Christopher Mellon has a plan.
As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and former minority staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), he understands national security in a way that few do. Mellon has participated in intelligence issues both from an operations perspective in the Department of Defense, and from the oversight perspective of the Senate.
During his public service, he has a had a front seat view of virtually every major modern intelligence and defense issue. Early in his career, he worked on the Goldwater–Nichols Act, a sweeping reform addressing inter-service rivalry. He was intimately involved in reorganizing special operations efforts. Later, he experienced the shock of 9/11 from within the Pentagon. After a return to the Senate, he led a postmortem of the intelligence analysis that culminated in the invasion of Iraq.
His career has distinctive themes:
- Managing inter-service rivalry: Goldwater-Nichols and special operations reform focused on preventing counterproductive competition between branches of the military.
- Avoiding data fragmentation: before 9/11 era the government failed to effectively integrate information scattered throughout the intelligence community. The tendency of information to sit in isolated, vertical silos is often referred to as "stove-piping," and is an ongoing intelligence management problem.
- Emerging technology: Mellon was an early advocate of centering cyber security as a major threat. He pressed for systematic, architectural approaches to hardening defense networks.
In recent years, Mellon has turned his sights to a new challenge. He has been working behind the scenes to put the spotlight of the Senate on what the military calls unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP).
In brief, Mellon is concerned that the government has not paid sufficient attention to UFOs.
Mellon's interest, particularly given his impressive background, is at odds with the carnival atmosphere that surrounds UFO discourse.
The UFO issue is laden with years of conspiracy theories and derision from national media. While little is concretely known about the UFO phenomena itself, we do know it has been the subject of active hoaxes, unrelenting sensationalism, and allegedly even disinformation.
Mellon, surely cognizant of this history, is the policy architect of the most serious effort to investigate UFOs in decades. Surprisingly, he has had major success. A recent intelligence authorization bill contains a striking request for a report on UAP. It is reproduced below:
I have analyzed the report request and some of the issues surrounding it in detail elsewhere. I have also profiled Mellon's role and some of the unique circumstances of the SSCI as it seeks to cope with COVID-19.
Mellon has made no secret that he considers extraterrestrial life a possible answer to the UAP issue. He has written about it extensively in a piece analyzing potential sources of data within the government addressing this issue. He has tweeted about it:
While Mellon leaves the door open to the possibility of a conventional national security threat via foreign competitors, he clearly has more exotic scenarios in mind.
Specifically, he asserts that black budget programs (described below as "Special Access Programs" or SAPs) are almost certainly not the culprit:
Though it may be surprising that someone of Mellon's background would take an interest in this issue, it actually fits neatly within the themes of his career:
- Prodding sluggish bureaucracies: in Mellon's analysis, the UAP issue has been mishandled for years due to "bureaucratic intransigence." Essentially, the issue is awkward for career bureaucrats, so it is largely ignored.
- Intelligence fragmentation: the entire purpose of the Senate Intelligence report request is to force the DOD and broader intelligence community to cooperate and share data.
- Inter-service rivalry: in a recent interview, Mellon suggested that while the Navy has been a leader on this issue, other branches remain resistant. In a separate piece, I laid out my analysis of why the Air Force in particular has been conspicuously absent from the debate.
- Emerging or poorly understood technology: if a subset of UAP sightings represents actual technology, it is far beyond our current understanding of physics or aerospace engineering. Mellon's thinking has often turned to technological issues where the government has growing vulnerabilities.
As a former Senate staff director, Mellon is almost uniquely equipped to navigate the labyrinth of Congress, the intelligence community, and the Department of Defense.
What happens if he is successful? What if he is right that this strange phenomena is not a black budget program, a case of mistaken identity, or a foreign competitor?
At the moment, communities interested in this issue are consumed with a debate about whether the objects are fundamentally real, and if so, what they might ultimately be. The intensity of this debate tends to obscure a consideration of implications for each scenario.
For the purposes of analysis, I will stipulate that Mellon is "correct," in that at least some of these objects are in fact of non-human origin. Further, I'll assume that he is correct that at least a first-order assessment of the situation is possible, and can be delivered to the Senate, the President, and potentially the public.
The real policy options available in this situation appear to be highly constrained. Namely, there are three major categories of policy choice:
- Ignore and passively study: given our profound uncertainties, we may elect to not interfere with the objects and to study them from a distance. This is essentially our current posture, by virtue of having no official position. Despite a lack of formal policy, reporting bears out that the Pentagon has been studying these objects for years.
- Attempt to fight them: this is hopefully the classic "non-option." It is unclear if we can predict where these objects will be, let alone effectively combat them. It is plainly unwise to attack something we do not understand. What if the attack leads to a war? What if the objects rely on technology that could be dangerous if successfully destroyed? How will our allies and other nations view these actions? The questions and risks are nearly limitless. However, these objects have allegedly endangered aviators and have been known to loiter over sensitive installations. Elements of the military may be interested in at least investigating their options for a violent exchange. Those concerns will need to be managed.
- Attempt to communicate: this choice is simple to describe, but enormously complex to implement. We will return to this choice momentarily, as it involves a number of scientific, technological, ethical and political dimensions.
If a study confirming that the objects are exotic is made public, there would likely be an intense public reaction. Years of popular science fiction stories may soften the blow, but make no mistake: there will still be a blow. Religious communities would interpret the news in varied ways, and the international reaction would likely be complex and difficult to predict.
News of this kind would be literally unbelievable to many – and for good reason. The legacy of deceit, sensationalism, conspiracy and rank lunacy will not disappear if this phenomena turns out to be real.
Some of the least responsible and most conspiratorial voices will be amplified by such developments. In essence, they will be "proven right" – even if the details of their claims do not remotely match with reality.
Leaders will need to be prepared to make decisions in an environment of public shock, and rampant opportunism among many figures at the fringes. The confusion may lead to a bias towards action.
Therefore, the first option to "ignore" the objects will likely receive a great deal of resistance. The public would likely be skeptical of any effort to hold back information. Any policy of "ignore and study from a distance" has a high likelihood of being perceived as a cover up.
Although nothing is certain, we should hope that the public would never support a unilateral, baseless attack on something we understand so little about.
Through process of elimination, the remaining option would be to try to talk.
In coming weeks, I plan to describe the problem of communication in more detail. It is complex, full of technical and even philosophical challenges. Here, I want to briefly sketch some of these issues as they pertain to policy and perhaps to politics.
In order to communicate, we would first have to be ably to reliably predict where the objects are. Allegedly, the objects do have some patterns in places they visit: examples include weapons sites and nuclear reactors. The "Task Force" referred to by the Senate Intelligence committee would be best positioned to assess how predictable these visits actually are.
Assuming we can find them, the next step would be to devise a message. There are of course contact protocols developed by SETI and other organizations. However, they are not subject to legally enforceable treaties. They are also designed for radio contact, not a close encounter. In a chaotic moment, such protocols are unlikely to be adhered to.
Domestic and international politics would become a pressing concern. Who has the right to speak for earth? Who will speak first? What will they say? Does any coalition of countries have the right to enforce a silence? Does maintaining silence matter if these objects have been in our atmosphere for years?
How exactly do we talk assuming we know what we want to say?
Many within the SETI community have closely studied the problem of actively messaging an extraterrestrial intelligence. There is no consensus that crafting a comprehensible message is possible. Physicists and technologists tend to believe that mathematics is sufficient. Anthropologists and linguists point out that it is difficult, if not impossible to build enough shared context to have a meaningful exchange beyond a demonstration of basic intelligence.
Many of the proposals for how we can communicate rely on some form of "deus ex machina." Somehow an AI technology will solve the problem, or a vastly more intelligence species will solve the problem for us. However, there is no reason to think that computational power or intelligence is the constraint: the fundamental problem is that we have no shared context. In modern computing terms: the best algorithms and processors in the world only work when they have comprehensible data as an input.
Prime numbers and number sequences don't provide a natural segue to more complex concepts like descriptions of society or philosophy. There may be hard limits to our comprehension; these same limits may apply to our interlocutors no matter how advanced they are.
Perhaps the most pressing potential problem is that the alleged objects do not appear interested in communicating. Most reports describe the objects as being evasive.
What if the objects are simply uninterested in responding to us? What if they just continue to run away?
An attempt at contact could potentially take some time. There would be much to do: learning to predict or detect the location of objects, building political and international consensus on a message, devising the actual technical means to communicate, etc.
In the interim, there would likely be a bevy of confusing messages. Individuals and groups would claim successful contact through psychic messages or occult means. If the objects remain silent, there will be no one but authorities in charge of "official contact" to rebut such claims. Nation states may also get in on the act: why wouldn't North Korea claim to be in touch? What better propaganda victory than first contact?
For that matter, what better way to generate clicks and views?
The insanity of the "conspiracy singularity" would be amplified in exponential terms. Keeping our feet on the ground would become a national security challenge.
Hopefully, most of us would stay grounded. There would simply be confirmation for what many people already intuit: space is too vast for us to really be alone. The "others" would just be potentially closer and more capable than suspected.
A tiny minority of extremists, fanatics and opportunists would react very differently.
If Christopher Mellon is correct, we should be prepared to protect our collective sanity while we face the most complex scientific problem in history. Even writing such a thing – that identification of UFOs as non-human could unmoor us – feels more than a little crazy.
Yet, an intelligence professional with decades of experience warns that the issue is being ignored. The Senate is not just considering his advice. It has acted on it.
One wonders how much they have contemplated the road ahead.
A few suggestions on how to cope:
- Stay grounded: we don't know anything definitive yet. There are some strange and compelling cases, but we also know that most UFO sightings are successfully identified as something prosaic. Strange topics are naturally emotionally charged, so pay extra attention to solid argumentation and critical thinking. Recognize that many have a narrative to sell that relies on you being excited or scared.
- Evaluate information critically: good journalists don’t want to “tease” you with a promised revelation. They know that there are already a lot of toxic claims out there. Instead, they want to point you to a specific article, video, podcast, etc. They tend to under-promise and over-deliver. They admit they don't know everything.
- Be cautious of your influences: if you are reading this, there is a good chance you're interested in UFOs. Be mindful of opportunists who are trying to take advantage of this moment. Just because the government is doing something about this does not make conspiracy theorists right. Messaging about this topic is likely to evolve. Things will likely get louder and stranger. The civil defense of the future may be as much about keeping a level head as being prepared for physical disasters.
- Use this as an opportunity to learn more about science and society: the best way to understand these issues is to become more familiar with how government works. Read the newspaper closely; understand who your representatives are. Learn more about linguistics and the history of SETI/METI.