-slash-insurrection winter, which was a really intense and overwhelming period, I started to kind of think to myself, "I should stop triaging on this and invest a little bit." And so, I started reading around. How do I make sense of what appears to be a series of government disclosures by serious people and interviews given by serious people that seem to acknowledge that there are, A, parts of the U.S. government that monitor, again, unidentified flying objects — they have another acronym in the Pentagon, I think UAP, I forget what it stands for off the top of my head — and that serious people say on the record things like, "We don't know what they are and they're not ours." Well, what the hell do we do with that?

And obviously, there's a long, robust history of people talking about UFOs, alleging they exist, alleging vast coverups of their existence, alleging that we've already made contact with them. I think those people have tended to be largely viewed as cranks in the mainstream, but also penetrating mainstream culture I guess is the way I would say it. The fantasy of UFOs has incredible standby in cultural production. And so, the piece that I read that set my thinking straightest on this is this piece that appeared in The New Yorker in April by Gideon Lewis-Kraus and it's called “How the Pentagon Started Taking UFOs Seriously.” I have been wanting to have a discussion about UFOs to just sort of sort through, okay, what do we know, what has been disclosed, what do we think hasn't been disclosed and what does it all add to in terms of what we are actually talking about here?

And, Gideon was nice enough to come on the program, on “All In,” the TV show I host at 8:00 PM weeknights on MSNBC, but we only got to talk for five minutes, and so I wanted to get him back here WITH Pod, so Gideon Lewis-Kraus, great to have you on the program.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Thank you so much for having me, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Let me start first with — you're a writer who writes about a lot of different things, and I'm curious how you got into this topic.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, I had just started at The New Yorker last spring and my editor had said, "Oh, well we've known you were coming for a while, so there have been a few different ideas that we've flagged as maybe something that would capture your interest." And, most of them were very well-developed ideas with 100 links attached to them and then one of them was just two sentences. It was like, "Is it time to put somebody on the question of, what the hell is going on with UFOs?" And I said—

CHRIS HAYES: Literally exactly my thought process.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Yeah. And, I said to her, "Look, I just started here." We were a month and a half into the pandemic, it was an election year and I said, "I'm not sure right now is the time to do this story. Why don't we do some more normal things first and let's reconsider this in the fall." Then, she came back to me around the election time and she said, "There's real interest here and you're doing this piece."

And I said, "Well, I think at this point, given that whenever this will come out, it'll be well-past the election and hopefully at an inflection point in the pandemic, and at that point people are going to be ready to read about something else." By then, I was so sick of reading about just the election and the pandemic and I thought actually this has tremendous appeal because you couldn't possibly get farther away from what I thought was a regular news cycle than writing about UFOs. Of course, little did I know what this would end up being like, but for me it was the perfect counter-programming piece. And I said, "Okay, before I take this on, let me figure out if it's possible to take this seriously." Because I said I don't want to do a story that's just fish in a barrel, making fun of the UFO nuts. I want to do this if I can find a way to take it seriously. I think there are real issues involved besides the purely voyeuristic ones or sensational ones.

And so, I read this book. I basically just googled, “What are the legitimate books about UFOs?” And the one that came up most often was this book by a longtime investigative journalist named Leslie Kean. I read her book and I thought, "Oh, actually..." For one thing, I knew nothing about the long history of the American government and the American public's relationship to UFOs, and so that seized my imagination, is that there's this kind of forgotten stretch of history where UFOs were a major part of the public conversation and weren't relegated to the fringes.

And also, as I read Leslie's book and started to look into it, I thought, "Oh, actually, there's evidence that something weird has been going on here, and who knows what it is that is weird, but there's something here, something that has to do with perception or something that has to do with taboo." And, at the very minimum, I think that there's a story that says this was a part of the public conversation and then, for various reasons involving the government's response, this was really shut down. If there's any truth to the conspiratorial thinking about this that actually there was an active movement to make this a fringe subject, that worked, and that nobody then talked about it in serious circles for 50 years, and then all of a sudden, there's one New York Times story and that makes it a reputable thing to talk about again. So, I thought at the very least there's a story about the career of this taboo. That was kind of how I got involved in that.

CHRIS HAYES: That's well-stated on the arc of it and the career of this taboo. So, let's talk about the career of this taboo. Let's go back to... When do people start talking about UFOs?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: So, it depends how far back you go because there have been UFO people who say, "Well, you look in the bible and Ezekiel has these visions of wheels within wheels in the sky. That wasn't God speaking to Ezekiel, that was just a spaceship and this actually was a record of a UFO from 3,000 years ago." And then you have other people who have really combed back through folkloric literature and say, "Well, there's evidence of UFOs visiting feudal Japan." But in America, you get this wave of sightings of mysterious airships in 1895 and 1896. The reason I bring this up, obviously, it doesn't seem wholly relevant to today's conversation, but what's interesting about it is that it sets a certain kind of pattern for UFOs which is that, technologically, they're always just out of our reach. So, even just a decade before we have viable dirigible technology, there were people spotting these airships. They're always a little bit beyond where we are. There's always something slightly aspirational about them.

CHRIS HAYES: This reminds me of... There's a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who has a line about, “If the lions had gods, they would look like lions.”


CHRIS HAYES: It sounds like there's a little bit of a thing like that there.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Oh for sure. And actually, to go back and read about these airships sightings, there are all kinds of funny stuff about the airships stopping, mechanics getting out to fix them. So, something that was just faintly plausible, just faintly on the conceivable horizon, or just past that horizon. But then, you have service members returning from the war and much, much later in this story, Ted Stevens' experience in the war plays a role in this. These servicemen had seen what they called “foo fighters,” which were mysterious balls of fire following their planes.At first, they thought that, oh, maybe this was some Axis technology, and then it turns out that actually, Axis airmen were seeing this, too.

But, what really kicks it off here is that in the summer of 1947, there was a private aviator named Kenneth Arnold who's flying near Mount Rainier and he spots this wave of nine undulating disks, which actually he described as having more of a boomerang shape or the shape of a tailless manta ray, but it gets picked up in the press, I think it was an AP wire headline that calls them flying saucers and then this becomes a meme that really sticks. People are captivated by this idea of flying saucers.

Then, the floodgates open and the Air Force starts fielding hundreds of reports of these flying saucers over the rest of 1947. It's in the fall of 1947 that somebody inside the Air Force basically says, "Okay, now we really have to take this seriously." The famous line is that these are not fictitious things, that there's something real and we have to take them seriously, especially if they maybe represent some great leap forward in Soviet technology that we should be worried about.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, and when I think of the peak UFO years, they're intimately tied to my conception of the Cold War, of the arms race, of the birth and dawn of the nuclear age, of humans reckoning with the fact that we had just invented a technology that can destroy human life on the planet. I feel like the story that I was maybe either taught explicitly or just in my casual reading came away with is that clearly, this was a collective, mass delusion that was an emanation of cultural fear and paranoia born of the Cold War. That was basically the story, I think, as I understood it.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Absolutely, and you think of these kind of lurid ‘50s paperbacks that play into those anxieties, and some of it was really explicit. The first alien encounter stories you have from the 1950s, you have people saying, "Oh, this kindly race of Nordic-looking Venusians came to visit me and they just stressed that they're really worried about our atomic tests and that we're going to destroy this planet and we're going to pollute the solar system with our fallout. And so, can we cut it out with the nuclear weapons and nuclear tests?"

So, some of that is very easy to draw that line, but actually, part of my feeling with this story is that so much of this has been looked at through this anthropological lens. I thought, well, there are people who take this seriously enough that I don't want to do the thing where you go and say, "Let me explain to you why your serious belief is actually a metaphor for something," because that's just been done a lot and I think often in not particularly perspicuous or interesting ways. So, I thought, let's try to skip that “what is this a metaphor for,” or at least try to apply that in interesting ways, rather than just as a knee-jerk “let's explain away these beliefs as just a function of particular cultural anxieties.” Although, it's obvious that those connections are there.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, I guess the question at an epistemic level is, that explanation is always only done or sort of uninteresting if there's nothing to it. Right? I guess my point is we can't escape the first order of substantive epistemic question which is, what are we talking about? So, let's go back to '47. So, clearly people are talking about this, it enters the culture, the Air Force is like, "We should take this seriously." What happens next?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: So, especially in those early years from '47 to let's say '53, there's kind of this seesawing that happens inside the government, where there's a cohort of people who really take this seriously, especially the possibility that these could be what they called “interplanetary” at the time because they couldn't even conceive of something from outside the solar system. So, you have a cohort of people who suspect that this might be the explanation. Then, you have a group of people who think that that's absolutely ridiculous. It can't possibly be extraterrestrial because that's simply impossible.

And, you kind of have... Each of these camps has alternating moments of supremacy where, for a while, nothing will happen and it'll seem like the “let's not take this seriously” people will gain the upper hand, and then just weird things keep happening. So, for a while, it seems like they're taking it really seriously and then they start to dismiss it. And then there's this famous case of an Eastern Airlines DC-3 in 1948, where two pilots see it from the air and people see it from the ground, and it's their first close-up experience with one. And then all of a sudden, the tables are turned internally and now the “UFOs are genuinely an important mystery” people gain the upper hand.

So, it kind of goes back and forth like this until 1952. In 1952, you have this flap of UFOs that violate air space over the White House and this becomes a major deal. It's covered in the Times, it's covered in the Washington Post very seriously, in ways that feel kind of shocking to go back and read these stories and—

CHRIS HAYES: And this is something that air traffic controllers or radar picks up?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Yeah, radar picked these up. In fact, initially the Air Force denied that they had done anything, but later it turned out that they had in fact scrambled jets to try to intercept these. There's this really famous press conference in July of 1952, it's the single-biggest press conference since the end of the war, in which a major general from the Army gets up and says, "We don't really know what's going on." He says, "We're not really sure what these are, and despite our best efforts to dismiss them, there's a certain percentage of these reports from credible people who report seeing incredible things." And that's kind of the tenor of the conversation for a long time, which is that you can try to wave it away, but then you just have this residue of, even if you can explain 95% of the cases all the time, you have this stubborn residue of 5% of the cases where there are perfectly credible people reporting having seen incredible things.


GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: So, that becomes the nod of this. But then in 1953, the CIA convenes a panel for four days that meets and says, "We have a real problem here and the problem is not that we're being visited by UFOs, the problem is that actually, we're being inundated with too many UFO reports. So, we really have to put the lid on this. We have to educate the public, we have to train and debunk,” is the phrase that comes out of this.


GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: “We have to enlist the mass media to ridicule this because we can't have so much noise in our informational environment. We genuinely need to be worried about Cold War threats, so we can't be dealing with nutty people tying up our lines with having seen—”

CHRIS HAYES: Every Tom, Dick and Harry calling Langley to say that there's a flying saucer in their backyard.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Exactly. And then, that works. It takes a while, and then you still—

CHRIS HAYES: Just to hang a lantern on it for a second, this came through in your piece, there was an actual government conspiracy, like a genuine and actual one, by the CIA to suppress people's belief in UFOs?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Not only that, this is in the actual report of this meeting and it did come out much later, they say that they want to infiltrate and monitor UFO groups, civilian UFO groups that had started to spring up. So, therereally is some kernel of seriousness to the conspiracy mongering here, especially vis-a-vis the government.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And basically, according to your article, this sort of taboo enforcement and suppression really works.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: It takes a little while and then you have dissenting opinions. You have Vice Admiral Hillenkoetter, who was the first head of the CIA, he tells the New York Times in 1960 that the government is kind of ridiculing this in public, but behind the scenes people are very soberly concerned about that. You always have people popping up to say these things. People were so surprised when all of a sudden in the last year, you have this parade of former officials coming out and saying, "Oh, there's something here." But that's actually pretty close to the historical norm. That kind of thing was true in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

What was weird was when it wasn't true. It was weird when Dennis Kucinich gets laughed out of the 2008 primary because he saw a UFO at Shirley MacLaine's house. Now, maybe the problem was Shirley MacLaine's house and not the UFO. For a long time, it wouldn't have been that weird. President Carter saw a UFO outside a Lions Club meeting in 1969. Apparently Reagan saw a UFO.

CHRIS HAYES: So, what do we know about what happens inside the government in monitoring for unidentified flying objects, things that are appearing in the sky that we can't figure out what they are?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: So eventually, we don't have to spend too long on this history, there are these congressional hearings in 1966 and they decide that they're going to assign a commission and an independent outside body of scientists to look into this UFO subject and figure out whether there's really anything there. In the fall of 1968, they complete this report and the report is over 1,000 pages long. It comes out and it has a summary that says there's really nothing to see here and there's no scientific value, we should not let our scientists keep studying this, this should be relegated to science fiction. But then you read the actual report — it seems like the guy who led this report was barely familiar with what was in the report because inside the report, of the 90 cases they examined, like 30% of them were still unresolved.


GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: But, the headline of this is “UFOs are ridiculous.” That kind of licenses the media and officials to pooh-pooh it when it comes up again. But then there's all kinds of evidence after that that even though the government has officially said we're not interested, that sure, they were still continuing to keep track of weird stuff that they saw in the air without talking about it publicly, and seemingly without coming to any kind of conclusion.

CHRIS HAYES: So basically, the constants here are people see stuff in the sky, the government is constantly monitoring stuff in the sky and has, either through instrumentation or its own pilots, picking up stuff in the sky, which to me is a higher level of credibility. People see stuff all the time, but if something is showing up on an instrument and you've got it on fairly sophisticated diagnostic tools that are literally designed to pick up other flying things, it's much harder to dismiss as people have visions or apparitions. So, that's happening, and then this sort of turn happens that you document in the piece. I think part of it goes back to Leslie Kean. You make the case that it reemerges from taboo at some point. How and why?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, actually there are two other things I wanted to say before we moved on that just follow from what you said. One is that, and I think this point gets lost a lot of the time, there definitely was a kind of weird class issue involved here, where the kinds of people who tended to report seeing UFOs all along were first responder types. It was pilots and it was policemen and it was firefighters. These were always described as salt of the earth, pillar of their community people. The people doing the dismissing were often, like, the head of the Hayden Planetarium and a famous astronomer at Harvard. One of the themes here of this that comes in and out of this story are scientists who dismiss firsthand observations by this kind of pilot, policemen cohort.

The other thing I was going to say that I think is coming to the fore now is that, to some extent, one way to look at the UFO issue is as a kind of referendum on government competence, that the real conspiratorialists, they have a bedrock belief in massive government competence throughout — the government knew what was going on and the government has been able to keep what would obviously be the single greatest secret in human history for 70 years.


GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: And that is an extremely competent organization that could do those things.

CHRIS HAYES: Right and just to be clear, that's the maximalist position of like, there are extraterrestrials, that unidentified flying objects are from other life forces outside human life on the planet and that we've made contact with them, basically. That's the maximalist conspiracy theory. All of that has happened, it's all been kept under wraps by a government that doesn't want us to know.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Right, and as far as the maximalism goes, there's also something to be said that there's kind of a motte-and-bailey argument here. Or rather, there are stronger and weaker versions of this that are used interchangeably where a lot of people say, "Look, we're not saying these are aliens, we're just saying that these are unidentified things in the sky. They could be drones, or they could be weird weather phenomena. We just have to emphasize the ‘unidentified' part of unidentified flying objects and not rush to any hasty conclusions." But then of course, most of those people still fundamentally believe that these are alien ships.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm not saying that these are on the same plains, but that mode of argumentation, I'm reminded of arguing with 9/11 truthers. The sort of smart ones would be like, "Look, I'm not saying it's an inside job. I'm just saying that we don't understand why Tower 7 came down, really. And if you look at the demolition data, blah, blah, blah." But then it was also, they definitely thought it was an inside job. Essentially, this was a rhetorical pose they were adopting to talk to normies, but the belief they had was the maximum conspiratorial belief.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Yes, definitely, absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: You document this kind of subculture that is, again... Obviously, there's enormous subcultures, there's this book “Communion” that came out. I remember my dad reading it.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: It was a big bestseller.

CHRIS HAYES: It was a bestseller and, again, that’s like total maximalist. That was people who report being abducted by aliens and they all look the same ways, and they have the big eyes, and they went on the spaceship and they did experiments to them. This belief persists and persists and persists, although it oscillates in and out of the mainstream in different ways.


CHRIS HAYES: What role does Leslie Kean play in the latest chapter in this oscillating story?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Basically what you have is a relatively small cohort of people in the orbit of this guy Robert Bigelow who was a Nevada, cut-rate real estate magnate and aerospace entrepreneur, who's been interested in this stuff since his childhood and has been studying this stuff since the ‘90s. He had started this organization in the mid-’90s to look into UFOs and cattle mutilation and other paranormal phenomena. He gets linked up with people who have been doing kind of fringe government studies for a long time, people who have been looking into remote viewing, which is ESP at a distance. The CIA had funded a project called Project Stargate in the ‘70s and ‘80s to look into this.

And so all of these people kind of cluster around Bigelow in the ‘90s. He shuts this institute down in 2004, but it's the same group of people who are continually working on this stuff, and it's a relatively small group of people. Leslie Kean starts writing about UFOs in 1999. She gets this French report written by a bunch of retired generals who say there's really something here and we have to take the extraterrestrial hypothesis seriously. She then gets linked up with some of these people who had been involved in these Bigelow efforts for a long time. And then it's Bob Bigelow who arranges a meeting between this DIA scientist and Harry Reid in 2007. And then this DIA scientist goes and visits this ranch in Utah that Bigelow owns, where there are werewolves that are impervious to gunshots and floating orbs and all kinds of strange paranormal things going on there.

And eventually, the upshot of all of this is Harry Reid gets together with Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye and together, they fund this black money program to look into contract out a subsidiary of Bigelow's aerospace company to look into this stuff.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, so basically, this circle of people, let's say eccentrics — a wealthy eccentric who's into this manages to get his weight close enough to government, to get Harry Reid and Inouye and Stevens to actually pipe government money into investigating this.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Yeah. I mean, not a huge amount of government money. It's a rounding error in the Defense budget, but it's still money. And then what happens is you get this guy Lue Elizondo, who's a longtime counterintelligence guy, who is brought in under somewhat murky circumstances, but basically he's brought in in 2010 and he kind of cleans up the program so that it's no longer this contractor looking into werewolves and goblins and UFOs on this Utah ranch. Now, it's “let's look at military encounters, let's look at what we're hearing from our Navy pilots, let's try to get information from NORAD,” and stuff like that.

So, it becomes more serious in 2010, but then the funding's not renewed and he's just doing this as a bootstrapped part of his own portfolio as a kind of in-house, UFO freelancer, but he can't get any attention. He tries to brief General Mattis several times. He gets turned down by his underlings who basically say, "We have more important stuff going on." They're also worried about the taint. They don't ever want somebody to be able to say General Mattis took a briefing on UFOs. By all accounts, Mattis looks at this as an annoyance and then Elizondo resigns publicly. He writes this letter saying this is something that the government needs to take seriously and you're not devoting any resources to it and you're not paying attention.

He resigns in the fall of 2017. One of the last things he does before he leaves is that he secures the public release of these three videos. Now, there's a lot of confusion and misconception and myth that has been embroidered to these videos, but these videos were never classified. It's somewhat unclear exactly how they were viewed. When he gets them cleared for public release, he describes them as drones, basically. Drones or balloons. And then again, the details of this area little bit murky, but he basically gives them to this guy Chris Mellon, who had been a former Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Then Mellon brings Leslie Kean into this and Kean meets with Elizondo. At this point, they essentially say, “If you can get this into the Times, you can have these videos.” And then by December of 2017, this Times story comes out. It has two of the videos and overnight, the public conversation about UFOs is different.

CHRIS HAYES: But here's the thing that kept coming up to me. A reportorial experience, a journalistic experience that I’ve had, starting very early, is meeting people who have genuine, serious credentials, particularly who have worked in the national security apparatus or national security state for all kinds of ways, retired spooks, who, you're like, "Oh, this is a serious person. They have this very serious credential," and then who turn out to be completely batshit nuts. This happens all... You learn this pretty early on. General Flynn is a great example, right?


CHRIS HAYES: That guy's—

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: He's everybody's first example of this, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: As decorated as it gets, right? But I've had that experience, I'm sure you have, too, in your reporting career. I remember meeting with ex-CIA guys, reporting on a story and then 30 minutes in, I'm like, “Wait, what? Oh, you're delusional,” all by which to say, serious credentials are by no means mutually exclusive with crankdom.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: With holding strange beliefs.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Strange is a gentle and diplomatic way of saying it — wrong beliefs. Michael Flynn believes the election was stolen, that maybe Italian satellites hacked Dominion machines... Do you know what I mean? And so, my point just being here that one of the stories here, and to me what makes this terrain fascinating, again, from an epistemic perspective, is you've got a bunch of people who are credentialed, serious people taking this seriously, but I guess my point is just ipso facto, that doesn't mean it's serious.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: No, I would hope that that would be one of the clear implications of my story. Absolutely, part of this does have to do with the fantasy that somehow, the senior people in Washington have a more rigorous epistemic process than the rest of us do, which clearly is not true.

CHRIS HAYES: Let's go back to the videos. What are the videos? What do we know about them and what don't we know? Because I was like everyone else in 2017. The story came out in 2017, is that right?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Yeah, December 2017.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, so I was in the same boat as everyone else, like whoa, what the hell?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: So, it's very hard at this point to take these videos in isolation, but when you take these videos in isolation, I guess all three of them are sort of different. The most impressive two of the three are the ones where you hear the pilots reacting in real time, where the pilots are like, "Wait, what the hell is going on?" That's really striking. In one of them you hear the pilot say, “Look at the SA,” meaning look at the situational awareness, where he says like, "There's a whole fleet of them and they're flying in a formation."

But, there's absolutely nothing dispositive or categorical that can be said from these videos alone. There are cases that these could be a form of instrumental glitch in the infrared. There's this well-known debunker, who I think is one of the more reasonable and less excitable debunkers. Some of these people get really disproportionately worked up about this in a way where you think clearly they have some kind of strange personal investment in this, but this guy Mick West has a bunch of videos showing, well, he thinks one of them is just a passenger plane, and he thinks one of them is engine glare, and the other one could be a balloon.

He will freely say that the way you come to these conclusions is you basically ignore all of the rest of the evidence. You ignore all of the pilot testimony, you ignore the radar returns, but just looking at these videos, there's no clear sign of what is being looked at. They've been delivered to us outside of any kind of context other than these are Navy UFO videos. So it's hard to say anything about that piece of evidence in isolation.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a report that's going to come out that you mentioned and there's been some more reporting in the New York Times. I want to talk about what the latest Times reporting is and what that report is right after we take this quick break.

So, the Times reporting in 2017 totally alters people's awareness, certainly from you, it did. And then, recently, there's more Times reporting?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Yeah, not by Leslie Kean actually. By actual national security staffers, not freelancers. The Times reporting said that this report's going to look at 120 incidents over, I don't know, the past 20 years. So far the headline leak has been they're going to come out and say we're not sure what these are, but they're not ours.


GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: That's been the only thing that's come out so far, at least from mainstream news organizations.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. This is where we get into reasoning and probability. Let's take it face value that there's some category of instances of, quite literally, unidentified flying objects that the military has some record internally — that's pilot eyewitness, that's instrumentation, all this stuff. Then the question becomes, well, what are ways we could explain them that are not alien visitations or spaceships? One hypothesis is, because the U.S. government has so many compartmentalizations of secrecy, that this was something that we ourselves were testing that the pilots encountering weren't read into, and so as to not spoil the secret, the government couldn't come out and say, "Oh, no, no, that's actually our super advanced drone,” or whatever, because the whole point was that that was supposed to be a secret from everyone, right?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Or, if you want to go further into the kind of psy-ops interpretation, this is their way of advertising, “Oh, we do have something really advanced, and we're going to talk about it as if they're UFOs, but really this is our just winking at our adversaries, saying we have stuff that defies the laws of physics as we understand it.”

CHRIS HAYES: Right, and we want the Chinese to know.


CHRIS HAYES: And that this is an elaborate way of letting them know through this channel.


CHRIS HAYES: You're laughing because you don't think that's true?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: No, I don't think that's true.

CHRIS HAYES: Because that's another competence question, right?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Oh yeah, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: I would tend to side with that, although the other idea of “we're experimenting with stuff, that the left arm doesn't know about the right arm and then that has to be kept secret,” that seems less implausible to me and more possible.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, maybe, especially because, if you look at the locations of where this infamous Tic-Tac was seen off the coast of Baja, yeah, there are training ranges around there, there's all kinds of stuff going on down there. It's possible that maybe this was that case of pilots not being read in. But, especially the sightings on the East Coast where you have these hazard reports being filed because pilots almost crashed into things, that seems pretty unlikely that you've got people out there flying $100 million planes and you have mysterious things in the sky that you didn't tell them about. That just seems kind of foolhardy. There's been a bunch of reporting where this guy Tim McMillan, who does great stuff for The Debrief, has interviewed senior people who have basically said, "You cannot even imagine the red tape involved if I wanted to test out some state of the art technology with live pilots in a training range."

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Particularly, it's the most cutting-edge technology that the American government has.


CHRIS HAYES: If it’s the most expensive cutting-edge technology the American government has, “Let's take it for a joy ride off the coast of Maine” is probably not going to happen.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Right. Although, again, what makes all of this so messy and also kind of fun to talk about is that it does implicate all sorts of things. When the government was testing the U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird and these top secret projects from the ‘60s, they were delighted when people thought they were UFOs because that helped keep them secret for longer. There's a history of the government doing exactly that, so then you think, well, why are they not doing that now?


GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Obviously, things are a little different for all sorts of reasons.

CHRIS HAYES: So, the report that's going to be issued — which may be actually between us conversing and you hearing this podcast, it's one possibility because it's supposed to be issued in June and we're recording this in the third week of June — one of the top line leaks that we've got is that they're going to say this stuff isn't ours. The stuff that we're seeing, it's not ours, and it's not like some secret thing that's ours. But then again, that just prompts the question of, well, if they were lying about it the first time, they're not going to come out and be like, “Okay, you got us.”This all comes down to who you believe and what do you think is the most likely because there's no, “Well, you have to...” There's no version of the kids’ myth that if you ask a cop if they're a cop, they have to tell you you're a cop. There's no version of that for, “You have to tell us if this is real or not.”


CHRIS HAYES: But, then I'm just left saying, okay, so there's stuff that we encounter that we can't explain that is not that likely in the main — when you take in all of the factors, between what you describe as a red tape and the fact that the government's not going to issue this report — let's say leaning towards these not being some top secret program that we're encountering among our own pilots, then I guess the next question is, is it some other rival power's technology? I think the question has to enter into all of this is the probabilistic question that you encounter with any theory of the unknown. Just to take it back to 9/11, in the end, which is more likely: that the government planned this entire thing and pulled it off with no whistleblower inside to murder 3,000 of its own citizens, or the actual story that we were told is correct?

And here, which is more likely: that there's some weird Chinese drone or some combination of misperceptions and instrumentation failures, or that an alien life force that we know would have to be from several light years away at the least has figured out a level of technology way past what we can really conceive to traverse those light years and come here and fly around in our skies?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: I mean, yeah. The—

CHRIS HAYES: I feel like you're being very careful.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, I'm being careful in part because I don't want to be wholly dismissive.

CHRIS HAYES: I feel like I'm talking to you about Israel-Palestine or something. What are you scared of?

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Oh, no, no, no, I'm not scared of anything. I just want to be careful because it is hard to say anything with total certainty about this stuff because as preposterous as some of these ideas seem, when you try to... The fun thing about doing this, and the reason why... One of the ways you can explain the fact that so many of these people have come onboard in this way is that it really doesn't take much to get somebody to want to believe this. You just have to pass the bare minimal threshold of plausibility for people to be like, "Okay, yeah, I'm on board with that," because it's a fun thing to think about for all sorts of reasons. It reopens a sense of broad cosmic wonder about all the things that we don't know and what the universe might be like in ways we can't imagine.

And so, when you think, okay, humans in modern form have been around for a couple hundred thousand years or a couple million years, and we've had basically one century of real technological development, and when you imagine the scale of the existence of the universe, there's nothing to say that there couldn't be civilizations that are a billion years ahead of us, and who knows what those civilizations would be doing, or how they would feel about us, or how they would move around? There's nothing implausible about that.

CHRIS HAYES: No, that's correct. No, this is all probabilistic reasoning on a cosmic scale that's hard to draw hard conclusions from. I think I've been convinced by the probabilistic reasoning that there's life out there as a sheer, brute statistical reality.


CHRIS HAYES: I've tended to think that, along the same lines of the sort of sheer, brute probabilistic reality, that the concatenation of probability of them being out there, being close enough to traverse in any meaningful sense and having the technology to do that, ends up in a probability that's considerably slimmer.


CHRIS HAYES: Actually, that's a mathematical tautology. It must be the case that that's a slimmer probability because you're multiplying different probabilities. So, I guess where I'm at is just in the end, we end up in the same probabilistic reasoning. It's almost like we're in the same place we would be without the evidence.


CHRIS HAYES: Which is kind of maddening. It's fun, but it's also like, in some ways the biggest questions here aren't the questions about the evidence. They're the same big, probabilistic questions about the size of the cosmos and how life develops.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: But then also, you kind of do have this additional problem introduced by the evidence, which is, there have been thousands of credible-seeming reports of these over the years. So what do you do with the fact that there seems, at least from one point of view, there seems to be an enormous amount of evidence? Does that mean that we're being visited all the time? That's where you end up with these crazy kind of “Earth zoo” hypotheses, where we're just being visited by alien families on vacation to point at us and laugh or whatever.

In a way, the evidence would be stronger if there were one really big case. That, you could think, oh okay, a spaceship made its way here one time, but how do you explain all the different shapes that are seen, for example? So, in a strange way, there's almost too much evidence. There's so much evidence that it causes it to feel less plausible.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, I guess what you're saying there is, if I understand you, is that you're zooming in on the... I think sometimes you hear this theory of, how likely would it be that this incredibly advanced society of life out there comes up with the technology to sustainably traverse multiple light years, only to come buzz around our skies? And then the counter to that is, well, we don't know that they're just buzzing around our skies, I guess, is the answer.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: That's why I kept having this experience where I would talk to these people who seemed otherwise totally lucid and prudent for the first half hour of our conversation where they'd be saying, "Oh no, we just have to listen to these military pilots and take them seriously, and there's radar evidence,” and all this stuff. And then by hour two of the conversation, it's like, "Well, the aliens have been living under the ocean floor for millions of years and they're the ones who genetically engineered primates to become humans and they taught accounting to the Sumerians," or whatever. That's why people end up going there because you need to try to figure that out somehow.

But I also think there's a certain kind of arc that people have. In 2017, this interstellar object passed through our solar system that was picked up by a new telescope, in a recent telescope in Hawaii, or a telescopic array.

We picked up this interstellar object and it had these various anomalous properties. It was rotating in a weird way and didn't show any signs of off-gassing that a comet would have. But then, also when it went around the sun, it clearly picked up some additional acceleration that wasn't merely just from the sun's gravity, so there were all these weird things about this object that... Longtime Head of Astrophysics at Harvard is this guy Avi Loeb and he concludes that this very well could have been a light sail that was either the detritus of some lost alien civilization or some kind of probe. He had a book that came out in January talking about this and for him, it's just a story about scientific hubris, that the scientific community has gotten too cautious and too insular and too afraid to say crazy things and that this should actually be a sign that scientists should be more imaginative.

But I talked to him in December and we talked a lot about his ‘Oumuamua ideas, but when I brought up UFOs, he was like, "Oh, that's frankly ridiculous." He refused to have any tract with it at all, but then the book comes out and in March or April, he goes on Rogan to talk about it. He had to have known that Rogan was going to ask him about UFO stuff and, of course, Rogan does. At that point, he says, "Well, really, it's something that I don't know that much about it, but scientists should really look into this. Scientists should look at this anomalous data. It shouldn't be held up by the military."

And then just this week, he has a Scientific American editorial where he's like, "Well, these UFOs we've been seeing actually could've been somehow related to ‘Oumuamua, the interstellar object, and maybe they were planting probes in our atmosphere to help guide ‘Oumuamua." So, the really cynical interpretation here is, oh, this guy just wanted to get on the UFO train, which I highly doubt from having talked to him. He's had a long, illustrious scientific career. I doubt that he thinks, “Oh, at the tail end of my career I need to just get some of this reflected UFO attention.” Or, it's that once you start thinking about this stuff, there is something, it burrows deep somehow, and you just talk yourself into the increasing plausibility as you go along.

CHRIS HAYES: Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a staff writer at The New Yorker. The piece that we're discussing is called “How the Pentagon Started Taking UFOs Seriously.” You can find it online, it was published April 30th. I don't know where I ended up, if I talked myself into it or not, but that was a lot of fun, Gideon. Thank you very much.

GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Thank you so much, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, great thanks to Gideon Lewis-Kraus. You should definitely check out that story, “How the Pentagon Started Taking UFOs Seriously,” in The New Yorker. I would love to hear your thoughts on the UFO situation, on the probability that they visit us or we’re just in a zoo without knowing it.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

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