Do Aliens Exist? Blink 182 Co-Founder and Ex-Pentagon Official Are Determined to Prove We’re Not Alone

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A recreation of former military spy and Pentagon employee Luis Elizondo delivering his talk at the Mutual UFO Network Symposium in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Illustration by Alex Fine

“I know what I saw.”

It was late July, and Teresa Tindal, a 39-year-old administrator for a consulting firm, was describing the incident that made her a believer: a round, golden object hovering in the evening sky over Tucson, Arizona. Weather balloon? No way. It could only be one thing: a UFO.

This kind of certainty had brought her—and 400 other people—to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) Symposium, the “premiere UFO event of the year,” according to its literature. They had gathered to talk about extraterrestrials, UFOs and how to avoid being abducted by an alien mothership (hint: yelling at it doesn’t work). “There are too many people that have seen things,” Christine Thisse, 44, a soft-spoken mother from Michigan, told Newsweek.

There were the typical guest speakers giving talks with titles like “Unexplained Disappearances in Rural Areas” and “Report From Mars,” in which a physicist lays out his theory that 75,000 years ago an intergalactic nuclear war wiped out a Martian civilization. And there were famous abductees, like Travis Walton, a former logger whose story of alien captivity became the 1993 movie Fire in the Sky.

But this year offered another attraction—a new, and extremely unlikely, superstar: Luis Elizondo. Seven months earlier, The New York Times had published a front-page story on the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, a “shadowy” initiative at the Pentagon that “investigated reports of unidentified flying objects.” Elizondo, a burly Miami native with a billy-goat beard and colorful tattoos, was the career military intelligence official put in charge of the program a few years after it formed in 2007, until, according to the Pentagon’s press office, it was discontinued in 2012. (Elizondo insists the work is ongoing.) Last year, he resigned from the Pentagon, protesting what he considered lackluster support and unnecessary secrecy—red meat for the X-Files crowd. “Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?” he wrote to Defense Secretary James Mattis in his resignation letter.

In the private sector, Elizondo soon found an unlikely ally in his quest for the truth: Tom DeLonge, the former frontman for the pop/punk band Blink-182, the group behind a song called “Aliens Exist.” Turns out DeLonge actually believed it. In 2017, he launched To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, and Elizondo quickly became its public face. The mission: to advance UFO research, produce science-fiction-themed entertainment about UFOs and, with luck, glean some insight into the super-advanced technology displayed by UFOs (such as spaceships that can seemingly defy gravity) that the Pentagon keeps ignoring.

FE_UFO_02_496418484 Bright lights off the coast of California prompted UFO speculation on social media in 2015, but the military revealed it was a routine missile test. Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty

The academy claims to have attracted more than 2,000 investors and raised roughly $2.5 million, and Elizondo found a mostly enthusiastic crowd in Cherry Hill. “Sometimes people may have associated you with being fringe—being out there,” he told the MUFON audience over a buffet dinner. “All along, you were right.” Not everyone was convinced: Some cited a lack of evidence in his presentation. Tindal was suspicious of the Pentagon connection. “It could be a cover for something else,” she said.

But if Elizondo is trying to lend credibility to research on unexplained sightings, why would he partner with a guy whose band had a hit album titled Enema of the State? And why would he choose as a venue a UFO conference teeming with conspiracy theorists?

“We have to start somewhere,” he told Newsweek that day. “I don’t get invited to Stanford or MIT.”

Super Hornets and Tic Tacs

Each year, thousands of people report UFO sightings to various authorities—the police, the Pentagon, radio talk show hosts. By one count, more than 100,000 sightings have been reported since 1905. Nearly all can be explained away as clouds, meteors, birds, weather balloons or some other quotidian phenomenon. Efforts at rational debunking serve only to harden the conviction of the true believers, who are convinced that abundant evidence of alien visitations is hidden in secret military documents—literal X-files—locked away in the bowels of the so-called deep state.

The X-files conspiracy theory is the beating heart of the UFO community—an article of faith among enthusiasts and the basis of almost every call to action on social media (#Disclosure). It is also encouraged by some prominent people, including John ­Podesta, who lamented on Twitter a few years ago that he’d failed to ­secure the #disclosure of the UFO files,” despite being President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

When Elizondo went public, it gave a sheen of credibility to the conspiracy crowd. His background is typical of a straight-arrow military officer with a distinguished career. He is the son of a Cuban exile who participated in the Bay of Pigs—the failed CIA-­sponsored plot to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961. Elizondo worked as a bouncer while attending the University of Miami. After graduating in 1995, he joined the Army and trained to be a military spy. Later, at the Pentagon, Elizondo showed no sign of being a disgruntled employee or a loon, spending much of his career in the shadows, chasing militants in South America and the Middle East.

In 2010, he started to run a small group charged with investigating reports of ­“unexplained aerial phenomena”—a less controversial term for UFOs. It was an ­obscure, low-budget initiative created three years before at the behest of then-Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. Details are murky, but the $22 million program seems to have been operated jointly by Elizondo and Bigelow Aerospace, a Nevada-based defense contractor whose billionaire owner, Robert Bigelow, is an avid believer in UFOs.

FE_UFO_06 Luis Elizondo. Courtesy of To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science

Two months before the Times published its front-page story, Elizondo retired from the Pentagon. He shows Newsweek what he says is a copy of his resignation letter, dated October 4, 2017, and addressed to Mattis. The letter expresses some frustration about the lack of attention his program was getting. And it suggests that something he learned at the Pentagon turned him into a true believer. “Despite overwhelming evidence at both the classified and unclassified levels,” he wrote, “certain individuals in the Department remain staunchly opposed to further research on what could be a tactical threat to our pilots, sailors, and soldiers, and perhaps even an existential threat to our national security.”

What was Elizondo referring to? He is cagey but describes one piece of “evidence”—an audio and video clip from a 2004—that sounds like the kind of potential threat noted in his resignation letter. The clip was leaked to the Times—Elizondo insists it wasn’t him—and has since become a staple of UFO lore: On a routine training mission off the coast of San Diego, two F/A-18F Super Hornets were instructed to investigate what a confidential report later characterized as “multiple anomalous aerial vehicles.” The pilots reported that the “vehicles” descended from approximately 60,000 feet down to 50 feet in a blink of an eye. One of the pilots reported that the vehicles looked like white Tic Tacs.

Elizondo is not the only high-powered military talent at the academy venture. Chris Mellon, who served as the deputy ­assistant secretary of defense for intelligence during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, has also signed on. In his ­former job, he had oversight of the Pentagon’s super-­secret special access programs, among the most highly classified, compartmented black operations. Last February, Mellon wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “The Military Keeps Encountering UFOs. Why Doesn’t the Pentagon Care?”

Another colleague, Jim Semivan, is a 25-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, an undercover arm of the agency. Semivan retired from the CIA in 2007 and, like Elizondo and Mellon, joined the newly established To the Stars Academy last year. “My partner Jim Semivan is a spy,” DeLonge gushed on Twitter last November.

Academy co-founder Hal Puthoff is another strange bedfellow. He’s an electrical engineer who did controversial research for the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency on psychic abilities and worked as a contractor for the Pentagon program.

Ground Control to Major Tom

In an interview with podcaster Joe Rogan a few weeks after his company launched last October, DeLonge explained how his new venture was two years in the making, forged through ­clandestine meetings with an assortment of high-level national security and defense industry individuals. (DeLonge declined to be interviewed for this story. He “is not doing any press right now,” said his spokesman.)

According to the rocker, they disclosed various E.T. secrets to him, one being an alien body in government possession. DeLonge, because of his celebrity platform and engagement with a younger demographic, was chosen to ease out the truth, gradually, and through fantasy/sci-fi stories.

“Why you?” interviewer Rogan asked. “Because,” DeLonge ­replied, disclosure “has to be managed a certain way for people to understand.”

In addition to presenting himself as the designated UFO messenger for the U.S. government, DeLonge discussed Atlantis (the lost continent), how “different alien races were coming here for resource extraction” and how these aliens have genetically engineered humans periodically to goose humanity’s evolution.

DeLonge has a gift for bringing talented people together, says Elizondo. “He sees the puzzle and can put it together like few people can.” But there are those in the UFO community who are skeptical of the rock star’s motives. They believe he simply wants to profit off his fetish—he sells UFO-related books, websites and merchandise—and that his antics are part of the business plan.

FE_UFO_09 Tom DeLonge launched To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017, and describes himself as the designated UFO messenger for the U.S. government. LeAnn Mueller

There’s certainly a large market for what DeLonge’s peddling. Pseudo-documentary shows on cable TV, such as Ancient Aliens (now in its 13th season) and UFO Hunters, have passionate audiences. Later this fall, the History Channel will run a new UFO dramatization series based on Project Blue Book, an ­actual top-secret Pentagon program in the 1950s and ’60s that investigated UFO sightings and reports. The program’s leader was a scientist who was a UFO skeptic before being persuaded that the topic should be taken seriously. Since the program was shut down in 1968, the U.S. government has consistently denied searching for UFOs—until last year, when Elizondo came out of the shadows.

On the question of whether UFO encounters are genuine, Elizondo has asserted many times, including in his talk to the ­MUFON audience, that “ultimately the data will speak for itself.” Asked where the data are, Elizondo responds with a variation of the hidden-by-the-deep-state argument. The Pentagon program, he says, commissioned “large volumes” of academic studies and data but much of it is “FOIA-exempt,” he says, meaning that Freedom of Information Act requests yield little information. (The day ­before the conference began, a Las Vegas TV show obtained a list of what it claimed were several dozen of the studies, including one on “invisibility cloaking” and another on “brain-machine interfaces.”)

This argument contradicts Reid’s assertion, in a March interview with New York magazine, that “we have hundreds and ­hundreds of papers, pages of paper, that have been available since it was ­completed. Most all of it, 80 percent at least, is public.” It also ­contradicts what Mellon wrote last February in his Washington Post op-ed, which referred to a “growing body of empirical data.”

Mellon is referring specifically to data from military radar detection of unidentified aerial phenomena and the cockpit video and audio recordings from Naval fighter jet pilots who have supposedly encountered this phenomenon. The 2004 sighting wasn’t the only time military pilots saw the Tic Tac, says Mellon. Pilots spotted a similar UFO on at least one other occasion; they described it falling down into the water and moving around just under the surface. In addition, says Mellon, “there are dozens of cases in the last few years, not involving Tic Tacs per se but Navy personnel and warships. It is absolutely not a one-off event.”

FE_UFO_08 Footage from the Tic Tac video. Courtesy of United States Department of Defense

Mellon finds the Tic Tac video compelling, but experts outside the believers’ circle do not. “All such unusual sights can be explained by either natural or human-made phenomena,” says Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department. In other words, the pilots could have been seeing optical illusions generated by their instruments, or the sun, or a bird or clouds. Or, as has happened before, experimental, classified aircraft being tested in the area.

Last year, CNN showed the Tic Tac video to Neil deGrasse ­Tyson, the astronomer and author. “Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien,” he quipped.

Skeptics also take aim at the conspiracy theory itself. If alien spaceships are so numerous, why don’t the thousands of observation satellites in orbit, most aimed at Earth, pick them up? “You can say, ‘The U.S. government is covering it up,’ but then every government is covering it up, not just ours,” says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “I find that unbelievable.”

So if Elizondo wanted the Pentagon and others to take him ­seriously, why would he come to this fringe conference? And, for that matter, why would he, Mellon and their highly credentialed colleagues join forces with a rock star flake like DeLonge?

Elizondo has heard the whispers and read the conspiracy theories on Reddit. “No, I am not running a government disinformation campaign,” he says in an exasperated tone. “I took a huge risk in leaving a safe job to do this. If this doesn’t pan out, I’ll be working at Walmart.”

‘Don’t Look Now but We Have Foreign Interest’

The next six months or so will be pivotal to the success of To the Stars, Elizondo says. That’s when he expects to be able to present more data on UFO sightings. As the Academy’s head of Global Security and Special Programs, he serves as a liaison to the government, including Congress, the Pentagon and the intelligence services.

But there are still more questions than answers. Is he working behind the scenes to get some of the information that he knows from his Pentagon days declassified? He wouldn’t say. When will the public have access to this information? “That is being ­addressed,” he replies. Over the summer, the Senate Armed Services Committee asked at least one of the Super Hornet pilots to brief staff members about the Tic Tac incident.

FE_UFO_11_609845268 A satellite photo of Area 51. DigitalGlobe/Getty

“In the end, I’m not worried about credibility,” Elizondo says. “I’m worried about facts.” Reminded that the only facts the public has are grainy videos, he insists, “There is data. It’s not out yet.”

Elizondo says UFO believers weren’t the only ones at the ­MUFON conference. “You ready for this? Ukrainians and the U.N. Why would people from the U.N. and the Ukrainians, which we know are probably tied to the Russians, be there?” They signed up, he says, “after they knew I was coming. Foreign intelligence. That means they’re taking this seriously. Either they have a program or want a program, or they want to know if this is bullshit. But either way, don’t look now but we have foreign interest.”

Elizondo understands why many remain dubious. “You can’t take things at face value. I get it. I’m a career spy,” he says. “But in the end, as crazy as it sounds, this is real.”

Correction, 9/20, 12:30 p.m.: Due to an editing error, the previous version of this story misquoted Luis Elizondo as saying "aliens exist." The piece has been updated to reflect what he said: "this is real."

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