How government over-classification may hide UFO videos and harm our security
Remember those videos taken by U.S. military pilots showing unidentified objects flying at incredible speeds and executing impossible maneuvers? They’ve appeared widely in various media since 2017, but if DOD gets its way going forward, all such videos — and other materials relating to UFOs, officially known as unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) — will be classified and unavailable to the public.
Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines recently acknowledged that excessive government classification undermines U.S. national security. As she wrote in January in a letter to U.S. senators, “It is my view that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner.”
She also acknowledged that excessive classification damages the public’s faith in government and “reduces the Intelligence Community’s capacity to effectively support senior policymaker decision-making.”
The DNI’s testimony followed that of senior military officers who have complained to Congress regarding excessive classification.
This is, in fact, a problem familiar to anyone who has worked extensively with classified U.S. government information.
The DNI’s concerns are particularly timely and important. As I used to remind my security and counterintelligence colleagues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, we did not win the Cold War because we were better at protecting information; we won the Cold War because we were much better at moving and sharing information, especially in the private marketplace, where the resulting efficiencies and innovation enabled us to consistently outpace and outperform the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, or UAPTF, issued new classification guidelines last year that classify as “Secret” the sorts of videos (e.g., “Gimbal,” “Go Fast” and “FLIR1“) that DOD has acknowledged were unclassified — not declassified — when they were released in 2017. This new blanket of secrecy is apparent from the DOD briefing guide on last year’s unclassified UAP report, which states: “Except for its existence, and the mission/purpose, virtually everything else about the UAPTF is classified, per the signed Security Classification Guide.”
Further evidence of this new effort to suddenly classify photographic information which a formal U.S. Air Force investigation recently determined did not cause any damage to national security, is evident from the UAPTF Security Classification Guide, which appears to classify virtually all data analyzed by the task force. Yet, the dissemination of those famous unclassified videos — “Go Fast,” “Gimbal” and “FLIR1” — actually enhanced national security by facilitating awareness on the part of the government and the public that we appear to have a strategic vulnerability which needs to be addressed.
No doubt the same “We don’t want to share with the public” mindset would have resulted in classifying the Sputnik launch in 1957 if the Intelligence Community could have gotten away with it. Thankfully, the American people became aware of Sputnik, and of the fact that the Soviets had achieved a major technological breakthrough in space, which led the public to demand the actions that ultimately produced the immensely successful U.S. space program.
Excessive classification is contrary to the values of a democratic society and should be opposed as a matter of principle. However, there also are pragmatic reasons to raise this issue.
I am approaching the UAP topic as a member of two serious groups of scientific researchers, the Galileo Project and the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU). Both of these UAP research organizations have gathered able groups of scientists who are seeking to advance our collective understanding of UAP anomalies. Those efforts now appear to be hindered by new guidance that moves the classification yardsticks merely because some U.S. government officials dislike oversight and are uncomfortable sharing information.
Since DOD isn’t claiming retroactively that the “Gimbal,” “Go Fast” or “FLIR1” videos themselves are or ever should have been classified, or that their release has damaged national security, by what authority are they now claiming the need or right to classify the same sorts of information going forward?
As an example of the damage which excessive classification can do, let me offer a specific example. An effort is underway using machine learning to train a powerful computing capability to detect valid UAP videos and photos and to reject fakes or videos that mistakenly capture conventional aircraft. Training the system requires valid, authenticated UAP video — the more, the better. Suddenly, the source of the best, most authoritative UAP videos has been eliminated by this inappropriate but all too commonplace bureaucratic decision to withhold taxpayer-funded information from the taxpayer.
Notably, the new UAP classification guidance may be in conflict with Executive Order (EO) 13526, which restricts reclassifying information and also prohibits information from being inappropriately classified. It’s difficult to see how these videos could “reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” as required by EO 13526 § 1.4. By contrast, it is easy to see how increasing awareness of these issues on the part of policymakers, scientists and the public is necessary to advance national security. Were it not for the “Gimbal,” “Go Fast” and “FLIR1” videos, and the testimony of pilots involved in those encounters, the nation might still be completely unaware of these continuing apparent violations of restricted U.S. airspace.
The DNI and Congress should both ask the UAP Task Force’s successor to explain the “identifiable” or “describable” damage that they believe is “reasonably expected” from sharing routine UAP videos like “Go Fast” or “FLIR1.”
Certainly, there are valid cases for classification — for example, a classified sensor system operating from a sensitive location. However, most of the videos suddenly being classified appear to be from handheld video cameras on Navy ships and the same unclassified sources used to produce “Gimbal,” “Go Fast” and “FLIR1.” Indeed, in a number of cases, the videos are from iPhone cameras that pilots often carry while flying. By what rationale can iPhone pics of UAP taken on routine training missions over the U.S. be deemed classified?
If the Director of National Intelligence is looking for examples of excessive classification, she need look no further than the UAP Task Force and its successor. In the meantime, science will continue to be hindered, and inefficiency and ignorance regarding the UAP issue will continue to prevail.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to rephrase the first paragraph to clarify that videos already released will still be available to be viewed.
Christopher Mellon served 20 years in the federal government. He’s a registered independent who served presidents and senators of both parties. He served as deputy assistant Defense secretary for intelligence, 1999-2002, and for security and information operations, 1998-99. From 2002 to 2004 he was minority staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He was a consultant and contributor to the HISTORY Channel’s nonfiction series, “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation.”
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