One of the first images in the opening episode of the new History Channel show “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation” is a 2017 headline from the New York Times projected on a flickering screen: “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious UFO Program.”
It’s the story that launched Luis Elizondo into the public eye, the article that “shocked the world,” the narrator of “Unidentified” declares, before continuing, “A clandestine U.S. government program had been investigating UFOs. For eight years, the secret program was run by this man, Lue Elizondo.” The camera then pans to a visual of the former military intelligence case officer in a darkened house peering out warily through half-drawn window shades.
It’s an odd scene. Is Elizondo on the lookout for aliens or a bad guy from his old spook life? Either way, the History Channel show, which premiered on Friday and is being promoted as “groundbreaking nonfiction,” goes on to follow Elizondo as he re-investigates strange UFO incidents he says he learned of when he was at the Pentagon running the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, known as AATIP. It’s as if Agent Mulder had handed off his X-Files to another paranoid government agent, this one with a pug face and billy-goat beard. In the screener I saw for “Unidentified,” the narrator says that Elizondo quit the Pentagon because he was “frustrated by what he says was a cover-up.”
Whatever the truth about otherworldly UFOs (cue a collective eye-roll from scientists), there is one crucial detail missing from “Unidentified,” as well as from all the many stories that have quoted Elizondo since he outed himself nearly two years ago to a wide-eyed news media: There is no discernible evidence that he ever worked for a government UFO program, much less led one.
Yes, AATIP existed, and it “did pursue research and investigation into unidentified aerial phenomena,” Pentagon spokesperson Christopher Sherwood told me. However, he added: “Mr. Elizondo had no responsibilities with regard to the AATIP program while he worked in OUSDI [the Office of Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence], up until the time he resigned effective 10/4/2017.”
That directly contradicts an email sent by a spokesperson for To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science, a UFO research and entertainment company that Elizondo joined after he left the Defense Department.
There is no discernible evidence that Luis Elizondo ever worked for a government UFO program, much less led one.
The email was sent over a year ago by Kari DeLonge, a public relations representative for To the Stars, to John Greenewald, a UFO researcher who runs an online archive of Freedom of Information Act-obtained government documents on a website called the Black Vault. At the time, Greenewald had become frustrated at the lack of tangible information about AATIP and Elizondo’s role; additionally, Elizondo had spurned Greenewald’s interview requests.
Greenewald told me that he had asked DeLonge specifically where Elizondo worked within the Department of Defense when he ran AATIP.
“Hi John – Thanks for reaching out,” DeLonge wrote. “The program was initially run out of [the Defense Intelligence Agency] but when Lue took it over in 2010 as Director, he ran it out of the Office for the Secretary of Defense (OSD) under the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI). Hope that clarifies.”
I tried contacting Elizondo multiple times via email and his cellphone. He has not responded. It’s not as if he is on retreat somewhere; I noticed that in the run-up to his star turn on the new History Channel show, he has been speaking to everyone from the New York Times to UFO media personalities and military bloggers.
Indeed, judging by all the UFO stories lighting up the internet this week, the self-described “career spy” is having another big moment in the media spotlight. The timing is either an auspicious coincidence or the “flying saucers are here” brigade’s well-oiled PR machine is working overtime.
Another important detail being glossed over or entirely left out of the breathless coverage surrounding the release of “Unidentified” is the relationship between its executive producer, Tom DeLonge, Elizondo, and other former Pentagon officials and members of the intelligence community who appear in the show.
DeLonge, a musician of Blink-182 fame and longtime UFO enthusiast, is the co-founder and interim CEO of To the Stars, the company Elizondo joined in October 2017, several days after he resigned from the Department of Defense. Since the company’s inception, certain members of its “elite team,” including Elizondo, have appeared frequently in the news media.
This week is a prime example. Another former Pentagon official with a prominent role in “Unidentified” appeared several days ago on “Fox & Friends.”
“We know that UFOs exist,” Chris Mellon, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, pronounced on the show. “This is no longer an issue. The issue is why are they here? Where are they coming from? And what is the technology behind these devices that we are observing?”
Mellon, like Elizondo, works for To the Stars (his title, according to the company’s website, is national security affairs adviser). “Fox & Friends” neglected to mention this connection, along with the fact that the History Channel show was made by the company Elizondo and Mellon work for.
I’m not surprised. By now, Elizondo and Mellon have come to rely on a largely passive and credulous press to generate sensational UFO headlines.
Amid the mountain of media coverage of Elizondo in the last two years, I have found only one story that provides official confirmation that he headed the government UFO program known as AATIP.
“Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White confirmed to Politico that the program existed and was run by Elizondo,” Bryan Bender wrote in December 2017. (Earlier this year, White, a Trump administration political appointee, resigned amid an internal probe into charges of misconduct.)
But Pentagon spokesperson Christopher Sherwood told me that he “cannot confirm” White’s statement.
As it happens, Bender, who is Politico’s defense editor, had a recurring role in the first episode of “Unidentified.” He appeared on camera numerous times as a kind of authoritative character witness for Elizondo, Mellon, and their UFO investigations.
“If you were trying to come up with the A-team of former, high-level government officials who would come forward on this issue, you can’t really think of a better team,” Bender says in the screener. “Lue Elizondo, Chris Mellon — these guys still have security clearances, still have networks in Washington, still are in the business, if you will.”
“We know that UFOs exist. This is no longer an issue. The issue is why are they here? Where are they coming from? And what is the technology behind these devices that we are observing?”
That last part sounds like a cryptic reference to contract work they might be doing for a U.S. intelligence agency or some other government entity. Elizondo confirmed to me earlier this year that he is, in fact, working as a government contractor, “but it’s not what you think it is,” he said. Mellon did not respond to my request for comment.
In the feverish UFO community, in which conspiracy theories have long thrived like a mutating virus (sometimes with good reason), some suspect that DeLonge is being played like a useful idiot — and that his To the Stars Academy is a front for some kind of black ops project.
If he is not a stooge, he is certainly an odd figure for Mellon and Elizondo to hitch their wagons to.
In fact, the whole origin story of To the Stars, which DeLonge recapped in a bizarre public rollout in October 2017 and in an even more bizarre interview with podcast host Joe Rogan, is pretty bananas. In sum, DeLonge claims that he is the military’s chosen vessel for UFO disclosure.
“Why you?” Rogan asked on his podcast. “What could you do?”
“Communication,” DeLong responded. “They don’t have a way to make a movie, a book. They don’t have a way to go on a show like this.”
It’s worth noting that, several years before DeLonge took on this momentous communications assignment, he created a website called Strange Times that was essentially a clearinghouse for UFO news and conspiracies. “Think of it as a Huffington Post for the tin-foil-helmet wearing crowd,” wrote one music blogger.
Somehow, we are to believe that this is the mindset with which staid former members of the military and intelligence community sought to join forces. But perhaps there’s a more innocent answer. To the Stars, which raised more than $2 million from investors, was originally hyped as a UFO research company that would explore the “outer edges of science,” but its Security and Exchange Commission filing identifies it as a “Motion Picture & Video Tape Production” concern.
That designation seems appropriate now with the making of “Unidentified,” which lists DeLonge as executive producer. (He is also prominently featured in the show.) He appears to be having the last laugh at everyone who called him looney tunes for having chased after Bigfoot and flying saucers in the Nevada desert.
The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program received widespread press coverage after Elizondo disclosed its existence almost two years ago. “You can laugh if you want, but a lot of people are taking this revelation seriously,” Brett Baer said on Fox News days after the New York Times broke the story with its lavish front-page Sunday spread on December 17, 2017.
Virtually overnight, Elizondo went from living “in the shadows,” in his words, to hopscotching between cable news studios, where he talked gravely about hypersonic, gravity-defying “unidentified aerial vehicles” that, in recent years, had encroached on military training areas in restricted airspace. Many of these reports were conveniently illustrated with videos taken from cockpit cameras of F-18 fighter jets that Elizondo had arranged for the Pentagon to release just before he quit. The grainy footage of tiny, darting objects, combined with Elizondo’s earnest claims of “compelling evidence” for “phenomena” he couldn’t identify, made for great television. (Sherwood, the Pentagon spokesperson, said the videos were released “for research purposes … and not for general public release,” which seems a meaningless distinction given their widespread use by news organizations.)
Months later, after the attention from the mainstream media died down, Elizondo hit the UFO banquet circuit, where he stroked the egos of believers. “People may have associated you with being fringe or out there,” he told one rapt audience of hundreds at a UFO conference last July. “All along, you were right.” It was the first public forum in which Elizondo laid out the history and objectives of the AATIP; soundbites from his talk were sprinkled throughout the first episode of “Unidentified.”
By then, though, longtime UFO researchers were having trouble finding out what the program exactly did, as well as the scope of Elizondo’s role. FOIA requests were turning up dry.
The grainy footage of tiny, darting objects, combined with Elizondo’s earnest claims of “compelling evidence” for “phenomena” he couldn’t identify, made for great television.
Elizondo was ready for them. “In the Department of Defense, there’s always a paper trail,” he told the audience at the UFO conference. “When you establish an organization, there’s a paper trail. When you dis-establish an organization, there’s a paper trail. You won’t find one for this program.”
Some dubious, unofficial documents leaked out to George Knapp, a Las Vegas TV journalist who, for decades, has been a fixture in the UFO media orbit. Knapp has been a vocal defender of Elizondo and DeLonge for the past two years, pushing back on critics who have raised thorny questions about To the Stars. Knapp also purchased stock in the company, something he has not always revealed to readers and viewers in his reporting.
In an email to The Intercept, Knapp acknowledged buying 400 shares of the academy’s stock in 2018, “not as an investment, but as a way to support their fledgling company and their work.” He wrote that he had “made that information public” and “informed” his employer” at KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. Knapp also said that he put the shares in a trust that “would be donated to a charity.” He believes that transaction has been completed and that he now owns “zero stock” in the company, he wrote.
As it happens, Knapp also appeared in the first episode of “Unidentified,” lauding DeLonge for his “unprecedented” efforts in advancing the UFO issue.
Another fixture in the UFO orbit is John Greenewald, the FOIA researcher and a sort of antithesis to Knapp. Initially enthusiastic about To the Stars, Greenewald became increasingly skeptical when he was unable to verify many of Elizondo’s claims about the government’s UFO program through FOIA requests and conversations with Pentagon representatives. So last year, Greenewald reached out to To the Stars spokesperson Kari DeLonge (Tom’s sister) for more information about Elizondo’s involvement in AATIP.
I mentioned Kari DeLonge’s response — about Elizondo having taken over AATIP and run it “out of the Office for the Secretary of Defense (OSD) under the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI)” — to Sherwood, the Pentagon spokesperson who had told me unequivocally that Elizondo “had no responsibilities with regard to the AATIP program while he worked in OUSDI.”
I then asked Sherwood how he knew that Elizondo hadn’t worked for AATIP during his time with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, where he was based from 2008 until his retirement in 2017. Sherwood said he’d spoken with OUSDI leadership, including individuals who are “still there” from the time when Elizondo started working in the office.
Maybe Elizondo was running AATIP under the purview of another office or agency within the Department of Defense? Sherwood acknowledged that Elizondo “worked for other organizations in DoD.” But that, too, would have contradicted Kari DeLonge’s statement to Greenewald.
Kari DeLonge did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
It bears noting that, although Elizondo has made a point of providing various documents to reporters (including me) to establish his bona fides, he does not appear to have supplied any materials that validate his connection to the government UFO program he insists he led. No memorandums, no emails discussing deliverables or findings, and no paperwork addressed to or from him that connects him to AATIP.
The documents he has provided include recent annual Defense Department performance evaluations and his October 4, 2017 resignation letter to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, which bears the apparent seal of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense. In the letter, Elizondo alludes to internal opposition at the Pentagon to investigate UFOs that he wrote had menaced Navy Pilots and posed an “existential threat to our national security.” He was leaving, he strongly implied in his letter, because the Pentagon wasn’t taking that threat seriously.
The letter does not mention AATIP or Elizondo’s role as its director.
In “Unidentified,” Politico’s Bender describes Elizondo as “in many ways, an enigma. Here is a guy who spent decades in the intelligence community.”
That much appears to be true. Elizondo retired as an official at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. A public records search also reveals a series of home addresses for Elizondo over the last two decades that are close to intelligence facilities in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico (the site of an unacknowledged government surveillance program called “Echelon”) and in Grovetown, Georgia.
“Being from Georgia, I can assure you, there is no reason anyone in their right mind would live in Grovetown unless they were working at Fort Gordon, home of the Army’s principle signals intelligence units and school,” Tim McMillan, who, like Greenewald, has a longtime interest in UFOs but has come to doubt Elizondo’s involvement with any government UFO program.
In 2017, when Elizondo outed himself to the Times, he was portrayed as a reluctant whistleblower and a little paranoid. The three reporters who shared bylines on the story, including freelancer Leslie Kean (who wrote in 2016 that she was “privileged to welcome” Chris Mellon into the UFO organization to which she belonged) met Elizondo in a “nondescript Washington hotel where he sat with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on the door.”
On the Times’s podcast, “The Daily,” Helene Cooper, the newspaper’s Pentagon correspondent, described Elizondo as a “spooky, secretive guy” but added that he was “completely credible.” He showed her documents, pictures, and military videos of potential UFOs, which appeared fantastic to her, but also persuasive. “I did believe him,” Cooper said on the podcast. “It seemed completely credible to me in the moment.”
Later on, after she left the hotel room, Cooper acknowledged that doubts crept in. In the end, though, she decided that what mattered most was whether the Pentagon’s UFO program was real. That, she said, was the focus of the story.