Since then, high-level officials have publicly conceded their bewilderment about U.A.P. without shame or apology. Last July, Senator Marco Rubio, the former acting chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, spoke on CBS News about mysterious flying objects in restricted airspace. “We don’t know what it is,” he said, “and it isn’t ours.” In December, in a video interview with the economist Tyler Cowen, the former C.I.A. director John Brennan admitted, somewhat tortuously, that he didn’t quite know what to think: “Some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.”
Last summer, David Norquist, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, announced the formal existence of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. The 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act, signed this past December, stipulated that the government had a hundred and eighty days to gather and analyze data from disparate agencies. Its report is expected in June. In a recent interview with Fox News, John Ratcliffe, the former director of National Intelligence, emphasized that the issue was no longer to be taken lightly. “When we talk about sightings,” he said, “we are talking about objects that have been seen by Navy or Air Force pilots, or have been picked up by satellite imagery, that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain, movements that are hard to replicate, that we don’t have the technology for, or are travelling at speeds that exceed the sound barrier without a sonic boom.”
Leslie Kean is a self-possessed woman with a sensible demeanor and a nimbus of curly graying hair. She lives alone in a light-filled corner apartment near the northern extreme of Manhattan, where, on the wall behind her desk, there is a framed black-and-white image that looks like a sonogram of a Frisbee. The photograph was given to her, along with chain-of-custody documentation, by contacts in the Costa Rican government; in her estimation, it is the finest image of a U.F.O. ever made public. The first time I visited, she wore a black blazer over a T-shirt advertising “The Phenomenon,” a documentary from 2020 with strikingly high production values in a genre known for grainy footage of dubious provenance. Kean is stubborn but unassuming, and she tends to speak of the impact of “the Times story,” and the new cycle of U.F.O. attention it has inaugurated, as if she had not been its principal instigator. She told me, “When the New York Times story came out, there was this sense of ‘This is what the U.F.O. people have wanted forever.’ ”
Kean is always assiduously polite toward the “U.F.O. people,” although she stands apart from the ufological mainstream. “It’s not necessarily that what Greer was saying was wrong—maybe there have been visits by extraterrestrials since 1947,” she said. “It’s that you have to be strategic about what you say to be taken seriously. You don’t put out someone talking about alien bodies, even if it might be true. Nobody was ready for that; they didn’t even know that U.F.O.s were real.” Kean is certain that U.F.O.s are real. Everything else—what they are, why they’re here, why they never alight on the White House lawn—is speculation.
Kean feels most at home in the borderlands between the paranormal and the scientific; her latest project examines the controversial scholarship on the possibility of consciousness after death. Until recently, she dreaded the inevitable dinner-party moment when other guests asked about her line of work and she had to mumble something about U.F.O.s. “Then they’d sort of giggle,” she said, “and I would have to say, ‘There’s actually a lot of serious information.’ ” Her blunt, understated way of talking about incomprehensible data gives her an air of probity. During my visit, as she peered at her extensive library of canonical ufology texts—with such titles as “Extraterrestrial Contact” and “Above Top Secret”—she sighed and said, “Unfortunately, most of these aren’t very good.”
In her best-selling book, “UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record,” published in 2010 by an imprint of Random House, Kean wrote that “the U.S. government routinely ignores UFOs and, when pressed, issues false explanations. Its indifference and/or dismissals are irresponsible, disrespectful to credible, often expert witnesses, and potentially dangerous.” Her book is a sweeping reminder that this was not always the case. In the decades after the Second World War, about half of all Americans, including many in power, accepted U.F.O.s as a matter of course. Kean sees herself as a custodian of this lost history. In her apartment, a tranquil space decorated with a Burmese Buddha and bowls of pearlescent seashells, Kean sat down on the floor, opened her file cabinets, and disappeared into a drift of declassified memos, barely legible teletypes, and yellowing copies of The Saturday Evening Post and the Times Magazine featuring flying-saucer covers and long, serious treatments of the phenomenon.
Kean grew up in New York City, a descendant of one of the nation’s oldest political dynasties. Her grandfather Robert Winthrop Kean served ten terms in Congress; he traced his ancestry, on his father’s side, to John Kean, a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress, and, on his mother’s, to John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She speaks of her family’s legacy in rather abstract terms, except when discussing the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, her grandfather’s great-grandfather, whom she regards as an inspiration. Her uncle is Thomas Kean, who served two terms as New Jersey’s governor and went on to chair the 9/11 Commission.
Kean attended the Spence School and went to college at Bard. She has a modest family income, and spent her early adult years as a “spiritual seeker.” After helping to found a Zen center in upstate New York, she worked as a photographer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the late nineteen-nineties, after a visit to Burma to interview political prisoners, she stumbled into a career in investigative journalism. She took a job at KPFA, a radio station in Berkeley, as a producer and on-air host for “Flashpoints,” a left-wing drive-time news program, where she covered wrongful convictions, the death penalty, and other criminal-justice issues.
In 1999, a journalist friend in Paris sent her a ninety-page report by a dozen retired French generals, scientists, and space experts, titled “Les OVNI et la Défense: À Quoi Doit-On Se Préparer?”—“U.F.O.s and Defense: For What Must We Prepare Ourselves?” The authors, a group known as COMETA, had analyzed numerous U.F.O. reports, along with the associated radar and photographic evidence. Objects observed at close range by military and commercial pilots seemed to defy the laws of physics; the authors noted their “easily supersonic speed with no sonic boom” and “electromagnetic effects that interfere with the operation of nearby radio or electrical apparatus.” The vast majority of the sightings could be traced to meteorological or earthly origins, or could not be studied, owing to paltry evidence, but a small percentage of them appeared to involve, as the report put it, “completely unknown flying machines with exceptional performances that are guided by a natural or artificial intelligence.” COMETA had resolved, through the process of elimination, that “the extraterrestrial hypothesis” was the most logical explanation.
Kean had read Whitley Strieber’s “Communion,” the 1987 cult best-seller about alien abduction, but until receiving the French findings she had never had more than a mild interest in U.F.O.s. “I had spent years at KPFA reporting on the horrors of the world, injustice and oppression, and giving voice to the voiceless,” she recalled. As she acquainted herself with the plenitude of odd episodes, it was as if she’d seen beyond our own dismal reality and the limitations of conventional thinking, and caught a glimpse of an enchanted cosmos. “To me, this just transcended the endless struggle of human beings,” she told me, during a long walk around her neighborhood. “It was a planetary concern.” She stopped in the middle of the street. Gesturing toward a heavily overcast sky, she said, “Why should we assume we already understand everything there is to know, in our infancy here on this planet?”
An editor of the Boston Globe’s Focus section, who had admired Kean’s writing on Burma, tentatively agreed to work with her on a story about U.F.O.s. Kean chose not to discuss it with her KPFA colleagues, apprehensive that they would consider the topic, at best, frivolous. She was certain, though, that anyone given access to the French report’s data and conclusions would understand why she had dropped everything else. She refused to include any ironizing asides in the article, which was published on May 21, 2000, as a straightforward summary of the COMETA investigations. “But then, of course, nothing happened,” she said. “And that was the beginning of my education in the power of the stigma.”
Some aficionados believe that U.F.O.s have been documented since Biblical times; in “The Spaceships of Ezekiel,” published in 1974, Josef F. Blumrich, a NASA engineer, argued that the prophet’s heavenly vision of wheels within wheels was an encounter not with God but with an alien spaceship. In “The UFO Controversy in America” (1975), David Jacobs wrote about a series of “airship” sightings across the country in 1896 and 1897. Spaceships, in our descriptions, have always displayed capabilities just beyond our technological horizon, and with our own wartime advances they grew staggeringly impressive. It’s generally agreed that the modern U.F.O. era began on June 24, 1947, when a private aviator named Kenneth Arnold, while flying a CallAir A-2, saw a loose formation of nine undulating objects near Mt. Rainier. They had the shape of boomerangs or tailless manta rays, and in his estimation they moved at two to three times the speed of sound. He described their motion as that of a “saucer skipped over water.” A newspaper headline conjured “flying saucers.” By the end of the year, at least eight hundred and fifty similar domestic sightings had been reported, according to one independent U.F.O. investigator. Meanwhile, scientists asserted that flying saucers didn’t exist because they couldn’t exist. The Times quoted Gordon Atwater, an astronomer at the Hayden Planetarium, who attributed the flurry of reports to a combination of a “mild case of meteorological jitters” and “mass hypnosis.”
Within government circles, the issue of how seriously to take what they renamed “unidentified flying objects” provoked a deep conflict. By September of 1947, incoming reports of sightings had become too profuse for the Air Force to ignore. That month, in a classified communiqué, Lieutenant General Nathan F. Twining advised the commanding general of the armed forces that “the phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious.” The “Twining memo,” which has since gained ecclesiastical stature among ufologists, articulated concerns that some foreign rival—say, the Soviet Union—had made an unimaginable technological breakthrough, and it initiated a classified study, Project Sign, to investigate. Its officials were evenly split between those who thought that the “flying discs” were of plausibly “interplanetary” origin and those who chalked up the sightings to rampant misperception. On the one hand, according to a memo, a full twenty per cent of U.F.O. reports lacked ordinary explanations. On the other hand, there was no dispositive evidence—the wreckage of a crashed saucer, perhaps—and, as a scientist at the RAND Corporation reasoned, interstellar travel was simply infeasible.
But unaccountable things kept happening. In 1948, about a year after the Arnold sighting, two pilots in an Eastern Airlines DC-3 saw a large, cigar-shaped light speed toward them at a tremendous velocity before making an impossibly abrupt turn and vanishing into a clear sky. A pilot in a second plane, and a few witnesses on the ground, gave compatible accounts. It was the first time that a U.F.O. had been observed at close range: the two pilots described seeing a row of windows as it streaked past. Project Sign investigators filed a top-secret “Estimate of the Situation” memorandum, which leaned in favor of the extraterrestrial hypothesis. But, opponents argued, if they were here, wouldn’t they have notified us?
In July, 1952, such a formal notification seemed to nearly occur, when an armada of U.F.O.s reportedly violated restricted airspace over the White House. The Times headline resembled something out of a Philip K. Dick novel: “Flying Objects Near Washington Spotted by Both Pilots and Radar: Air Force Reveals Reports of Something, Perhaps ‘Saucers,’ Traveling Slowly But Jumping Up and Down.” The Air Force, playing down the incident, told the newspaper that no defensive measures had been taken, although it subsequently emerged that the military had scrambled jets to intercept the trespassers. Major General John Samford, the Air Force’s director of intelligence, held the largest press conference since the end of the Second World War. Samford, who had the grave mien of a lawman in a John Ford movie, squinted as he referred to “a certain percentage of this volume of reports that have been made by credible observers of relatively incredible things.”