Policy is messy business. Often, decisions that appear highly coordinated are actually based on fragile alliances and brittle compromises. A common mistake is to think of government as monolithic, with its constituent parts sharing a single “image” of the world with united goals and objectives.
The reality is of course more complex. The national security enterprise is vastly intricate, made up organizations that view the world in sometimes irreconcilable ways. Overlaid on top of this institutional complexity is personal ambition, relationships, and ever shifting political winds.
So how are we to understand the recent decision of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) to request an unclassified UAP report? Such things do not happen quickly or accidentally. How it came to be, and what its ultimate fate might be is a significant puzzle.
Solving such puzzles requires careful attention to the participants involved. The first key person to understand is arguably Christopher Mellon, who appears to be the primary architect behind the SSCI developments.
Christopher Mellon is one of the most important advisers to Tom DeLonge’s TTSA. The outline of Mellon’s resume is often repeated but seldom analyzed: he is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and was at one time the minority staff director for the SSCI. He has been part of TTSA’s advocacy efforts since 2017, and along with former officials like Luis Elizondo and Jim Semivan, brings credibility and government experience to the organization.
The purpose of this piece is to preliminarily examine who Mellon is, and more importantly how he might think about policy matters. Equipped with an understanding about Mellon’s background, we can better assess the SSCI developments and where they may be headed.
This piece is not an attempt at an exhaustive biography of Mellon; as an observer and analyst I don’t have the access to do so. Instead, we will focus on a few key moments from Mellon’s career and assess how they might influence his thinking. Secondly, we’ll closely read Mellon’s previous writing and compare them with the SSCI language.
Some questions to consider: is Mellon an extraordinarily canny policy chess player, with further moves planned? Or he is set to become the victim of a premature success, perhaps hastened by churning chaos wrought by COVID-19 on government generally, and in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in particular? Can an éminence grise set in motion dramatic change in intelligence policy, or will the venture collapse into unproductive inter/intrainstitutional conflict? Is the SSCI language a blueprint, or is it merely a gambit?
There is not only a great diversity of ideas in government, but also a great diversity of thinking styles.
There are committed ideologues, who see every policy problem from the perspective of a certain set of values; they know the “answer” before they have really heard the question.
There are technocratic players, constantly tasked with mapping complex and pressing problems to a range of possible responses. They tend to think and behave as practical pattern matchers. They seek to marshal known tools within their organizational interest, and sometimes falter when confronted with situations that have no easy set response.
Then there are “principals,” often high level officials with wide portfolios. They encounter uncertainty constantly, and are assailed with competing information about matters they seldom have much direct personal experience with. Imagine a president weighing competing arguments in the Oval Office before making a grave decision. Such policymakers tend to “oscillate” in their views as information becomes available to them.
There is little publicly available evidence that Mellon has ever been an ideologue. He has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. During his tenure in the Senate as minority staff director of the SSCI, he worked under Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller IV. Jay Rockefeller, scion of the Rockefeller oil tycoons, was the only member of his family to serve in office as a Democrat. Indeed, he initially identified as Republican before running in what was a Democrat-majority state. Though Rockefeller’s view are by no means Mellon’s, it is interesting that Mellon served under a political figure known more for political pragmatism than ideological dogmatism.
Additionally, Mellon has made recent television appearances on programs across a wide spectrum of political views. His behavior does not appear consistent with “inners-and-outers” that only enter government when they are aligned with officeholders. Christopher Mellon is no John Bolton.
As a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Mellon would likely have been in a role that engenders technocratic and pragmatic policy thinking. A year before 9/11, Mellon testified to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs about foreign language capacities in the national security enterprise. In his testimony, he is measured and factual. At one point, he is asked about the potential for machine translation and the adequacy of funding — a potential opportunity for an official to seek greater funding through technological hype. Instead, he offered nuance:
Mr. Mellon: Yes, sir, we invest fairly considerable resources through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other agencies in various kinds of machine translation capabilities. They are a partial answer to our needs and to our requirements. We are reviewing right now some internal proposals for increased funding for language which we want to put forward and advocate in our internal process.Some of the examples, probably the clearest examples of Defense Department language skills being brought to bear, maybe some of the most salient ones, are ones that also show the limits of machine translation. For example, during the conflict in Panama, there were a number of instances where violence was averted because we had individuals with foreign language skills who could talk to a commander who was in a garrison or an individual that was under fire as we were approaching the kind of final moments where it was either you guys surrender or we are going to have to open fire sort of situation, and they were able to reconcile the situation without violence. Similar sorts of things happened in the Persian Gulf. In fact, the broad spectrum of that coalition with nations from all over the world placed extraordinary demands on the central command for language requirements.
Again, the automated tools can help us in those situations, but there is no substitute for having people who can talk face to face and engage.
When pressed to comment on the prospect of losing people trained with valuable language skills, he answers directly but hedges: “It bothers me to
generalize.” On balance, he is wary of exaggeration and specific in his testimony.
Mellon’s more recent experience as a senior staffer, particularly to the SSCI, is likely pivotal to understanding recent developments. Though the popular perception is that Senators are personally involved in every detail of policy, in reality a great deal of work is conducted by staff. In a recent “TTSA Talks” podcast, Mellon described the challenge of getting the attention of politicians:
One of the things that initially shocked me before I had spent a lot of time on the Hill was the fact that at the Pentagon we would prepare briefings for a very, very limited number of congressional officials who had access to what are called waived special access programs. These are the most closely held, most highly classified DOD programs and typically the handful of senators and congressmen who were privy to those, who had the opportunity to briefed, were too busy to receive the briefings. Wild! Isn’t that kind of crazy, you would think that just curiosity would..if nothing else would cause them to be all over it. When they did get the briefings, they rarely had…I don’t recall a single follow up question. These briefings are very high level, there are a lot of sub-compartments of these programs. They just don’t have the time. — Christopher Mellon, “TTSA Talks”
In discussing a later episode in his career, Mellon says this of the difficulty of getting the attention of “principals”:
It is not what many people would think. It really is extremely difficult, almost as bad as getting the president — not that bad, of course. You could think about it in those terms…when somebody says to you “hey, can you bring this up with the senator or get this in front of them, it really is not easy.” — Christopher Mellon, “TTSA Talks”
Further, as a minority staff director (minority here means staff for the party not currently in power), Mellon would have been accustomed to the problem of exerting influence without direct political power. Undoubtedly, getting and sustaining the attention of his own “side” of the aisle would be difficult, let alone the other party. He says:
They would dispatch some of us as staff members…but they personally…trying to get that on their calendar was mission impossible, almost. — Christopher Mellon, “TTSA Talks”
To be effective, Mellon would have had to constantly contend with the problem of the “calendar” — how do you get time with some of the busiest, most distracted people on some of those most complex matters in government?
Mellon is described as having been minority staff director of SSCI from 2002 to 2004. The Congressional Directory supports that he held the position at least until August 2004. In that time, one of the most important undertakings Mellon would have been involved in was the Report of the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessment on Iraq, released in July 2004. This lengthy, detailed report sought to understand the intelligence issues surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The report details a massive staff effort to review tens of thousands of pages and interview several hundred witnesses. The conclusions of the report are complex, but in brief it found significant intelligence failings leading up to the Iraq War.
The effort involved in this report would likely have been highly significant for Mellon. He would have spent a tremendous amount of time involved in painstaking review of arguably one of the most important intelligence failings since 9/11. In fact, those findings contributed directly to the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Beyond being painstaking, the process would likely have been painful: it is not inconceivable that he would have to scrutinize the work of former colleagues. It would have put him, one imagines, in a sometimes adversarial role with elements of the IC.
Between his DOD service around 9/11 and the timing of his senior policy experience with the SSCI, Mellon had a front seat to some of the most pivotal intelligence issues in modern history. His previous testimony and career would suggest a somewhat precise, careful person accustomed to technocratic policy issues. One imagines that a painstaking review of profound intelligence failings would tend to enhance that cautiousness.
In sum, Mellon’s background tells us the following:
- He has experienced both the “applied” aspect of DOD intelligence leadership, and the “oscillating” uncertainty of high level political leaders.
- He has a history of nuance and precision, with no real indication of being an “in-and-outer” ideologue.
- He intimately understands the importance of political staff, and the mechanics of the “calendar,” specifically with respect to the SSCI.
- He likely understands how to project influence in situations where he does not have direct access to power. This would have come through being a minority staff leader in a crucial time for intelligence matters.
- He was personally involved in painstaking review of serious IC failings.
- He was personally involved in some of the key players and circumstances that led to the modern DNI.
- He is precise enough to have been successful in both the DOD and the SSCI, but also intellectually adventurous enough to tackle a topic he openly recognizes as “stigmatized.”
Given the above experience, how would Mellon approach the problem of influencing government on the perennially charged and toxic topic of UAPs? To start, it makes sense that he would turn to the SSCI — it is extremely well positioned to instigate the type of reform he is interested in. He also has the advantage of understanding it very well.
Secondly, he would already know that the “game” would most likely not center on distracted senators, but rather on key staff. To that end, he knows that staff are also busy and are challenged to spend time on issues that are not in the political spotlight. Therefore, it would be important to seed discussions with sample language to “jumpstart” the policy process.
This is of course precisely what he did. In May of 2019, he appears to have taken a two-pronged strategy, writing both technical draft language for the Senate and an opinion piece intended for a general audience. In a piece for the Hill, Mellon is almost painfully plainspoken, describing the relevant national security institutions this way:
…[A]lmost feudal security apparatus in which the barons sometimes spend more time protecting bureaucratic turf from rivals than protecting U.S. territory from adversaries — “Friend, foe or unknown force flying overhead? Congress should find out”, The Hill
The piece ably repeats his central arguments: there is no “ownership” of the UAP issue, and it is therefore neglected. Congress should become involved, and the possibility of real national security threat seriously examined. He proposes a now familiar solution:
All that Congress need do at this juncture is require the secretary of Defense and the director of national intelligence to review the UAP issue and deliver a report providing a comprehensive assessment. This report should include not only an estimate of the situation but a description of the structure and processes required to ensure effective collection and analysis going forward.
However, there are stark departures from the SSCI language, particularly regarding the classification of the desired report:
The Trump administration should be free to provide the report at whatever level of classification it deems appropriate (emphasis mine)…proposal does not require new Defense Department funding. It also averts the spectacle of public hearings and the attendant risk of injecting partisanship or grandstanding into the process.
In the more technical draft language, Mellon writes:
E. FORM- The report under subsection (a) may be submitted in either classified or unclassified form.
For reference, here is the current SSCI request explicitly requesting an unclassified report:
This difference raises an important question: if Mellon started by advocating for either classified or unclassified report, why does the SSCI language feature the much stronger requirement of an unclassified report? Mellon also appears to anticipate the possible problem of “spectacle” and the “attendant risk” of partisanship. Doesn’t insisting on an unclassified report raise the likelihood of these risks?
In a previous piece, I described five dangerous scenarios for the implementation of the SSCI request. By virtue of his background and experience, Mellon will have likely anticipated all of them — and probably several others.
So, why is the SSCI language stronger and somewhat riskier rather than weaker and safer?
One possibility may be that Mellon perceives that he has a stronger hand. Perhaps he has a larger plan, or information has changed. He knows that it will take time for the bill to pass, and in the intervening time there may be additional information injected into the national discourse. Perhaps he either was not confident of this information in May of 2019, or perhaps for rhetorical reasons couched his earlier proposal in safer language. It also must be said that the entire existence of TTSA coincided with the unexpected release of three Navy videos purporting to depict UAPs. The coordinated use of information and media is the raison d’être of TTSA. This is the “checkmate” scenario where the SSCI report is the policy endgame.
Another possible scenario is darker, and hopefully unlikely. Importantly, the Senate Intelligence Committee is undergoing something of a crisis in leadership with Senator Richard Burr stepping down as Chairman amid investigation into alleged insider trading surrounding COVID-19. In general, SSCI is coping with the same strange situation the rest of us are: working from home, and coordinating new remote procedures. The impact of these dynamics may be more pronounced in the Beltway, where personal relationships and contacts are very important.
Though unlikely, perhaps Mellon advanced a “strong” version of his proposal expecting that it would be weakened by compromise. But, meeting an unusually disorganized and distracted SSCI, the language was adopted more or less wholesale. If true, Mellon may have inadvertently created a less secure position than intended. This is the “gambit” scenario, where what was intended to be an opening move has unexpectedly become the final board.
Given Mellon’s background, it is likely that all of the language in the SSCI report is intentional. As a DOD intelligence leader, he would be familiar with common tactics to manage awkward congressional requests. As a former staffer, he would equally know the tactics to make such requests “stick.”
For example, the “object of interest” of UAPs is likely described in three ways in order to cast the widest possible net and avoid lawyering from the IC. In short succession, they are listed as “unidentified aerial phenomena,” the unofficial moniker “anomalous aerial vehicles”, and extremely broadly as “observed airborne objects that have not been identified.”
Nearly all of the language has been accounted for by past reporting, with one notable exception: the role of the FBI. Aside from the DNI, ONI and Secretary of Defense, the FBI is the only entity explicitly named. It is clear that the DNI has a role as the coordinator of the IC, and the DOD has a role via military intelligence. ONI is widely believed to be the center of the most serious military investigation of UAP. So, what is the significance of the FBI?
Here again, the draft language is useful. It specifically calls for “FBI data derived from investigations of intrusions over restricted US airspace.” Clearly, this data is something that Mellon has considered to be potentially significant since 2019, and was not introduced later by the SSCI process.
Recently, John Greenewald, veteran researcher and creator of the largest civilian collection of declassified records, published an excerpt of communications between an Air Force and OSD public affairs officials that may shed some initial light on this matter.
In the exchange, the Air Force official advises telling a reporter “off the record” that while the Air Force is not working on “specific guidelines for reporting UAPs” it does have a mechanism for reporting airspace violation in the counter unmanned aerial systems (CUAS) domain. It would appear that the Air Force has experienced the kind of domestic airspace incursions that the FBI has been tasked with investigating.
Further, the CUAS issue seems to be practical rather than theoretical. In a communication obtained via FOIA by Douglas D. Johnson, a volunteer researcher associate with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, another Air Force official offered this statement regarding CUAS in response to a separate press inquiry:
Here, the operative language is “UAS activity is a real threat, and one that we have identified in the past.” Presumably, this threat would largely come from foreign intelligence effort to operate drones over sensitive facilities.
One possibility may be that the “intrusions over restricted US airspace” that the FBI has investigated include the apparently real issues encountered by the Air Force. It would stand to reason that the FBI might be well suited for such an investigation, particularly given their counterintelligence mission. For some reason, Mellon draws an inference that the FBI data is relevant to the UAP issue.
The open question is this: why does Christopher Mellon see this as being particularly important?
Mellon has been consistent about holding open the possibility of there being conventional explanations for UAP, but also has frequently tweeted about the possibility of exotic scenarios. For example:
Perhaps he sees a connection between the “exotic” hypothesis and the FBI data. There have been decades of reports about odd aerial sightings around sensitive nuclear facilities. Many of these facilities include Air Force bases. If the FBI has been involved in sporadic but long-running investigations of such events, it would establish that these odd incursions predate modern drone technology. Advanced drones are a somewhat difficult explanation for the 2004 Nimitz event; they simply cannot seem to explain the alleged 1967 Malmstrom Air Force Base incident.
It is very likely that the FBI data plays a role in Mellon’s calculus or it would not be included in such deliberate language. It would seem that Mellon seeks to design an avalanche, but must begin with the smallest snowball that can survive national politics. Time will tell if he is successful. Irrespective of the outcome, that such a careful, measured man would take on this challenge is fascinating in its own right.
Further reporting needs to be done along many axes. To name a few:
- Why is the SSCI language stronger rather than weaker than Mellon’s 2019 proposals?
- Why does Mellon see a connection between FBI investigations and UAP?
- Are the FBI investigations related to ongoing CUAS issues at “strategic” facilities?
- If so, what is the significance of that data as it pertains to the available hypotheses regarding foreign threats?