Colm Kelleher skinwalker ranch
© Courtesy of George KnappColm Kelleher stands inside a building on Skinwalker Ranch in this undated photo.
In Oregon, a man said his health deteriorated after a glowing blue orb passed through his body. A family in California reported strange lights and a gray figure with spindly legs in their orchard. A werewolf-like creature allegedly prowled around homes in suburban Virginia.

All three incidents were probed as part of a secret Pentagon program investigating UFOs. The program, contracted by the Defense Intelligence Agency, plumbed the connection between the flying objects and the paranormal for two years, according to the men who ran it.

It was the beginning of a years-long effort by UFO advocates that eventually led to Congress passing legislation in December 2021 ordering the Pentagon to spend the next four years investigating unidentified flying objects.

The Pentagon's new office for what has been rebranded as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP, has deep roots in the paranormal. Underneath the Washington defense talk about threats from China and Russia, there is a conviction among advocates that the strange objects glimpsed by troops and military equipment are part of a mysterious phenomenon that stretches back decades or, perhaps, throughout human history.

As the stigma over flying saucer talk lifts, and the military connection has taken UFOs mainstream, some have become more open about those beliefs.

"People say, 'Well, we're only going to look at the nuts-and-bolts machines.' Well, you better come up with a lot of physics. It's far more advanced than we're capable of now," said James Lacatski, a now-retired DIA intelligence officer who set up the UFO program that ran from 2008 to 2010. "And then there's others who say, 'Well, they're nothing more than ghosts. Part of the paranormal world.'

"No, they're a hybrid of both," he said.

Lacatski, a bespectacled man whom a colleague described as looking like a rocket scientist, started research right out of college on missiles and directed energy weapons such as lasers. In the early 2000s, he headed up the DIA annual missile threat assessment. He originally started the research out of concern that UFOs could pose a national security threat, specifically to U.S. missile defense systems.

"You know what was on the internet at the time, it just sounded like advanced technology to me," Lacatski said. "I said, 'I'm interested. We need to do something about this if it's true.' And I spoke to my management, and it started from there."

Lacatski's later work unearthed the case of Navy fighter pilots with the USS Nimitz strike group who saw a mysterious flying "Tic Tac"-shaped object zip away while training in the Pacific. The incident and witness testimony became key evidence after it was leaked in 2017, used by former Pentagon and CIA officials to prod the government into taking UFOs seriously.

Their effort pushed the UFO issue in crucial ways that eventually convinced lawmakers something needed to be done.

"I don't care what anybody says, it is the story of the millennia and it needs to be talked about," said Jim Semivan, a retired operations officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who co-founded To the Stars Inc., a group that helped expose and publicize the three Navy videos in 2017 that helped drive the response in Washington.
© DoD/AFP via Getty ImagesThis video grab image obtained April 28, 2020 courtesy of the US Department of Defense shows part of an unclassified video taken by Navy pilots that have circulated for years showing interactions with “unidentified aerial phenomena.”
In the Beginning

The Pentagon's unusual UFO program echoed classified DIA and CIA programs in the 1970s and 1980s that explored whether human psychics could use the power of their minds, called remote viewing, to spy on the Soviets and other foreign adversaries from far away.

The earlier programs spanned 25 years and were featured in the nonfiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was made into a fictionalized movie in 2009. The programs were ultimately terminated in 1995 and deemed ineffective for intelligence operations, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

For the UFO program, Lacatski would work closely with Colm Kelleher, a contractor who ran its daily operations.

Kelleher was trained in Ireland as a biochemist and cancer researcher and speaks with the remnants of an Irish lilt. He had spent years working for Robert Bigelow, a wealthy Las Vegas real estate mogul and aerospace company owner with a deep interest in UFOs and the afterlife. Kelleher and Bigelow already had a history of investigating UFOs and paranormal phenomena, and Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies was the lead contractor on the DIA program, formally called the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program, or AAWSAP.

Lacatski and Kelleher recounted their work in interviews with, having previously published a book about the program, Skinwalkers at the Pentagon, that was cleared for release by the Defense Department.

The two men were fans of the remote viewing program, using a pseudonym in their book that was a nod to one of that group's psychics.

In a stroke of happenstance, one of the biggest UFO cases in history literally walked through the door in the first days of the new UFO initiative. The existence of the program, funded with off-the-books money authorized by the late Sen. Harry Reid, was first reported by The New York Times in 2017, though the paper largely left out the paranormal research and conflated the DIA work with a later program.

It was in early 2008, just as the AAWSAP was getting off the ground, and Kelleher was interviewing program manager candidates in a Las Vegas office. A Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet fighter pilot who was looking for a job shared an incredible story.

"At the very end of the interview, he drops this bombshell on me that actually he had been part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group," Kelleher said. "And of course, I immediately perked up because I mean, this was pretty interesting."

The Marine pilot's story is now widely known. Pilots and crew reported tracking unusual objects on radar in a military training area off the coast of California in 2004. An infrared video purports to show one shoot quickly out of view.

Cmdr. Dave Fravor, a Navy pilot who publicly described the episodes in 2017, said he was scrambled to investigate and encountered an oblong white object that flew without any visible propulsion system or wings. It mirrored his flying before disappearing before his eyes. Part of his account was backed up by Lt. Cmdr. Alex Dietrich, a junior pilot at the time who said she witnessed the object for about 10 seconds.

Fravor said in interviews he believed the object was "not from this world," further fueling speculation.

"Some of the pilots involved in this were actually briefing Senate Armed Services Committee members and staffers, and Senate Intelligence Committee members and staffers," Kelleher said about the impact the Nimitz incident would have years later. "So, it was considered sort of a sentinel case where the credibility of the so-called UFO phenomenon was introduced at a very high level to Capitol Hill."

In early 2009, Lacatski and Kelleher sent a sailor whom they described as a senior engineer in naval intelligence, on a four-and-a-half month investigation of witnesses and evidence in the Nimitz case. That work would remain secret for years before being leaked by others.

After the Nimitz investigation, the sailor and two Marines were sent to a Utah property known as Skinwalker Ranch, where Bigelow, the owner, had funded his own private research of UFO and paranormal activity over the previous decade.

Skinwalker sits on just over 500 acres of steppe land near the town of Ballard in northeastern Utah. It has long been an alleged epicenter of strange happenings, dating back to tales from the Native American Ute tribe and Navajo people, who believe in malevolent witches called skinwalkers who can transform into animal-like creatures.

The ranch would later be the subject of a paranormal reality TV show under another owner.
skinwalker ranch gate ufo
© Courtesy of George KnappA gate to Skinwalker Ranch in 2009 during the Pentagon’s UFO program.
A gate to Skinwalker Ranch in 2009 during the Pentagon’s UFO program.
The three active-duty service members, whose identities have been concealed by the researchers and the Defense Department, allegedly witnessed a black void on the land that filled them with fear. Lacatski and Kelleher claim the men experienced paranormal activity after leaving the ranch and returning to homes in the Washington, D.C., area, such as orbs, dark figures in bedrooms at night, and strange noises.

The wife and two teen children of the sailor who investigated the Nimitz incident claimed to have seen a wolf-like creature that walked on two hind legs staring into their Virginia home on two occasions. asked the Pentagon whether it could confirm the paranormal research. "No," was the one-word response from Sue Gough, the department's spokesperson on UFOs. She pointed to the boilerplate disclaimer on the Lacatski and Kelleher book, which says the department's clearance for publication does not imply factual accuracy.

Going Public

Lue Elizondo, an Army veteran and former counterintelligence special agent with a high-and-tight haircut and rectangular strip of goatee, loved his "smoke and mirrors" work in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan. His father, a Cuban exile, participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

In 2008, Lacatski met with Elizondo in an office in Rosslyn, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The DIA analyst had identified Elizondo as a potential recruit into the DIA program.

"He looked at me very seriously and he said, 'So, what do you think about UFOs?'" Elizondo said in an interview with "I told the truth. I said I don't think about it. He said, 'What do you mean, you don't believe in them?' I said, 'I didn't say that. What I said is I don't think about them.'"

Elizondo didn't end up joining with Lacatski. But he did go on to run the Pentagon's smaller in-house UFO program created when the DIA program ended.

"It wasn't involved at all with Skinwalker, and that was a conscious decision to do that," Elizondo said. "It was a decision we had to make because there were some 'antibodies' in the Department of Defense that were starting to become concerned about the focus of AAWSAP and what it was doing."

The Nimitz 'Tic Tac' investigation done by Lacatski's team was transferred to Elizondo, who was then running what was called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP.

Working with a "very, very small cadre of people in the Pentagon," Elizondo uncovered another series of military experiences with UFOs that would form the second piece of crucial evidence leading to the legislation in December.

Pilots training with the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Atlantic between 2014 and 2015 reported picking up -- and sometimes seeing visually -- objects on a daily basis that appeared to travel at extremely high speeds and high altitudes. In a near midair collision, a pilot reported seeing what looked like a sphere with a cube inside, according to The New York Times.

By 2017, Elizondo said he was trying to brief then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis personally about the incidents and having no luck. He kept briefing Mattis' staff and brought in the pilots and radar operators.

"The problem was, nobody wanted to tell the boss, and I think, hindsight being 20/20, the rationale was that this is a man who's highly respected, this is a man who everybody trusts," he said. "If we briefed him on the fact that there are these things called UAP, or in the vernacular UFOs, if he's asked [about it] by a member of the press, he'd have to say yes, and that could hurt his credibility."

Despite the compiled accounts and videos, UFOs remained a taboo topic for many within the Pentagon.

So instead, Elizondo worked to get infrared cockpit videos of the Navy encounters cleared for public release. Then, he quit the Pentagon in protest and emerged in public as a whistleblower in 2017. The three videos were leaked to Chris Mellon, a former deputy secretary of defense for intelligence, in the Pentagon parking lot.

The New York Times broke the story that the Pentagon had a UFO program in December 2017, with Elizondo and Mellon as key sources. At the same time, both men joined the To the Stars company, which jointly published the Nimitz and Roosevelt Navy videos with the newspaper -- causing a global sensation that hasn't abated.

What's Belief Got to Do with It

To the Stars was a new company formed with the hopes of publicizing the belief that UFOs are an age-old phenomenon that could hold profound meaning for the human race. It was co-founded by Semivan, the CIA operations officer, and Tom DeLonge, a rock musician and former front man for the band Blink-182.

Elizondo and Mellon were original members, along with Hal Puthoff, a physicist who worked on the DIA and CIA psychic remote viewing programs of the 1970s and 1980s.

"We all knew that this did not belong to the military, that this phenomenon and these UAPs are appearing everywhere," said Semivan, who also did consulting work for Elizondo when he headed the Pentagon AATIP program. "They're appearing over military sites, nuclear sites, over carrier task force groups and things along this line, but they're also appearing all over the United States and all over the world in general."

DeLonge, who spent decades researching UFO lore before forming the company, has been public about his beliefs in the paranormal aspects of the alleged encounters and that a nonhuman intelligence has been influencing people throughout history. He's also indicated the military may have recovered parts of UFOs and be secretly working to understand them.

"If something's been here for a long period of time, and it really is showing up in people's bedrooms, or in front of an F-18, or on a petroglyph wall, or in an ancient text down in the archive of the Vatican, or whatever it might be, it's obviously doing something and it's obviously having an influence," DeLonge said in a YouTube video posted in December.

The belief that UFOs are a mysterious phenomenon -- possibly moving through dimensions or consciousness -- that has affected people's minds and bodies throughout history was popularized decades ago by authors such as Jacques Vallee, a prominent UFO researcher who was portrayed by the French New Wave director Francois Truffaut in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Semivan described Vallee as a kind of patron saint to his company.

Elizondo, who left the company around the end of 2020, has since become a kind of celebrity in the UFO community, a group of people around the world who have banded together on social media sites such as Twitter and Reddit, and created podcasts and YouTube shows dedicated to the topic. Both Elizondo and Mellon, along with other members of the To the Stars company, starred in a History Channel series called Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation.

"You know when we describe a white flying Tic Tac in 2004, it was described in the '60s as a white flying throat lozenge, what was described in the '50s as a white flying butane tank," Elizondo said in the interview with, claiming that solid government evidence exists of UFO encounters going back decades.
weather balloon ufo propaganda ohio military
© Associated PressPickaway County Deputy Sheriff John Wolford supervises the loading of a part from an Air Force balloon that descended from the sky in south central Ohio farmland, April 19, 1966.
In scores of interviews and appearances in recent years, the former counterintelligence agent always appears to measure his words carefully. He has compared UFOs to ancient beliefs in sea monsters that turned out to be sharks and whales, pointed to ancient Roman accounts of "flaming shields" in the sky, and suggested the human race may be headed for a profound paradigm shift in understanding reality.

In his interview with, he declined to elaborate on what he meant by the comments or his beliefs in UFOs.

"Belief really doesn't have any play in this field, and this is part of the problem because people have made this topic about belief. It's a very emotional topic for some people," Elizondo said. "This topic cannot be about belief. It must be about facts."

Selling the UFO Idea

Mellon, the former Pentagon official who helped make the 2017 Nimitz videos public, brushed off questions about the earlier DIA research in an interview with A descendant of the wealthy Mellon family of Pittsburgh, he said his family name has led many to assume he grew up wealthy, but that he was actually raised in inner-city Chicago under difficult circumstances.

"They think I grew up in a nice home in the countryside with a limo or something, and that was anything but the case," Mellon said.

He served in the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and worked on Capitol Hill for more than a decade, eventually rising to minority staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

His knowledge of the national security apparatus and facility with the language of the Pentagon, Congress and Washington, D.C., quickly elevated him as a top expert, who was loudly blowing a national security klaxon. He compares the overall Pentagon response to UFO reports to missing radar indications of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I found out that this had been going on not just for months, but for years in dozens and dozens of incidents off the coast, including a near midair collision," Mellon said. "And the secretary doesn't know. Congress doesn't know, senior officials don't know. I mean are you kidding me? This is such a grotesque failure of imagination, of curiosity and of the system."

In 2017, Mellon began his effort to convince members of Congress to act, though he said he avoided any mention to lawmakers of the earlier research by Lacatski and Kelleher, or the beliefs of the founding members of To the Stars.

Those topics would have been counterproductive, he said.

"You had to provide some political cover for these people, some legitimate basis on national security grounds for them to engage and say, 'OK, I'm willing to take a brief or I'm willing to look at this,'" Mellon said. "You don't go in there and say, 'Oh, we've got little green men or people coming out of interplanetary portals; or, you know, woo-woo kind of stuff. You wouldn't get to first base."

The coverage of the UFO story by The New York Times, the paper of record, had also done a lot to legitimize the issue among Congress and the public, since many of the paranormal aspects weren't included. Thousands of other news stories would follow.

"I want you to put aside all that stuff that people talk about, extraterrestrials and all that," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a 2020 interview broadcast by a local news station. "This is a very simple equation for me -- there are things flying over our military installations. We don't know what they are or where they are from."

Meanwhile, many in the public mistook the military's acknowledgment that the Navy videos are authentic as an admission that UFOs exist.

A Tale of Two Programs

The 2008-2010 DIA program had sent out teams of investigators to UFO sightings, such as the members who staked out the California orchard with night-vision goggles. It followed tips from the Mutual UFO Network, a U.S. grassroots organization that has recorded and cataloged sightings since 1969. The group bills itself as the world's largest and oldest civilian UFO organization, with its own lab to analyze mysterious metals and a research group focusing on people who claim to have been abducted by alien craft.

The program produced a raft of theoretical papers attempting to imagine and explain highly advanced future technologies it believed could be related to UFOs.

The legislation passed in December ordering a new Pentagon office to investigate UFOs has no stated connection to the paranormal, but it mirrors some aspects of the earlier DIA program. President Joe Biden signed the legislation, part of the must-pass annual defense authorization bill, on Dec. 27, ordering Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to set up an office to "synchronize and standardize" the reporting, collection and analysis of the unidentified aerial phenomena across the military and intelligence community.

Both the older DIA program and the new initiative have investigative teams that deploy to UFO sightings to collect data and witness accounts, and science teams to analyze data on the objects. Both programs have a focus on the medical and health effects of UFO encounters. Both include theoretical descriptions of how UFOs may work.

The Pentagon's UFO science plan should seek to explain UFOs "that exceed the known state of the art in science or technology," and start the process of trying to replicate those capabilities, according to the law. Congress has ordered annual reports on what the Pentagon finds, with the first due this October.

A lot of the law's language "seemed to come right out" of the earlier DIA program, Kelleher said.

But the research by Lacatski and Kelleher would remain largely out of public sight through much of the UFO debate in Washington. The outstanding questions about UFO sightings were nonetheless convincing to those on the Hill.

"There are too many things that are unexplained that we just need an explanation for," said Emily Harding, the deputy director and senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Harding was the deputy staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee as it worked on the issue. She said Rubio took the lead and was able to approach it with an open mind. The reports from pilots and military personnel raised serious security issues -- and highlighted a real lack of data that made any conclusions about the incidents impossible.

Some of the information provided to lawmakers was given in classified briefings, though it's unclear whether there was much beyond the public Navy videos and witnesses. The committee believed the first step was getting better data from the Pentagon and intelligence community.

"Maybe the explanation is that an adversary has come up with a new technology that we definitely need to understand. Maybe the answer is that our sensors are giving us readings that are confusing us," Harding said. "And if that's the case, then that's something that definitely needs to be fixed before we find ourselves in something like a great power competition."

Despite the positive reception in Congress, there are still some pushing back against the mainstreaming of UFO research.

Mick West has become famous like Elizondo in UFO circles, but for the opposite reason. He's skeptical. The former video game designer and founder of the website Metabunk, has spent years using science, math and data mining to debunk conspiracy theories claiming airplane contrails are chemical agents, or chemtrails; the 9/11 attacks were faked; and mass shootings are false flag operations.

Over the past few years, he's turned his investigative skills on the UFO claims behind the new Pentagon program. A British transplant to California, his dry delivery of theories and almost Vulcan-like logic have frustrated many believers. What he sees are adherents to the paranormal UFO theories of Jacques Vallee using inconclusive evidence to push their agenda.

"They've got to kind of phrase their arguments to the congressmen and the senators in terms of things like national defense, which is a very physical thing," West said in an interview. "In reality, they believe in this weird extra-dimensional nonhuman intelligence E.T. hypothesis, and yet they've toned it down so they can get this stuff passed by their lobbying efforts."

West has published detailed examinations of the three Navy UFO videos, which he says likely have mundane explanations such as exhaust glare, loss of camera lock, and misperception.

In 2017, the Chilean government released similar infrared military footage of what it claimed was a genuine UFO. Within a few days, West, with the help of other web sleuths, identified the object as a scheduled passenger plane departing a nearby airport.

The Navy and Pentagon have only confirmed the U.S. videos were recorded by the military, but have never described what they show.

An initial report on the military UFO situation, ordered by Congress and released in June 2021 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, provided some context and left many questions unanswered. The investigation was "largely inconclusive," with 144 cases of objects reported since 2004 that couldn't be identified, and 18 that seemed to include unusual flight, such as moving against the wind or at high speeds without visible means of propulsion.

There were likely multiple explanations, including airborne clutter and foreign systems, the report found.

"But of course there's always the question of is there something else that we simply do not understand that might come extraterrestrially," Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said at a public event in November.
Travis Tritten is the deputy managing editor and Pentagon bureau chief for He has 20 years of experience reporting on the military, government and politics in the U.S. and abroad. Since 2014, Tritten has reported from Washington, D.C., spending most of his time at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Previously, he was a senior defense reporter for Bloomberg Government, a defense and national security reporter at the Washington Examiner, and a reporter with Stars and Stripes, including seven years as a Japan correspondent.

Email: Follow him on Twitter