If it wasn’t for the French dossier, UFOs might not have dominated Leslie Kean’s life for the past two decades.
In 1999, the independent journalist was handed a scoop by a French colleague: a 90-page report of UFO sightings by military and commercial pilots. The document, called UFOs and Defense: For What Must We Prepare Ourselves? (in French: Les OVNI et la Défense: À Quoi Doit-On Se Préparer?), was eventually published by a French military thinktank.
“I thought, my God, this is huge. Generals and admirals saying that they think it’s likely that we’re being visited by craft that are extraterrestrial … They didn’t say they could prove it. But they said it’s a very good hypothesis for what they studied for three years,” Kean told the Guardian during a phone call from her family’s country home in Massachusetts.
“That was just a major story. What if they’re right? What if the equivalent stature of people in America said what these people are saying?”
At the time, Kean was an on-air public radio host in San Francisco. When she first approached editors, she avoided using the word UFO due to the stigma surrounding the topic. She hedged around it, referring to a report out of France about “unusual aerial phenomenon” (UAPs). It took her six months to find an outlet willing to work with her, and she finally found one in the Boston Globe, although the piece was “heavily edited” with “quirky, jokey things”.
Still, from then on she was hooked.
“This is like no other topic. This has a transcendent quality for me. And how many journalists are going to take on UFOs? Not many.”
Today, the hypothetical situation Kean extrapolated from the French report – of US military and government leaders speaking openly about sightings of inexplicable flying objects – has arrived.
By 25 June, the Department of Defense’s director of national intelligence is expected to release an unclassified report to Congress, detailing the accounts of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) sightings by military pilots, making it the government’s most transparent and substantive release of such information ever made public.
Despite being deeply entrenched in a fringe subject for over 20 years, the oddest thing about Kean is that she doesn’t come across as odd. Her narrative is not one of a lone wolf eccentric who toiled in the paranormal world before hitting pay dirt.
“My goal has been to take this out of the weird. Maybe it’s partly because I’m not weird myself,” she said.
Kean, who begged off giving her age, comes across as measured and practical. She sports short graying curly hair; on the phone, she sounds like your elementary school teacher. She’s descended from one of America’s oldest political dynasties and is supported by a supplemental family income. (She declined to disclose the amount, but admitted that without it, she would not have been able to focus full-time on UFOs.)
At times, her voice takes on a timbre of awe or excitement, although she doesn’t radiate the kinetic energy usually exhibited by journalists in New York City – nor any evangelical zeal. When I mentioned ufologists, she bristled. “I don’t like the term. I would never describe myself as that. I’m an investigative journalist. Ufology, at least in America, these are people who are self-proclaimed researchers.”
(Asked about the I want to believe X-Files poster propped against a wall in her home office, like that of the show’s FBI special agent Fox Mulder, she said she had found it in a flea market in Santiago, Chile, and bought it because she was amazed it showed up there and just liked the way it looked.)
Her plainspokenness may just be her personality, or the result of the years she spent studying and practicing Buddhism, starting at Bard College in New York. Part of it may be the insulation of privilege. Kean grew up in New York, as one of four children. She graduated from Spence, a private all-girls school on the Upper East Side. None of her siblings are interested in her passions (in addition to writing about UFOs, Kean took four years to write Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife). But they’re supportive, she said.
At Bard, she initially majored in classical guitar; after two years, she switched her major to biology. Whatever the origins, that patrician staidness has served her well during her dogged investigations.
After the French report, it took years for Kean to get up to speed. She had to track down sources, and the learning curve to differentiate those who were credible from those who were not was steep.
“I did press conferences, and I filed a lawsuit against Nasa [to obtain information about a 1965 sighting of a car-sized object crashing from the sky in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania]. I was really, really working on bringing UFOs seriously into the mainstream. And I did that a lot,” she said in a follow-up conversation from her New York apartment this week.
“I didn’t have an issue with people ridiculing me. Because the way I reported on this, it just didn’t invite ridicule. I didn’t do the weird sensationalistic conspiratorial stuff, I just did stuff like what’s in my book – very straightforward, good sources.”
Along the way, she allied with people who had the clout to help her further her research. She eventually connected with John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and an eventual adviser to Barack Obama, and an avid booster of UFO research.
In 2007, Kean and James Fox, the director of the documentary The Phenomenon, arranged a briefing in which high-ranking military officials and government personnel discussed close encounters with UFOs. Each of the 14 speakers only had five minutes to tell their stories, so Kean got the idea to have them each write their own accounts and turn it into a book, which became the 2010 bestselling UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record. In it, she argued for a central clearing house to collect information about UFOs (Podesta wrote the forward, but declined to comment for this article.)
Kean’s biggest breakthrough came in 2017, when she was invited by a longtime source to meet with Luis “Lue” Elizondo on the day he resigned as the director of a clandestine Pentagon program that collected information about UFOs, the shadowy Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP).
Essentially, he revealed the very program she had lobbied for.
Kean teamed up with Ralph Blumenthal and Helene Cooper to write up her scoop for the New York Times, Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious UFO Program. The story revealed the existence of AATIP from 2007 to 2012, funded by an initiative from the former Senate majority leader Harry Reid and fellow Senators Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye.
Reid is an unabashed fan of Kean’s. He has read all of her books and credits her, at least in part, for the shifting cultural acceptance of UFOs. “She’s a sensational journalist and is an exceptional talent. She writes, it appears, with her heart. She gives me the idea that she means what she says,” Reid said.
The publication of that story changed everything, Kean said. “I’ve been on this journey. I’ve been so rewarded by seeing the way things have changed since 2017.”
Since then, she has written on the subject for the New York Times, been fielding interviews herself, and worked on more documentary projects. In 2018, director Lasse Hallstrom and producer Laura Bickford announced they were making a movie based on Kean’s UFO book. In May, HBO Max signed on.
Finally, Kean was fully vindicated. In March, the New Yorker magazine published a story, How the Pentagon Started Taking UFOs Seriously, which featured Kean’s work in the lead-up to the unclassified report. In May, 60 Minutes aired a segment on UFOs, adding to the conversation with further gravitas.
Even Obama waded in during an appearance on the The Late Late Show with James Corden last month.
“There’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are, we can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory,” Obama told Corden. “They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so, you know I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is.”
Lt Cmdr Alex Dietrich, a retired fighter pilot, has made a nearly annual pilgrimage to the Pentagon or Congress to brief officials on what has become known as the “Nimitz encounter”, which was detailed in Kean’s 2017 New York Times story.
In 2004, she was one of several pilots who saw an oblong white object shaped like a Tic Tac and moved more quickly than our current technology could allow.
“On that day, we were concerned not only that it might be a threat to national security. We were just off the coast of California and couldn’t identify it. We didn’t know if it was a potential threat, like from a kinetic standpoint, or something that would do harm or a type of espionage situation. Our hackles went up because we were a military unit doing military exercises.”
Referencing her navy training, Dietrich added: “We’re conditioned to think everything is either friend or foe. And when we can’t identify, we’re going to assume that’s foe until we can prove otherwise.”
She reported her encounter immediately after it occurred and has answered queries from DC since. Occasionally, she was asked to look at other footage to compare it with what she saw. Beyond that, she hasn’t gotten involved in the UFO conversation: she had never heard of Kean or any of the other players involved. She spoke publicly about her experience for the first time in the recent 60 Minutes interview.
Dietrich, like Kean and Podesta and Reid, supports funding for the continuous study of UAPs.
“It is a bureaucracy, and they’re working within the confines and the restrictions of what they are able to do. Part of that means they need to have funding, or they need to be able to hire people to answer the FAA (UAP) hotline, where they do the big data analysis and look for trends and say, OK, are these reports similar? Are they bogus?”
In essence, that’s what former AATIP director Elizondo said in a live chat with the Washington Post on Tuesday. When pressed about whether he thought the UAPs were possibly foreign-developed aircraft by the Russians, Chinese or had extraterrestrial origins, he answered carefully.
“Through observations, we are quite convinced that we’re dealing with a technology that is multigenerational, several generations ahead of what we consider next-generation technology. Something that could be anywhere between 50 to 1,000 years ahead of us.
“They can outperform, frankly, anything that we have in our inventory and we’re pretty certain anything that our foreign adversaries have in their inventory, then, yes, obviously as human beings we tend to go down that rabbit hole of speculation,” Elizondo said.
“I’ve always stated this is exactly why we need a UAP taskforce. In fact, this is why we need a much bigger, whole of government enduring capability, because at the end of the day we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
Kean said she remained agnostic on what the findings are. “If there’s any agenda that I have, it’s to get the truth out, because I feel that people have a right to that truth,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re saying they’re aliens here from other planets. But we’re saying there is a phenomenon that cannot be explained. And there is plenty of data to show that. Finally, we’ve got our own government saying that now. So this is really an unprecedented time and there’s no turning back.”
This content was originally published here.