We talked to UFO skeptics and scientists about what they're looking for in America's next president.
Of all the fringe interest groups orbiting the landscape of American politics, there are perhaps none quite as maligned as those committed to uncovering the truth about extraterrestrial life. In recent elections, these UFO advocates have mostly laid low, ignored—if not openly mocked—by politicians seeking higher office. But as the 2016 race gets officially underway, alien hunters are starting to wonder if this election might be different.
The group got some high-profile encouragement last month from none other than Hillary Clinton. In an interview with a small New Hampshire newspaper, the Democratic presidential candidate promised that, if elected, she would share whatever information exists about the government's contact with extraterrestrials.
"I'm going to get to the bottom of it," Clinton told the Conway Daily Sun. "I think we may have been [visited already]. We don't know for sure."
The comment may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it was enough to excite the diehard skeptics who have been fighting, unsuccessfully for more than half a century, to get the government to disclose what it knows about aliens. For this group, the remark seemed to confirm long-held suspicions that Clinton is sympathetic to its cause—suspicions rooted in her 90s-era ties to UFO activists like Laurence Rockefeller, and in her relationship to campaign chairman John Podesta, a noted skeptic who has called for greater government transparency around the alien question, and whose influence Clinton cited in her interview.
"He has made me personally pledge we are going to get the information out one way or another," Clinton told the newspaper. "Maybe we could have, like, a task force to go to Area 51."
Regardless of whether Clinton meant for any of this to be taken seriously, the interview signaled to alien hunters that the 2016 presidential election could be a significant one for their movement—marking the first time since the other Clinton was in office that the topic of extraterrestrial contact might be broached by politicians on the national level.
Beyond the UFO skepticism and government conspiracy theories, the election is also being watched by another group of alien hunters—namely scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, a global research field dedicated to scanning the cosmos for signs of alien life.
Since its inception, the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been plagued by politics. NASA's own SETI program, developed in the mid-1970s, was a frequent target of politicians who saw its mission—"to bag little green fellows," as one senator put it—as a joke and a waste of taxpayer dollars. It was permanently defunded in 1993. While NASA continues to fund research into the search for extraterrestrial life, the money now mainly goes to the field of astrobiology, with research focused on looking for microbes and other unintelligent life forms. Officially at least, the government is no longer interested in the search for thinking beings like us.
"SETI is very political, or has been in the past," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer and director of the SETI Institute, a California-based nonprofit that conducts research on the "origin and nature of life in the universe." "Politics was extremely important when I joined the SETI Institute—it killed the NASA efforts."
In the absence of government funding, SETI research in the US has relied on private donations, which tend to be sporadic. While a $100 million infusion from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner last year has given the field a measure of legitimacy, and assured future research, the lack of federal recognition means that SETI continues to exist outside of mainstream scientific circles.
"When somebody is studying something that doesn't have any obvious practical implications, [Congress] tends to think it is a waste of money," Shostak told me. "That's exactly wrong. Basic research is the kind that pays off in the long term—far more than the applied research."
There is little indication that will change under the next president. Most of the leading 2016 presidential candidates from both parties have voiced general support for NASA, and they have called for directing more federal resources to space exploration (the notable exception is Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has voted in the past to slash NASA's budget). But Shostak is skeptical that any of this would translate into support for a revamped SETI program at the space agency.
"It isn't a matter of 'let's vote for this person because they're interested in SETI,'" he said. "You're not going to find anybody like that."
In the absence of direct support for SETI research, SETI researchers say they are looking for candidates who show broad knowledge and support of scientific endeavors. "Anyone you elect to high office should have some knowledge of science," Shostak said. "So many of [the 2016 candidates] don't seem to have much knowledge of science, and that's distressing because of much greater considerations than SETI."
Shostak and his colleagues have also noted that making contact with intelligent alien life will have immense political repercussions here on Earth. Given that many SETI proponents believe this is likely to happen in our lifetime, they are looking at the 2016 presidential contenders for indications of how they might handle a post-contact world.
"One would expect individual SETI proponents to be generally supportive of those parties and candidates who have voiced strong support for a solid science agenda," said Paul Shuch, executive director of the SETI League, a grassroots group that promotes private SETI research and education.
"Since SETI is a multinational cooperative endeavor," Shuch continued, "we—as individuals—would tend to oppose those factions and candidates in all countries who would be likely to exhibit nationalistic tendencies to restrict the free flow of information."
Of course, UFO activists who believe aliens have already made contact have more pressing concerns—namely, getting the government to end what disclosure advocate Stephen Bassett, Washington's only registered UFO lobbyist, calls the "truth embargo" on information about extraterrestrials.
"The extraterrestrial issue is perfectly analogous to the Cuban embargo," said Bassett, who works on behalf of the disclosure advocacy group Paradigm Research. "People knew there was an island down there, they knew there was a Cuba—they just couldn't go there. It's very much what happened with the extraterrestrial issue. Every year more and more people know that this phenomenon is not human, it's extraterrestrial, but they can't go there."
Like the Cuba embargo, Bassett said, the government's insistence on withholding information about extraterrestrial contact from the public seems increasingly anachronistic, and no longer justifiable as a national security concern. The issue, he explained, is trying to convince politicians that the problem even exists in the first place.
"This extraterrestrial advocacy movement has a problem that no other advocacy movement in history has had," Bassett said. "This movement is about something the government has claimed doesn't exist at all."
Bassett may have found an ally in Podesta. A consummate Washington insider who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and as a special counselor to President Barack Obama, Podesta is a well-known X-Files fanatic who has publicly defended the public's right to know "what the truth is that's really out there," as he put it in a forward to the 2010 book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. Last year, as he was leaving the Obama administration, Podesta ignited the UFO blogosphere by tweeting that his "biggest failure in 2014" was "once again not securing the #disclosure of the UFO files."
Podesta hasn't shied away from this position in his new role heading Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. "Notwithstanding the fact that serious scientists, military leaders, business people, and average citizens are interested in the subject of intelligent life in the universe, political leaders tend to worry about whether they will be lampooned if they broach the subject," he told me in an email. "I, on the other hand, am interested in just making the universe great again."
While Bassett seems to have gotten behind Podesta—and by extension, Hillary— not all disclosure activists agree that Clinton would be an ally in the Oval Office, with some citing her less than stellar record on government transparency as a possible red flag. But Podesta seems confident that, on this issue at least, his candidate will follow through on revealing government secrets. "She promised me she would!" he wrote in his email.
"Look, I believe that the government, in the name of transparency and openness should declassify and release information in regards to unidentified aerial phenomena," Podesta continued. "Obviously, there have been decades of speculation about what, if anything, is contained in these files. I'm confident that the American people can handle the truth."
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