In 2004, author Mark Pilkington and film-maker John Lundberg set off on a journey to chronicle a darker side of the UFO topic - a history of the interest and influence of members of the intelligence community. Mirage Men takes a closer look at the last 75 years of ufology in the context of its interactions with the shadowy worlds of espionage, psychological warfare and advanced military technology. During their research Mark and John traveled across the US, meeting intelligence agents and disinformation specialists, in particular former Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) Special Agent Richard 'Rick' Doty. Doty was infamously involved in the duping of UFO researcher Paul Bennewitz as part of 'Project Beta', a psychological operation ('psy-op') that may have contributed to Bennewitz's gradual mental disintegration and subsequent nervous breakdown.
As they looked for the fingerprints of the intelligence community in various aspects of ufology, the Mirage Men duo were confronted with a dizzying array of ever more outrageous claims and counter claims involving crashed UFOs, alien contact, secret underground bases and secret deals between Earthly governments and extraterrestrial civilizations (the most recent being the bizarre claims about Project Serpo). Digging deeper, they began to suspect that, instead of covering up UFO secrets as many UFO 'believers' claim, the US intelligence agencies had actually been promoting them all along for their own ends - not least as a cover for advanced aircraft projects, but also for other reasons as well which are explored at length.
Mark Pilkington and John Lundberg are no strangers to deception - John founded the crop circle-making group Circlemakers in the early 1990s, and Mark has been walking the shady corridors of Forteana as a researcher and writer for more than a decade. This makes them well-suited to walking the fine line of belief and skepticism, humour and gravitas, required to investigate such a liminal topic. I spoke with Mark this week about the book and the fascinating subjects it covers.
Mirage Men is available now from Amazon UK and as a pre-order from Amazon US (released September 13). For more information on the book and author, see Mark's Further blog at the Strange Attractor website, the official Mirage Men documentary website, and the Mirage Men blog.
TDG: Thanks for taking time to have a chat Mark. For those that don't know about either yourself or the 'Mirage Men' project, can you give us a quick bit of background on your involvement in Fortean topics, and how Mirage Men came to be?
MP: Thanks for having me Greg! I live in London, England, and have been writing professionally for about 13 years now. I was staff writer and reviews editor at Fortean Times magazine for several years and wrote "Far Out", a fringe science column for the UK's Guardian newspaper for three years. These columns were collected in a neat book of the same name, published in 2007 by Disinformation in the US.
I've had a lifelong fascination with all manner of Fortean and anomalous phenomena, but UFOs always appealed to me the most. That's because they're probably the most commonly reported form of anomalous experience – anyone can see them! – they're very much 'living' and evolving as a phenomenon and the UFO umbrella incorporates a wide range of experiences and encounters that branch out into parapsychology and other areas of scientific, technological, psychological, political and sociological interest.
Mirage Men came about while my friend John Lundberg, who runs Circlemakers, was making a short documentary, called The Mythologist about Henry Azadehdel (aka Armen Victorian), a Nottingham grocery store owner and landlord who got involved with crop circle and UFO research in the early 1990s. A former CIA contact of Henry's mentioned the name Rick Doty to John, and he came to me asking who Doty was. And so Mirage Men was born... That was six years ago now!
TDG: Mirage Men - the book - is a travelogue about your experience in making a documentary of the same name about government involvement in the UFO phenomenon. When can we expect the documentary, and how is it likely to differ from what you've put forward in your book?
MP: When John Lundberg and I set out on the journey that became Mirage Men we initially planned to raise some production funds for the film before starting shooting. But when the Serpo story fell, literally, into our laps, in the form of Bill Ryan, we decided to go with it and follow Bill to the Laughlin UFO conference – where, by coincidence or not, we found that Rick Doty would also be.
This meant that we paid for the shoot ourselves, thinking that we'd get some production money on our return, but it never materialised. By the time we'd finished gathering material, over three shoots in total, John and I had spent a significant amount between us – although still probably not even a couple of days' catering budget on a studio film. We're now hoping to secure approximately £20,000 to finish the film with a professional editor. Until we have the funds, it's very hard to say when the film will be made available. (Naturally we'd be very happy to hear from anyone who would like to help us finish the film!)
In terms of content, the book and the film won't duplicate each other, instead they will complement each other nicely – different animals, though clearly related. The way that we currently envisage it, the historical material in the book won't be in the film, neither will our own surreal experiences which are also central to the book. The documentary will be quite cinematic in feel - John is an admirer of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War etc).
Whether the book will encourage any other Mirage Men to speak to us it will be interesting to find out – we'd love to hear from them, and if we did I'm sure we'd go and interview them for the film, so it may not be over yet!
TDG: In Mirage Men, you've done a wonderful job of presenting a very complex subject in a fun, readable manner - it must have been quite a job navigating the layers of deception and manipulation, the second-guessing as to intentions and the real truth, not to mention the liminal aspects of the UFO mystery itself. By the end of your journey, you must have felt as if every casual remark from Doty and others could be a ticking time-bomb. Given you are trying to 'expose' a story about the machinations of government agencies, did you fight any feelings of paranoia during the journey?
MP: Yes paranoia became something of an intermittent companion to John and I during our adventures, even once we got back home – we discovered that email can be a potent tool for psychological warfare!
We really did take a great leap into the unknown with Mirage Men and I think we got as deep into the UFO story as it's possible to get without possessing a security clearance – or getting ourselves into hot water. As some of the strange hide-and-seek games we got involved in with the UFO 'insiders' became more complex and elaborate, there were certainly points when we wondered what we had got ourselves into – but in a situation like that you can't start getting paranoid or else you'll end up a nervous wreck. I do suspect that we were 'checked out', to make sure that we were harmless and not chasing black technologies or spying for an unfriendly nation. One thing we did discover is that some people in the intelligence community are even more paranoid than the rest of us – we took that to mean that they know what the Intelligence Agencies are capable of. Not a reassuring thought!
As I describe in the book, there was a point in our adventure when John became quite anxious and unsure of his own feelings about the UFO subject. He began to suspect that the great UFO Cover-Up was real after all, that the US government really does possess ET technology, just as the rumours state. It took a few hours and a few beers for UFO Mystic's Greg Bishop and I to talk him down – not to a state of non-belief, but a state of un-belief. There's a section about this in the book entitled 'How to Believe Weird Things' – it's one of my favourite parts actually, and I think it might be interesting, even useful, reading for people who are actively engaged in the paranormal, the occult or any areas of unusual or esoteric activity.
TDG: Given your own history with crop circle 'deceptions' (and the Circlemakers' interest in topics like ostension), and your meetings and growing friendship with Richard Doty in this book, do you run the risk of people writing the book off as just more disinformation on the UFO topic?
MP: Yes I suppose it's inevitable that some people with entrenched beliefs and an emotional (or perhaps financial) investment in the ETH and its attendant conspiracies might want to paint me as another disinformation agent. it wouldn't be the first time, and the irony certainly isn't lost on me.
As I describe in the book, I was accused of being an MI6 agent while we were talking to Richard Doty et al and the rumour did the rounds of the 'insiders' – I suspect it was either an inside joke or a way to discourage other people from talking to me. Probably a joke. More recently a sensationalist British UFO enthusiast has stated that both John and I, alongside the writer Jon Ronson, UFO historians Dr David Clarke and Andy Roberts, as well as John's former business partner and a totally random neighbour of his are all actually MI5 operatives - it's really beyond satire.
So it seems that I'm working on both sides of the River Thames now. They keep telling me that my pay-cheque is in the post, but it's been a while now. Maybe I should just go to reception and ask for it...
Seriously though, there is a clear affinity between the Circlemaker's work and that of deception specialists in the military and intelligence worlds, and my sense is that there's a strong and natural mutual interest in what both sides are doing.
As anyone who reads Mirage Men will immediately realise the idea that I'm some kind of disinformation agent couldn't be further from the truth and would have anyone who knows me falling off their seat with laughter: the book opens with my own UFO sighting, which even after all's said and done, remains unexplained. I'm a sceptic with a 'c', not 'k'. With Mirage Men, I've done my best to assemble a very large and complex puzzle that is missing some of its crucial pieces. What's there has convinced me, and will hopefully demonstrate to others, that the ET conspiracy just doesn't make sense given the information and evidence that's available.
One of the things I demonstrate in the book is that there's nothing odd about psychological warfare or intelligence operatives exploiting folklore to conduct their operations, it's been a standard practice for them for many years and one that extends way beyond UFOs.
I should point out also that I don't believe that there's a shadowy department whose job it is solely to perpetuate the UFO myth – it's just one of many useful fictions that can be pulled out of the dressing up box as and when it is appropriate to do so. Vampires, ghosts and the voice of God turn up in the book, but there are others. For example, in the 1950s the Russians accused the Americans of spying on China via Tom Slick's Yeti-hunting expedition, while it's likely that some monster sightings in Northern Ohio's Lake Pend Oreille came about after secret submarine tests there. Hmm, I like the idea of a government promoting rumours that it had trained yetis and lake monsters to fight for them, but that would be another story, or perhaps a TV series – Cryptowars!
That said, there is good documented evidence for the military and intel communities keeping close tabs on the UFO community, for reasons that are obvious and quite understandable. It's research: they can check whether any of their new toys are being spotted by the UFO hunters, some of whom may of course be agents of unfriendly nations, and they can gather background material that might be useful for future operations.
TDG: And, as you mention in the book, another reason for spreading the UFO mythos could be that it would suit an entity like the US government if rumours were spread that it might have super-advanced, or even alien, technology at its disposal. In Mirage Men you point to a couple of aspects of non-UFO folklore that have been used in 'psy-ops' by the US - is there any evidence that this might be one of the motivations for propagation of the UFO mythos?
MP: Yes the 'secret weapon' scenario is certainly one of the hidden benefits of the UFO lore for the Pentagon. Rumours of advanced weaponry play a major part in psychological operations during any conflict, and are just as important in peacetime. UFOs also serve as a useful diversionary tactic for foreign agents snooping around your genuine advanced technologies – and foreign agents, some of them perhaps disguised as journalists and ufologists, are *always* snooping around your advanced technologies! For example, remember those British and Dutch plane spotters who were (falsely I think) arrested in Greece back in 2001 on espionage charges?
As I mention in the book, the 1999 French COMETA report (whose origins and motives remain controversial within the French UFO community) concluded that it was unfair for the US to maintain a monopoly on extraterrestrial technology, and that it should share this technology with the rest of the world's arms dealers and manufacturers! And this (allegedly, as I say there's some controversy involved) was coming from several top French military leaders. Rumours like this can't really hurt the US military's technological standing – to a large extent, he who controls the toys controls the battlefield!
TDG: In Mirage Men you briefly discuss the idea of a 'UFO myth' being intentionally constructed to bring humanity together, a theme which can be found in the curious 1948 fiction novel The Flying Saucer. Though in modern times this seems an unlikely outcome, do you think such a strategy could once have been a genuine possibility?
MP: As you say, the idea of visitors from outer space bringing humanity together is the premise of The Flying Saucer, which was actually written by a former British spy named Bernard Newman, so this isn't a new idea, just a forgotten one – and I think it's very valuable.
After the horrors of World War II, there were very real fears that Western society would lose its faith in the Christian god – how could a benevolent god have permitted the horrors of the Nazi death camps or the atomic detonations in Japan to take place? It was technology, not god, that ended World War II, so the new ethical and moral guardians of the human race, the new gods would, this line of thought goes, be expected to be masters of magical technology (in the sense described by Arthur C Clarke). Humanoid flying saucer pilots like Klaatu in 1951's blockbuster film The Day the Earth Stood Still and those reported by George Adamski and the other contactees would serve this purpose very well. Davidson took this idea a step further and suggested that Adamski was conned by the CIA, and that The Day The Earth Stood Still was in itself a propaganda exercise. I don't know about Adamski, but I think that in some sense TDTEST was a propaganda tool – executive producer Daryl Zanuck was sympathetically involved with the Psychological Strategy Board for example, and all Hollywood productions of the time unconsciously reflected the period's hopes and paranoid fears. Sticking to the same film, I think America's leaders would have seen themselves – and to some extent still do – as playing a role similar to that of Klaatu and Gort, as benevolent, global, moral policemen with the power to destroy any nation that didn't want to play their way.
I think the psycho-spitirual potential of UFOs was quite likely to have crossed Allen Dulles' mind at some point – he was an extremely keen proponent of black ops and psychological warfare and actually founded the CIA's 'dirty tricks department' – just days after the Washington UFO flap, as it happens! Dulles was also a close friend of Carl Jung's and there's some very intense personal history between them. Jung thought a lot about UFOs and in 1959 wrote what is still one of the best books on the subject. I imagine that as the CIA got involved in the saucer business in 1952/3, Dulles would quite probably have discussed the subject with Jung, and if they did they would surely have considered its many spiritual dimensions and ramifications. Los Alamos engineer and ufologist Leon Davidson actually made this Dulles/Jung connection back in the late 1950s, so again it's not a new suggestion. (As an aside, one wonders how the UFO lore would have developed if people had paid more attention to Newman and Davidson!)
TDG: This theme of government psy-ops forms a substantial part of Mirage Men, with one of the focus points being the disinformation campaign perpetrated on Paul Bennewitz - a gifted engineer and UFO 'believer' whose fantasies and paranoia were actively amplified by government agencies for their own ends. While I'm largely of the opinion that people make their own bed when it comes to consequences of their beliefs, when I look at cases such as that of Paul Bennewitz - who eventually suffered what some would describe as a 'mental disintegration - I'm surprised that no criminal charges have been brought against those responsible. What are your thoughts on this?
MP: In Greg Bishop's book Project Beta, Rick Doty does describe trespassing on an incursion into the Bennewitz home, and there may have been other similar incidents, but, while we may not approve ethically of what Doty and ufologist Bill Moore did – and I certainly don't – it's unclear what laws were actually broken during the campaign against Paul Bennewitz.
Is it against the law to lie to somebody and to encourage them in their delusions? They didn't steal money or property from Bennewitz, in fact it appears that they gave him money, and a computer to work conduct his 'research' from. Ultimately, as Rick repeatedly told us, nobody had to do very much to convince Bennewitz that he was in contact with aliens, because he already believed it.
Forging government documents is, however, a federal crime and later on the FBI did investigate the source of the MJ-12 documents and interviewed Rick, amongst several other people, about this. In the end Air Force Intelligence informed the FBI that the documents were 'bogus', without ever saying exactly where they had come from. For what it's worth I think the MJ-12 documents were created by AFOSI specialists, but not by Rick, though it does appear that he helped to 'research' them in discussions with Moore and National Enquirer journalist Bob Pratt.
Following on from this, the questions surrounding the legality and ethics of intelligence and counter-intelligence operations on American soil are an important matter, and one, I would assume, for the US Supreme Court. There are books full of terrible abuses conducted by the American government – and any government for that matter – against its own citizens, many of them considerably more appalling than the Bennewitz affair, and that, sadly is a reality of the world we live in.
TDG: Though a lot of the book deals with government disinformation about UFOs, and advanced/experimental aircraft as a likely source for many sightings, you also mention your own bizarre UFO sightings and recognize that in those sorts of cases, the phenomenon retains its mystery. After experiencing both ends of the spectrum, where does your opinion on the UFO phenomenon lie? I realise that's a question that asks for a very simple answer to an extremely complex and nuanced subject - so more succinctly...in your opinion, is the study of UFOs a valid one?
MP: As you say the UFO subject is an incredibly complex one that can be addressed from a wide range of perspectives. It's really a set of different phenomena, events and experiences that have all been lumped together under one convenient saucer-shaped umbrella.
I recognise that key elements in the foundations of the UFO lore resulted from well-placed disinformation, probably going back as far as the Maury Island incident of July 1947, and it would appear that UFO beliefs continue to be exploited to this day. But the UFO lore is also perfectly capable of looking after itself – it's a rich and vibrant culture, populated by seekers and chancers, heroes and villains, clowns and acrobats, believers and charlatans – and it is perpetuated just as much by the popular media as it is by the wide range of UFO-related phenomena themselves. In this respect then, folkloric, psychological, sociological (or that ufological dirty word, psycho-social) components are integral to the phenomenon.
There is also a technological component. It's clear to me that advanced technologies – some of them possibly genuine flying saucers, though not alien ones! – probably account for a small number of UFO incidents. I discuss what these technologies are and how they are relevant to known UFO encounters in the book, and one or two of them haven't been written about in detail in this context before.
But, and – it's a big but! – there's also a small but very significant anomalous component to the UFO phenomenon. There are still plenty of anomalies out there, and the UFO field is an excellent place to go looking for them. Some of these anomalies may represent unusual meteorological phenomena of the sort collected in William Corliss's amazing Sourcebooks – others may be something more complex and unusual that we haven't really thought of yet, that take us to the very perimeters of our understanding of the worlds around us. And only once we've whittled away the outer layers of obfuscation and disinformation (from the believers, the debunkers and the military and intelligence worlds) surrounding the UFO subject can we reach the core of these fascinating and puzzling phenomena.
Surprising as it may perhaps sound, I wouldn't want to throw the aliens out with the bath water: we can't rule out the possibility that some of these anomalies may represent non-human intelligences, and that some of these may turn out to be interplanetary. There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea that ETs have visited the Earth but, if they have, I don't see much evidence for it, nor do I think it's got very much at all to do with what's popularly understood as the UFO phenomenon, and I don't think that any government is hiding their remains in a freezer in Nevada.
Finally, UFOs, UFO stories and the culture surrounding them are all worth studying because they give us an opportunity to watch folklore evolve in a kind of socio-cultural vivarium. I believe that we are in the foundation stages of what will, if it hasn't already done so (and it has with groups like the Raelians, though they're a minority) develop into a fascinating religion with all the positive and negative implications that the term carries and holds for society. Personally this doesn't bother me at all – any religion is fine as long as its adherents don't demand that I, or anyone else, follow it. I'm actually very sympathetic to unusual beliefs of all kinds and count among my good friends christians and witches, skeptics and psychics, psychiatrists and sorcerers. And a few ufologists of course!
As I hope is clear from the book, I'm not your average armchair 'skeptic', or your average sky-watching believer, but stuck somewhere in the middle. My greatest hope is that Mirage Men helps to reframe the UFO story within the context of Cold War history and inspire new avenues for research and exploration, while also demonstrating to people outside the UFO field why so many of us are enthralled by this fascinating subject.
TDG: Given the landscape of unreality you've been treading in writing the book and filming the documentary - from the high strangeness of UFOs to the deceit of government psy-ops - are you ready to click your heels and leave the UFO topic behind and move onto firmer ground? Or is the call of Forteana too strong?
MP: The Fort is strong in this one, but I can't imagine I'll ever want to write another whole book about UFOs, nor do I think it's necessary for me to do so. I'd like to think that Mirage Men brings some new and useful ideas to the ufological table, but there can't be too many fresh UFO books left to be written unless we've *all* been wrong all this time and the ETs, or even the Mirage Men, decide to tell their own side of the story.
I'll certainly keep an eye on the UFO subject and will keep updating my Mirage Men blog with material that I find interesting and relevant - for example I really hope that some more Mirage Men on both sides of the Atlantic might begin to talk about their work, and if they do I'd be extremely keen to hear from them. I'm especially interested in some well known American and British cases from the 1960s that I didn't have time to go into in the book, and there were certainly some rum things going on in South America, which was riddled with CIA operatives at the time. So no doubt I'll be writing about UFOs again, but not another book.
But while I'll be moving on, the UFO story will never go away. These things go in cycles of about ten years, so it'll probably go into hibernation again once the current wave of interest dies down as a result of media over-saturation. There are several alien invasion films planned for release over the next year, and after these I expect people will start to lose interest again – unless there are some dramatic new sightings on the scale of the Phoenix Lights.
As for myself, I have a few different ideas for books that I want to write next. The current favourite is something that I wanted to do before Mirage Men, and is an extension of my "Far Out" columns, but more on that as it happens. Until then, as Adamski said, keep looking up!