When we failed to elect the notoriously secretive candidate, we lost out on government transparency
Hillary Clinton’s seemingly assured rise to the height of American power veered off track for a number of regrettable reasons, though the FBI’s late and ultimately unfounded revival of her esoteric email scandal was arguably the coup de grâce. It’s ironic, then, that an investigation intended to expose state secrets may have denied the American people their chance at one of the greatest acts of government transparency in history.
Viewers of Jimmy Kimmel Live! got a glimpse of what might have been last March, when Clinton was unexpectedly candid during an otherwise tightly scripted presidential campaign. “I would like us to go into those files and hopefully make as much of that public as possible,” she said. “If there’s nothing there, let’s tell people there’s nothing there. If there is something there, unless it’s a threat to national security, I think we ought to share it with the public.”
Clinton was talking about how, as leader of the free world, she would try to gain access to and publicize top-secret government information about UFOs—a family obsession that stretches back to her husband’s time in office, when The X-Files was part of Fox’s Friday-night lineup, wacky tabloids flanked supermarket checkout lanes and didn’t dare endorse presidential candidates, and Art Bell’s late-night radio show, Coast to Coast AM, spooked listeners with supposedly true stories about little green men.
Back in 1995, the Clinton administration received an invitation to meet with billionaire Laurance S. Rockefeller at his Wyoming ranch. An environmental activist and founder of the American Conservation Association, Rockefeller was also a pioneer of venture capitalism—the first to front seed money to Apple. But, that day, his business with the president had to do with one of his more idiosyncratic passions: aliens. He reportedly provided President Clinton with documents containing evidence of a wide-ranging government conspiracy to keep information regarding unexplained aerial phenomenon hidden from the public. What was actually said during that private retreat remains a mystery, though it produced an official photo that has left conspiracy theorists salivating for decades.
At first glance, the image is innocuous: Rockefeller and Hillary Clinton are bedecked in amusingly ranch-appropriate gear—he in a charming straw hat, she in hiking boots and a sweatshirt. Along with her jacket, Clinton carries a book, which is angled against her body, obstructing the title. When conspiracy theorists figured out it was Are We Alone?: Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life by physicist Paul Davies, they turned the photo into an icon worthy of preservation in the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Davies’ tome is an acclaimed bestseller that’s essentially a guide explaining how the discovery of alien life would reshape everything from religion to science to, yes, politics. And unlike the infamous 1992 cover of the Weekly World News, which famously depicted Bill shaking hands with a cone-handed companion, Davies’ work is entirely grounded in reality.
While this topic might appear to be quarantined to the tin foil-hat-wearing fringe, there may be no bigger advocate for UFO file disclosure than John Podesta, one of Washington, D.C.’s preeminent power players. The founder of the Center for American Progress, Podesta served as the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, after stints as counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Still an influential voice in politics and policy, Podesta also happens to be openly obsessed with Area 51, the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico, crash site of either a spaceship or weather balloon, depending on who you ask.
Podesta’s die-hard enthusiasm led to an appearance on a SyFy channel special proposing that aliens are not only real, but that they visit Earth regularly. He’s also a huge fan of The X-Files, who hosted weekly watch parties in the first Clinton White House and celebrating his 50th birthday with an X-Files theme. His stance on unsealing those files is deadly serious: In 2002, he took part in a press conference organized by the Coalition for Freedom of Information at which he declared, “It is time for the government to declassify records that are more than 25 years old and to provide scientists with data that will assist in determining the real nature of this phenomenon." The day he left Obama’s White House in February 2015, his first public statement was a tweet with a crucial hashtag: “Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: once again not securing the #disclosure of the UFO files. #thetruthisstilloutthere cc: @NYTimesDowd.”
Podesta’s comments clarify why the declassification of decades-old documents matters right now. “It would immediately create the biggest political legacy in history,” says Stephen Bassett, who rose to both fame and skepticism in the 1990s as Washington, D.C.’s first (and only) registered lobbyist focused exclusively on pressuring the government to disclose classified UFO documents.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Such a move would be one of those great presidential moments, akin to the space race that transformed President Kennedy into a historically significant leader.[/quote]
Such a move would be one of those great presidential moments, according to Bassett, akin to the space race with the Soviet Union that transformed President Kennedy into a historically significant leader. The American public’s frustration with unbreakable walls of government secrecy is real and urgent, inspiring everything from the movie JFK to the birther movement. Despite their reputations for cloak-and-dagger methods, both Bill and Hillary have been eager to shine a light on potentially “dark secrets,” which Bill discussed in a 2005 speech in Hong Kong:
“I did attempt to find out if there were any secret government documents that reveal things [about UFOs], and if there were, they were concealed from me, too. I wouldn’t be the first president that underlings have lied to or that career bureaucrats have waited out ... But, if so, they successfully eluded me, and I’m almost embarrassed to tell you I did try to find out.”
In October, the whole world discovered that Podesta was involved in official preparations for galactic war when WikiLeaks exposed his emails with former astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell about the U.S. Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space. And earlier this year, the National Security Agency revealed that Russia was involved in hacks on the Democratic National Committee. Hillary Clinton called the first WikiLeaks data dump “an attack on the international community” in 2010. But it isn’t an attack if the government dumps its own data first.
In an interview earlier this year, Podesta rekindled hopes that such an effort would be high on Clinton’s agenda, telling political reporter Steve Sebelius that he had convinced Clinton to disclose much of the classified information on UFO phenomenon. “It’s time to find out what the truth really is that’s out there,” he said. “We ought to do it because it’s right. We ought to do it because the American people, quite frankly, can handle the truth. And we ought to do it because it’s the law.”
Now, with Trump in office, instead of setting a precedent for a government that has moved beyond covert Cold War tactics into an unprecedented era of openness, we are transitioning to an administration with an unsettling fondness for a Russian president who spent decades as a KGB operative. Radio show Coast to Coast AM, still on the air, though now hosted by Art Bell’s maligned rival George Noory, described Donald Trump’s “stunning victory” in a post-election blog post as “a devastating blow to the UFO disclosure movement.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Bassett, who says that he has no plans to lobby a Trump administration to declassify the UFO files. Instead, he’s looking to redirect his efforts elsewhere.
“I’m packing up my shop and moving to Europe,” he said. “The British and Vladimir Putin are sitting on the same classified intelligence. I’d prefer it to be an American who makes history, but getting the truth out there is the most important thing.”