The Department of Defense spent $22 million on a program involving unidentified flying objects, with most of the funds going to a friend of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which for years investigated reports of UFOs, was initially largely funded at the request of Reid, who has long held an interest in space phenomena, the New York Times reports.
The majority of designated funds went to an aerospace research company run by Reid's longterm friend Robert Bigelow. The billionaire entrepreneur said in May he was "absolutely convinced" aliens exist and UFOs have visited Earth.
The program, which was run by military intelligence official Luis Elizondo, began in 2007 and was closed by the Defense Department in 2012. The Pentagon has just now acknowledged the program's existence. However, the program's backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program continues to operate. The Times reports:
"It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding, and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change," a Pentagon spokesman, Thomas Crosson, said in an email, referring to the Department of Defense.
But Mr. Elizondo said the only thing that had ended was the effort’s government funding, which dried up in 2012. From then on, Mr. Elizondo said in an interview, he worked with officials from the Navy and the C.I.A. He continued to work out of his Pentagon office until this past October, when he resigned to protest what he characterized as excessive secrecy and internal opposition.
"Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?" Mr. Elizondo wrote in a resignation letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
In a recent interview, Reid defended the program and its spending.
"I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going," Reid said. "I think it’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service. I’ve done something that no one has done before."
Reid has said Bigelow inspired his own interest in UFOs.
The program, in collaboration with Bigelow's company, studied videos of reported encounters between military aircraft and UFOs and produced documents about reported sightings.
One reported instance involved a whitish oval object, about the size of a commercial plane, that was chased by two Navy fighter jets off the coast of San Diego in 2004.
Some in the field are more cautious of reports, pointing out to the Times that just because something is unidentified, doesn't mean it's extraterrestrial.
While not addressing the merits of the program, Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at M.I.T., cautioned that not knowing the origin of an object does not mean that it is from another planet or galaxy. "When people claim to observe truly unusual phenomena, sometimes it’s worth investigating seriously," she said. But, she added, "what people sometimes don’t get about science is that we often have phenomena that remain unexplained."
Bigelow's company is now working with NASA on producing an expandable spacecraft for humans.