behind the news

Q&A: UFO Journalist Leslie Kean

Is the truth out there?
October 31, 2010

Leslie Kean has written an unusual book on an unusual subject: Unidentified flying objects. But this Halloween weekend, Kean would like you to get any pictures of little green men you might have out of your mind.

Released this August, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record collects statements from an unexpected array of people—senior officers in militaries around the world, a former governor of Arizona, a former senior Federal Aviation Administration manager—who tell their first hand accounts of witnessing or investigating something that their best efforts could not explain.

Kean describes herself as an investigative journalist. In the mid-nineties, she transitioned from being an activist on Burmese democracy and human rights issues to writing about the country. Her work on the topic, most of it co-written with Dennis Bernstein, was published in many major newspapers and magazines. She later worked as a reporter and producer for Flashpoints, a radio program on KPFA, Berkeley’s Pacifica station.

UFOs was blurbed as a “fine piece of journalism” by NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien, and features an introduction by John Podesta, the former Clinton chief of staff, who supported a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that Kean helped successfully settled against NASA for records related to a contested 1965 incident outside of Pittsburgh. Kean (pronounced “cane”—Tom Kean, the former New Jersey governor and 9-11 Commission co-chair, is her uncle) spoke with CJR by phone.

What are the particular challenges to covering this subject as a journalist?

The biggest one is ridicule. A lot of that ridicule is deserved, because of the way that people interested in this carry on about it, and the kinds of information they put out as being valid. It’s just a cesspool.

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When I first took the subject on, I was really embarrassed. You go to a party and people ask you what you do, and when you say you’re a journalist you’re just hoping nobody asks you what subject you focus on. You don’t want to tell because people laugh.

That was really an issue for years and years, but it got easier. I wrote a series of articles that were published in mainstream places, and I wouldn’t get any ridicule, because I think I was handling it in a way that most people don’t.

The other thing is that the subject is so inconclusive and nebulous. I was able to pull together a lot of solid information and government documents and high level sources for the book, but its still is extremely difficult to get a definitive conclusion to this problem. You want to be able to wrap up something and finalize it and have an answer and that doesn’t happen here.

When you just say the word UFO to people, they come with their own ideas. So what I’d like to ask is what aren’t you claiming in this book?

People assume UFOs are, one, a question of belief and, two, the reason they’re a question of belief is because the term means alien spacecraft. Neither of those things are accurate. It was very important to me to make it clear from the beginning that nobody is claiming to know what the UFOs are.

When Joe Blow calls up and sees a light in the sky, it can be explained, like, probably every time. But in these very well investigated cases—and there aren’t that many—they seem to have been able to eliminate every possible explanation that we know of. If you have something where you have a huge amount of information and data about, for which there should be an explanation, but there isn’t, it becomes a dilemma. You get these generals saying that, well, maybe they’re extraterrestrial. They’re never going to say that—they would never go close to that—unless there was a real reason for it.

This is a real curiosity and there have been lots of people who have directly been involved who believe that it needs more investigation and that it’s very serious and very important. I don’t want to go further than that.

One of the things I thought was most fascinating in the book was the different ways that governments all over the world handle this question, especially the French.

Back in the mid ’70s the French set up a small government agency within their equivalent of NASA, specifically tasked with investigating these incidents. It still exists today. When something happens, there are people they can call in to assist from various specialties, depending on what’s needed. So say that there’s a case where something lands—they might need a soils expert to look at samples, they might need a plant pathologist to look at decay or burning of plants. They might need a psychologist to interview a witness to determine if this witness is hallucinating or if he is of sound mind.

They have a steering committee that meets three or four times a year to go over the data and analyze cases. In the process of that they have accumulated a lot of very interesting data; a lot of the most interesting stuff has to do with physical evidence.

France is unique in its scientific emphasis and the scientific approach. They’re devoted to doing this purely for research’s sake. In other countries—Peru, Chile, and Uruguay—these agencies are set up in the military or air force and work from an aviation safety or military point of view. The UK Ministry of Defense had a big one, but they closed it down in 2008 because they were so overwhelmed with Freedom of Information requests.

What have the French concluded?

In terms of conclusions, these people who have been doing this for a long time always seem to say that you have to look at various hypotheses. The incidents that have been well enough studied—for which there is enough data that you can eliminate the natural possibilities like satellites, or the planet Venus, or other phenomena—then they will say the same thing that other officials say which is that they think the extraterrestrial hypothesis is certainly a valid and rational one that needs to be looked at. And you have people at the highest level in France saying that, not just in the scientific community, but in the military community. That’s why as a journalist I got interested in this: because I thought it’s kind of a big deal for these guys to say this stuff.

Could you describe a favorite sighting?

That’s a tough question, because there are a bunch of really interesting ones. The case that opens up the book is a series of sightings over Belgium in 1989, ’90, and into ’91. It was an extraordinary series of events, because it kept repeating itself. Air Force Major General Wilfried De Brouwer was the man put in charge of investigating and has written a chapter in the book that brings forth a lot of information about the sightings. Over a period of a year and a half, two years, this triangular craft kept showing up again and again. They’ve got volumes and volumes of reports and drawings and audiocassette tapes of people who called in their sightings. What’s really interesting about it is that the government became very actively involved. They sent up F-16s to try to get close to the objects, they set up special radar gear, and systems by which they would activate the F-16s if certain things happened. It was very impressive that the government took it so seriously.

These things kept showing up unannounced in protected airspace, and seemed to operate with impunity. They were considered sort of invaders. They wouldn’t respond to any communication, they behaved in ways that were not like any other aircraft that anyone had ever seen, very large and silent, and very, very, brilliant lights. And they could take off with the blink of an eye, just zoom off from a hovering position—just all kinds of capabilities. They were documented, and numerous police officers and some military people as well were there and involved—seeing them, documenting them, drawing them, and talking about them.

There’s no question that this happened. And De Brouwer, a colonel at the time, did go to the highest levels of other NATO countries to find out if this was some sort of test flight by Russia or the United States, and he was absolutely told that that it absolutely wasn’t. And in fact, documents show that United States officials wanted to find out more about it from him. That’s a mystery that’s never been solved.

What sort of government documents are available on UFOs?

Most of these documents were released under FOIA in the ’70s, and there haven’t been that many since. There’s a really interesting one from the Belgian case. It just describes ‘De Brouwer said this and that, and De Brouwer enquired whether these were F-17 or a stealth aircraft, and we told him no.’ It’s about two pages. So it records that De Brouwer actually made the request, and it records what the US told him response.

The Iranians had a sighting in 1976, and there was a three-page, very detailed document written for the Defense Intelligence Agency about that event, just describing everything that happened. There was an assessment by a colonel named Roland Evans after the case was investigated and written up. It’s so extraordinary. He wrote that it was an “outstanding report: this case is a classic which meets all the requirements necessary for a valid study of UFO phenomena.” It really shows an extraordinarily open attitude to this whole phenomenon taken by this official.

There are other cases too—there is a Peruvian case in 1980, which is in the book as well, which has a document from the U.S. government. And they write about these cases very matter of factly: they use the word “UFO”: ‘UFO out ran the jet, pilot attempts to fire, origin of the object is unknown’—all these things.

But at the same time these reports were filed, the government was telling the general public that they had no interest in UFOs and weren’t investigating them anymore. So the documents sort of run counter to the public stance of the government since the close of its own agency back in 1970. So that’s sort of an interesting thing.

Thinking back to your Burma days, it seems that you’re still doing advocacy journalism. What would you like to see happen?

I think that’s right. What we’re proposing is that we’d set up an agency that’s modeled on France. We’re talking about an office with possibly only one staff person—whether it’s in the Department of Defense or NASA—a very small and inexpensive agency that can serve as a focal point for investigation, a focal point for greater releases of information, and who can coordinate with other government agencies around the world that are doing this.

What would be important about setting up this agency really would be that it would represent a change in attitude within the US government by acknowledging that this was a subject worthy of investigation. In 1970, they took the position that it was not. They’ve not retracted that position, and they’ve ignored all the major cases, or made up false explanations for cases that have happened since the 1970s. It could lead to resources being provided to scientists, scientists becoming more interested, scientists realizing they won’t be ridiculed anymore if they have an interest in this.

The agency people in governments around the world feel that without U.S. participation we’re really stuck. A country like France isn’t going to be able to do it themselves. After decades and decades of work we don’t need any more case reports. We need to solve it, and the only way that’s going to happen is for the U.S. to become involved.

CORRECTION: Dennis Bernstein’s name was originally misspelled.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.