We spoke to Black Vault founder John Greenewald about his massive database of government documents, modern cover-ups, and Stanley Kubrick.
Between 1947 and 1969, the US Air Force gathered information on 12,618 UFO sightings from across the country. Dubbed Project Blue Book, it was the only official program ever set up by the American government and military to try to understand the UFO phenomenon.
Because of this official status, Blue Book has long been assumed to be a trove of UFO data by researchers, but its findings were shrouded in secrecy. Even after the documents were declassified they sat on microfilm in the National Archive in Washington, DC.
That was the case until last week, when John Greenewald, Jr. uploaded 130,000 pages of Project Blue Book documentation onto a massive, searchable online database. The database is on the Black Vault, a website he created in 1996 at the tender age of 15 to give the public access to government secrets.
Since then, Greenewald has made over 5,000 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and has shared over 1.4 million pages of declassified documents on his website, shedding light on supposed government cover-ups ranging from UFOs to CIA mind-control experiments to the Benghazi embassy attacks in 2012.
While the American government claims to no longer be investigating or interested in UFOs—a claim Greenewald disputes—public interest in the matter has definitely not waned. Since the Blue Book files have gone online, traffic to Black Vault has climbed from about 5,000 visits per day to hundreds of thousands.
I caught up with Greenewald to find out why this Cold War-era UFO program is still relevant today.
VICE: When did you become interested in UFO's?
John Greenewald Jr.: I started more than 18 years ago when I was 15 years old and essentially was just struck by curiosity. I wish I had a great story for you where I experienced something or saw something but I don't have a story like that. I was just curious. I started filing FOIA requests after I read a little bit about UFOs on the internet back in 1996.
What was Project Blue Book?
Project Blue Book was officially the United States military and government's investigation into the UFO phenomenon. They thought they could explain every single UFO sighting and in that process they investigated over 12,600 reports. In the end they concluded that there was nothing really to the UFO phenomenon and only 701 of the cases actually remained "unidentified," simply due to lack of evidence and lack of facts. So that's the public image of what Project Blue Book is, that's what they want you to believe.
Do you think that there was a hidden agenda?
When you look at the Project Blue Book documents you realize something completely different. They want you to believe that this was an investigation and I throw the idea out there that maybe it wasn't an investigation per se but rather an explanation. The agenda was to explain and slap a "CASE CLOSED" label on everything and say, "Nothing to see here, folks." But what is provable when you look at the data here is that the Blue Book documents were part of a PR campaign.
Why do you think the US government and military establishment dealt with UFO sightings in this way?
The military had to explain sightings to calm the nerves of the population. For the first few years, the Blue Book investigation wasn't taken seriously. But then in 1952 all hell broke loose, so to speak, and UFOs started being seen all over the country. There was a huge influx of sightings. They started being seen above our Air Force bases, above the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, above the White House. So when UFOs started posing that kind of threat, that they could go wherever they want whenever they want within our nation then you can tell that investigation shifted and the military wanted to figure this out and calm the nerves of the government.
What made you want to put these files online?
There were a few Blue Book files online but not in searchable PDF in form. A fellow investigator had compiled 130,000 JPEG images from the Blue Book files, which had already been digitized. But who wants to download 130,000 pictures of text that you can't search? I wanted to make something that was easy to navigate.
How did you make those 130,000 searchable?
The challenge was first sorting them and then making them somewhat orderly but on top of that we had to convert them to PDF so that they could be searchable. And so what I did was write multiple scripts to do multiple passes and then convert them all to PDF and then once they were converted to PDF then I had to scan every readable English word to a computer.
My last big step was not only to program the website but then I programmed a search engine database that then archived all of the search terms that came up and then created a gigantic database that is searchable. That's what really makes this really unique and something that's not out there right now.
Out of the 12,618 cases that you've put online, which are the most interesting?
What boggles my mind when it comes to the Blue Book stuff is that often the witnesses themselves were the military. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of sightings in the Blue Book system that happened over military and nuclear installations. Those are the ones that I think are the most interesting because those guys are trained to understand what is flying in the air. So if they're looking up and seeing a craft that they can't explain and then Blue Book can't explain it either, that shows that it was definitely a serious topic.
Has running Black Vault made you even more skeptical of official explanations of contemporary events?
I'm a very skeptical person by nature. It's hard for me to buy into a conspiracy theory, but it's also hard for me to buy the official public line. So that's why I go after UFO stuff, Benghazi, even 9/11. I have a gigantic section on 9/11, going after specific documents and cases. So I take all those kinds of issues seriously, but whether or not the documents back it up is a different story, but I'll go after anything.
Just dealing with the present day, you look at the Benghazi attacks and it is probably, in my opinion, one the biggest government cover-ups and conspiracies that we've seen in decades and I believe that documentation shows that, the public record shows that, and I believe that the politicians know that and say that. Then you look at Project Blue Book. It's a completely different era and a completely different topic but it essentially supports the fact that they'll say one thing at a press conference but the documentation shows something completely different.
And in this day and age—in the 21st century—in the age of Twitter and social networking, all of that has revolutionized a government cover-up, so to speak. Really you can start spoon-feeding disinformation out there and it will spread like wildfire. And before the end of the news day you have like five different versions of the exact same story. And that is essentially part of the 21st century cover-up tactic. Because if you put enough stuff out there and it circulates widely enough, at the end of the day people won't know what to think and they'll move on.
We tend to think of the "information age" as being unfiltered or more democratic but you're saying that it's allowed the powerful to confuse the masses even more?
I think so. The information age is amazing and the internet is a very powerful tool but in the same respect we really have to, not to quote the X-Files, "question everything." Nowadays, media is always looking for that next viral story and I think that's where the mark of a potential disinformation campaigning comes in. Because once a story goes viral, true or not, that's what people get instilled in their head.
So they can essentially sit back and watch the wildfire spread and essentially cover up whatever they want. I think that's something that we really have to take into consideration. The type of tactic that you see with Project Blue Book, and that I feel you can prove with Blue Book, can really be attributed to any government secret out there and you can really then start to unfold exactly how they cover all of this stuff up.
So what do you think the government is trying to cover up in UFO cases?
I am ultimately not sure what they are covering up. We can easily prove that this phenomena is real, easily prove that the post-Blue Book material largely remains classified, and we can easily prove that the US government and military says one thing but documentation proves another. Essentially, a provable cover-up. But a cover-up about aliens? Your guess is as good as mine!
What do you think UFOs are?
I am a nuts and bolts kind of guy. I do not buy into, not yet anyway, the inter-dimensional being above us, but rather, a metal (or whatever substance) craft that I can touch and feel. But I am not fully convinced of aliens in our skies either—don't get me wrong. I feel strongly intelligent life is out there. Common sense, science, logic, and even math tells us it is. But, have those intelligence civilizations achieved interstellar flight capabilities and come here? Not sure. My big question—if they have achieved interstellar flight—would they even care to come here?
When you look at this topic anything is possible. I've produced a couple of shows for the History Channel and what amazed me in talking to experts, although they don't talk about it a lot on television, was that many of them believe that if we do make contact we will meet a robot. It will be artificial intelligence mechanical being versus a biological being. And to me that is one of the most fascinating aspects and that's about as far as my brain will go when I think about what is going on out there.
That's interesting. That's close to what Stanley Kubrick was saying in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whether it's an alien intelligence or divine intelligence or computer intelligence, it doesn't really matter, because we are basically ants from a cosmic perspective?
That's exactly right. The intelligence gap between the human race and an anthill is closer than between the human race and some intelligent species that comes from millions of light years away to visit us. So it's a big topic to comprehend and a very important one. If we do make contact, you're going to have a lot of people react and react in ways that I don't think we can understand, and that's a pretty big unknown.