I’m losing confidence in the “intelligence” community

I’m not saying it was the CIA, but it was the CIA.

We’re suffering from a spate of UFO reports…endorsed by the CIA and the military. This is a bit like hearing that the president believes the Earth is flat, or senators babbling about how evolution is false.

Oh. I guess that last bit happens fairly regularly.

Anyway, suddenly there are all kinds of unconvincing videos from military planes flooding media. I’ve looked at a few — they are garbage. It’s as if people who are supposed to be good at distinguishing camera artifacts from actual stuff on the ground or in the sky have lost the ability to see common noise and optical problems. I saw one video where the supposed UFO was just plain old ordinary bokeh. You don’t have to be super-sophisticated to debunk this stuff, which means, I guess, that CIA directors aren’t particularly knowledgeable.

Late last year, former CIA director John Brennan, appearing on a podcast hosted by George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen, said it was “a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe.”

Yes? I believe there is almost certainly other forms of life in the universe. The hard-to-swallow bit is the idea that they’re here.

And last month, former CIA director R. James Woolsey said in an interview with the Black Vault, a website that collects paranormal sightings, that he wasn’t “as skeptical as I was a few years ago, to put it mildly, but something is going on that is surprising to a series of intelligent aircraft, experienced pilots.”

I’ve known a few pilots. Nothing about their occupation requires particularly deep intelligence (nor is it antithetical to being smart). Even if they were super-geniuses, you should still be skeptical of the reports. Have none of these people even read Feynman?

Hey, why is a former CIA director giving interviews on “a website that collects paranormal sightings”?

The authenticity of the videos has been confirmed by Pentagon officials. Some of them were recently featured on “60 Minutes.”

I have looked at these videos, and they actually truly are videos, rather than hallucinations. There. Confirmed.

I suppose this could also mean they have confirmed the sources, and they weren’t made by guys photographing pie plates thrown in their backyard. What they haven’t confirmed is that they are videos of alien spaceships.

“I’ve seen some of those videos from Navy pilots,” Brennan said, “and I must tell you that they are quite eyebrow-raising when you look at them.” He added, “I 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.”

Right. Bokeh. Lens reflections. Sensor artifacts. Brennan doesn’t understand optics. There is almost always an alternative, mundane explanation that doesn’t involve faster-than-light travel by intelligent aliens who are cruising our planet in flotillas of glowing spaceships, yet somehow are incredibly concerned about not being seen, which is why they look like flares dropped from airplanes.

Of course, eventually we figure out why all these people are being gullible and foolish. It’s about money. All it takes is a few easily fooled people with access to government funds to open the purse strings and fuel all kinds of nonsense.

It only took about 10 minutes to persuade his colleagues, Stevens and Inouye, to support approximately $22 million in funds for the Pentagon to start a program to investigate. Stevens was a particularly easy sell, [former Senate Majority leader Harry] Reid recalled, because as an Air Force pilot during World War II he had seen some pretty weird stuff, including an object that didn’t appear to be a plane that mimicked his movements in the air.

Here on planet Earth we call those objects “reflections”.

All right, for $22 million I’d be willing to highlight ambiguous videos, shrug, and declare in interviews that “well, it could be aliens.”

Would you pay me $2.2 million for the service?

$220,000, cheap.

Very well then, $22, but you also have to buy me lunch.


  1. says

    Its “fun” how the media comes every year or so and portrays the same few videos as “NEW EVIDENCE FOR ALIENS”.
    Of course, the videos are neither, not evidence for aliens and most definitely not new. They are well-known and well explained. A good resource for this is the forum metabunk.org, where debunking of these videos can be easily found.

    Finding this out takes less than a minute on Google, but that would take actual journalism, and who can afford that?

  2. bcw bcw says

    With all the fancy satellite and plane-based surveillance technology there is never a clear picture of anything. There is never a case where two different detectors (eyes, radar, infrared) show the same thing, thus all the “it can evade radar” claims.

  3. says

    The following New Republic piece claims part of what is driving the current interest is some names that will be familiar to you if you’re familiar with the history of UFOs and/or the paranormal.

    Of course this assumes that the current flap isn’t part of some disinformation operation by the military and intelligence communities. I sometimes suspect a lot of “classic” UFO stories are going to turn up to have been part of Cold War tomfoolery to trick the Soviets.

  4. raven says

    I’m losing confidence in the “intelligence” community

    I would go further.
    The “intelligence community” just dropped the ball big time on the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol building.

    There was a huge amount of open communications on the internet etc.. that there was going to be an attack on the Capitol building.
    So what happened?
    Nothing much in the way of preparations to deal with it.
    The FBI even knew about it but didn’t manage to get any warnings out to the relevant agencies in time.

    The US Capitol police were vastly outnumbered and quickly overrun.
    The National Guard was unprepared, didn’t move until it was too late, and got there about the time everything was over.
    It was the Washington DC police that turned the crowd back.

    The FBI has a budget of $10 billion a year.
    We should have had good information for that amount of money.

  5. Dunc says

    There’s plenty of history of bits of the US military / intelligence community deliberately promulgating UFO stories to provide cover for secret research activities, so I would naturally assume that’s what’s happening here.

    It’s not that they’re gullible idiots, it’s that they’re professional liars who think the American public are gullible idiots.

  6. slatham says

    Please forgive my ignorance. Can you clarify — Did Feynman argue that you should be skeptical of the conclusions of super-geniuses? Or did he tell some whoppers, and thus prove that one should be skeptical of super-geniuses?

  7. says

    Well, to be precise it doesn’t seem to be the “intelligence community” that’s promoting this, it’s some formerly employed people and a few members of congress who they’ve been able to recruit. The pentagon says that some of the videos are authentic, but doesn’t proffer an explanation for what they show. The navy and air force obviously have an interest in explaining puzzling and anomalous observations, but they aren’t pushing the ET or advanced Chinese technology tropes. The hype is coming from civilians, some of them claiming military or intelligence experience but probably padding their resumes. So let’s not put this on the intelligence or defense establishment, that’s not where it’s coming from.

  8. Ed Seedhouse says

    David Brin suggests cat lasers. Cat lasers? Apparently they are an actual thing!

  9. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @6

    I took the Feynman as his:I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.

    I think the whole flood of “long hidden tapes” (nb scare quotes) is right out of the 50’s [Blue Book Project] where they also flooded the media with UFO reports, to distract everyone from the occasional reports of seeing advanced projects

  10. anchor says

    Got to have SOMETHING to justify the so-called “Space Force”. Also keeps the gullible populace entertained.

  11. jrkrideau says

    there is almost certainly other forms of life in the universe. The hard-to-swallow bit is the idea that they’re here.

    Well that does seem to help explain the GOP.

  12. Matt G says

    Ed@8- You forget to apply Occam’s Razor: When you see UFOs, think Jewish Space Lasers, not cat lasers.

  13. answersingenitals says

    PZ, I have to part company with you on this one. I strongly believe in Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). But I also believe in Unidentified Swimming Objects (USOs), Unidentified Crawling Objects (UCOs), and Unidentified Objects That Just Sit There Looking Stupid (UOTJSTLSs). And don’t get me started on Crop Circles!

  14. PaulBC says


    I strongly believe in Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs).

    …in bed!

    And don’t get me started on Crop Circles!

    That’s what she said!

    (…sorry, just in a very juvenile mood.)

  15. consciousness razor says

    Have none of these people even read Feynman?

    But why should any of them have to do that before they even discuss this?

    I mean, it’s just not clear what that’s supposed to be about, what Feynman has to do with it. What I get out of it is mainly just some skeptic dudebro vibes … not really the best kind of vibes in a lot of circumstances. (Obviously, these are. I often ask myself, “have none of these people even listened to Milt Jackson?” But I rarely get a response from myself.)

  16. says

    My question is, why now?

    And the most likely answer is because there are so many ignorant rubes who willingly swallow fascist religion, conspiracy “theories”, flat earth nonsense, pizza pedophilia, anti-vax and anti-mask crap, etc. What’s one more fiction to an empty head?

  17. hackerguitar says

    Some of this has already been debunked – it apparently matches the infrared profile of some sort of aircraft exhaust. This is what you get when a pilot trusts the infrared pictures in their helmet’s display to the degree that they don’t verify it with their own eyes.

  18. says

    PaulBC@9 It’s not just the Bay Area. UFO reports supposedly went up last year in Canada, and investigators noted that many of them were people seeing SpaceX’s microsats.

  19. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@19

    I often ask myself, “have none of these people even listened to Milt Jackson?”

    Well I have now. Is it just possible that ET is using Jackson as a vessel to hypnotize us through his mastery of the vibraphone? Food for thought…

  20. consciousness razor says

    Well I have now. Is it just possible that ET is using Jackson as a vessel to hypnotize us through his mastery of the vibraphone? Food for thought…

    Seems rather speculative to me. Do you have any good reason to believe Entertainment Tonight is even capable of such a thing, much less interested in doing it?

  21. hackerguitar says

    If ET is going to use any jazz artist is going to hypnotize people into thinking there are UFOs, it’d be Trane on Resolution, the second movement of A Love Supreme. That stuff is def otherworldly. Milt Jackson is cool but he didn’t play outside the changes much; Trane was all about stretching the boundaries. :)

    And the vid of Feynman playing drums makes me happy – not only could he explain complex phenomena to us lesser beings, but he also knew how to enjoy life, and wasn’t shy about it. His description of marching in Carnaval in Rio is amazing….

  22. wzrd1 says

    I’ve saw many thing flying about over the years that were unidentified. Many, birds, bats and bugs, but on occasion, aircraft as well. For the aircraft, someone eventually identified them.
    One film that drew much attention recently was identified by the pilots watching them – drones. If I don’t miss my guess, Boeing Waveriders, which were being tested at the time.

    So, how can the IC cover over for black budget research craft, most of which will fail and be discarded? Get them mixed in with the flying saucer crowds, some of which were satellites being chased by slow poke jet fighters due to extreme range partial detection by the sensors.
    In one such case, the fighter never got a lock on the ISS.

  23. unclefrogy says

    by definition they are or were at some time un-identified flying objects. OK that is true what the stupid part is all the imaginative speculation with out, as identified, any evidence and further even some of the speculation is based on other unproven speculation as to the nature of other speculated phenomena. it is a collosal waste of time.
    A little money on research as to the nature of these things might be helpful. having pilots flying around armed with various deadly weapons seeing a lot of things they can not understand does sound like a bad idea. to me. Kind of asking for “an incident”

  24. jrkrideau says

    I saw a UFO once. As it came closer it cleverly turned into a plastic shopping bag. It was rather windy that day.

  25. consciousness razor says

    Milt Jackson is cool but he didn’t play outside the changes much; Trane was all about stretching the boundaries.

    A solid point. I’m not saying it was aliens … but it was aliens. And I get the sense that they weren’t even trying to hide it anymore with Herbie.

  26. outis says

    Well I dunno, something about the letters UFO seems to rob people of their normal reasoning faculties. Just saw an old video on YerTube claiming to show “an UFO docking with the ISS”, and it’s obviously a Progress/Soyuz attitude jet firing. But hey, calling that an alien spaceship it’s obvs way more exciting.
    As for the sats, they can be unnerving. A colleague of mine some time ago was startled off her pants one night, as she saw a “train” of Musk’s new birds passing overhead. Thing is, she didn’t know about them, so for a few seconds she was rather perplexed…

  27. anchor says

    @22 – Where did you get the idea those SpaceX Starlink satellites are ‘microsatellites’? They each weigh 570 pounds and they’re launched 60 at a time – that’s over 34,000 pounds of them at a time. Musk has already launched about 1500 of them and wants to place a total of TWELVE THOUSAND into orbit, he alleges, in order to improve the world’s communication. People can’t handle what they’ve got now, but the real reason is to improve his profits. Peculiarly, the FCC – an agency meant to regulate communications – has somehow been given the authority to control near-earth orbital traffic. How should they have any say in that?

  28. Paul Morgan says

    It is a mistake to roundly condemn these so-called sightings without seeing the evidence – and to speculate that the images contain visual artefacts merely exposes P.Z. Myers lack of concern for the truth. It’s not possible to expose these as fake UFO videos without having access to the film in question – something that P.Z. Myers hasn’t done. Therefore the only possible conclusion is that P.Z. Myers dismisses anything he doesn’t agree with – but more importantly he claims there isn’t evidence for these things without bothering to find out if there is. Personally, I don’t believe these are UFOs either, I might add, but not because I’ve studied the videos – it’s got more to do with my opinions and prejudices that I don’t believe Americans in general – about almost everything.
    Although I agree that these videos almost certainly don’t show UF0s, I can’t do so rationally as I am against everything Americans say and do – so in my case it’s better not to speculate. Here is another example of P.Z. Myers making unscientific assumptions which exclude any rational claim to evidence. While he bases his origin of life theories around organic chemistry delivered by meteorites and or comets, he dismisses evidence that the meteorites and or comets delivered clearly identifiable micro-fossils.
    It is this lack of concern for scientific evidence that is discrediting P.Z. Myers and exposing his shaky methodology.

  29. larpar says

    @37 Paul Morgan – ” It’s not possible to expose these as fake UFO videos without having access to the film in question – something that P.Z. Myers hasn’t done.”
    PZ Myers – ” I’ve looked at a few…”, and, “I saw one video where the supposed UFO was just plain old ordinary bokeh.”

    Paul Morgan, you just blew any chance you had at being taken seriously.

  30. Paul Morgan says

    Anyone studying the videos would obviously need access to the original film or video and not to a televised or youtube video where there is more potential for artifacts.

  31. John Morales says

    Paul Morgan @37, you assert that you hold that PZ shares your opinion regarding the me UFOs (though your phrasing is informative, since “Personally, I don’t believe these are UFOs either” would literally entail you must believe they are actually identified flying objects).

    So, you’re saying he’s not wrong, in your estimation.

    I get it: Ostensibly, you’re criticising his method for not being wrong.

    (BTW, are you consciously aware that you’re weakly indulging in the so-called courtier’s reply”?)

  32. consciousness razor says

    Paul Morgan:

    Anyone studying the videos would obviously need access to the original film or video and not to a televised or youtube video where there is more potential for artifacts.

    Not actually necessary, unless the potential artifacts potentially caused by the conversion* are by themselves enough to create or obscure the phenomena at issue. But that’s almost certainly not the case. Two reasons:

    First, the people touting them as positive evidence for aliens have no problem with it. If they have access to secret film versions (or whatever is supposed to be “the real deal” according to them), then they should release that to the public instead and endorse/approve it, not the “fake” thing which you (and only you) claim is inadequate.

    Second, the actual differences between pre- and post- conversion images are all pretty much insignificant compared to the phenomena at issue. Because we have some pretty great technology to do that sort of thing these days. (I kind of feel like I’m talking to an audiophile who believes that if it’s not vinyl it’s crap. If you’ve had those kinds of boring discussions yourself, then you can just fill in the rest of it for me.)

    *If there was one, because we can’t in general assume it started as film.

  33. says

    anchor@34 Microsat might mot be the right term, but 500 pounds is fair lighter than the typical communications satellite that weighs between 5 and 7 thousand kilograms.

  34. says

    Last year I just googled “military ufo videos debunked” and it was not hard to find plausible explanations for it all. What’s really telling is who’s pushing the military into “researching” this stuff. It’s a bunch of kooks with money. Yesterday I read an article on The New Republic called “How Washington Got Hooked On Flying Saucers” and it’s pretty nuts how easily they were gulled/manipulated. It may be redundant reporting compared with the WP article, so I won’t link it, but one of the things it mentions that PZ didn’t is how the kooks aren’t really in little green men as an explanation, but instead demons and space ghosts.


  35. zetopan says

    @43: “It may be redundant reporting compared with the WP article, so I won’t link it, but one of the things it mentions that PZ didn’t is how the kooks aren’t really in little green men as an explanation, but instead demons and space ghosts.”

    So all we need to do to confirm the cause is to compare UFO (which idiots imagine means outer space aliens) photos to Kat Kerr’s alleged photos of chained demons. What could be better than comparing two marvelously unreliable claims to confirm that demons are real? The popular press and congress will obviously run with the latest nonsensical fad.


  36. says

    For me, the dispositive aspect of all UFO sightings is that they only remain unidentified because of a lack of information.
    A well photographed UFO very rapidly becomes an IFO, and immediately ceases to be interesting to the UFOlogists. The defining common characteristic of everything everyone has ever claimed to be aliens is a serious lack of fidelity in the information provided. What that means is that when you have a military sensor suite capable of sucking up a huge amount of data and categorising 99% of it, at the edges you get that 1% which cannot be categorised, and by virtue exactly of the lack of information available, that becomes ‘evidence’ of alien activity.

  37. Jazzlet says

    Brocken spectres are seriously cool, not just the enormous shadow, but the halo round the head, even knowing what I was seeing they are an impressive phenomena.

  38. PaulBC says

    timgueguen@42 I did some checking yesterday. The term “microsatellite” usually refers to a kind of repetitive DNA sequence, it seems, and nothing to do with communication satellites. However, you are right than 500 pounds qualifies as a small satellite. The same wikipedia page lists 10-100 kg as “micro” and 100 to 500 kg as “mini”. 500 lb is somewhat under 250 kg, so “mini” would be correct.

  39. jack lecou says

    @34: How should they have any say in that?
    Because Congress sez.

    Which, yeah, isn’t really ideal. It’d be nice to have some other stakeholders more forcefully advocating for issues light pollution or Kessler syndrome risks. I think other agencies do weigh in, but their concerns may ultimately be subordinate to whatever FCCs mission is. The truth is, we really need a legitimate international body to coordinate this stuff sooner rather than later.

    But it is what it is for now, and better the FCC than nobody. (If the FCC hadn’t been shoehorned in, it might be even more Wild West — space isn’t actually US territory after all. Or anyone else’s.)

    And, yeah, I’m sure those satellites are going to make Poopface McMuskhole a bunch of money. (Not to mention Amazon/Kupier, Oneweb, and any others working on their own constellations, if they ever get off the ground.) Be that as it may, low-orbit broadband is legitimately a pretty big deal. I’m skeptical that it’ll ever really be as fast or stable as a hard line, but if you need internet on a remote farm or research station or ship or something, it’s a game changer.

  40. hackerguitar says

    #32: Herbie’s Head Hunters was definitely aliens. Maiden Voyage was their way of telling us they’d enjoyed the trip :)