At what point does curiosity become obsession? I find myself asking this question more and more as I dive into esoteric and fringe subjects. Some are easily dismissed—I decided to learn everything I could about the Bohemian Grove over quarantine, but gave up when it became clear most of the writing on the subject has come from cranks. Other topics, however, find a way of holding space in your head, mind viruses that you never fully recover from. Such is the case with Paul Bennewitz.

I’ve spent the last two months reading every book I could find on Paul Bennewitz. There was Greg Bishop’s Project Beta: The Story of Paul Bennewitz, National Security, and the Creation of a Modern UFO Myth, and then there was Mark Pilkington’s Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs, and most recently Adam Gorightly’s Saucers, Spooks and Kooks: UFO Disinformation in the Age of Aquarius. I still have Christian Lambright’s less evocatively titled X Descending to go, but I think you get the picture. These books point to a curiosity that is rapidly becoming an obsession.

Paul Bennewitz was himself someone who charted this same path. A businessman and sometimes defense contractor for the United States Air Force in the late seventies and early eighties, Bennewitz began noticing strange lights above Kirtland Air Force Base and the Manzano Nuclear Weapons Storage Facility, just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Most people would find a terrestrial excuse for this phenomena, possibly military weapons testing or the like, but Bennewitz was an amateur ufologist, having recently become interested in the subject of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) thanks to a spate of cattle mutilations in his home state of New Mexico, so he came to believe they were aliens trying to establish contact with him. He began recording the lights and, stranger still, intercepting and decoding what he believed to be messages from the aliens. In 1981 Bennewitz compiled his research into a report titled “Project Beta,” a portion of which reads:

IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE AT THE OUTSET THAT THE ALIEN IS DEVIOUS, EMPLOYS DECEPTION, AND HAVE NO INTENT OF ANY APPARENT PEACE MAKING PROCESS AND OBVIOUSLY DOES NOT ADHERE TO ANY PRIOR ARRANGED AGREEMENT.

IN TRUTH THEY TEND TO LIE, HOWEVER THEIR MEMORY FOR LYING IS NOT LONG AND DIRECT COMPARATIVE COMPUTER PRINTOUT ANALYSIS REVEALS THIS FACT. THEREFORE MUCH “DROPS THRU THE CRACK” SO TO SPEAK; AND FROM THIS COMES THE APPARENT TRUTH.

Each book—Project Beta; Mirage Men; and Saucers, Spooks and Kooks—brings me ever closer to Bennewitz’s apparent truth. Bishop’s Project Beta is a straight-forward retelling of the Bennewitz story, drawing on interviews and Bennewitz’s own writing to reconstruct the spooky circumstances surrounding his research. Pilkington’s Mirage Men uncovers a hidden history of military psychological operations and the aliens that sprung from those campaigns, in an attempt to place Bennewitz in a broader context of Cold War espionage. And Gorightly’s Saucers, Spooks and Kooks dives into the various kooks that made up the field of ufology at the time of Bennewitz’s ascension, suggesting that Bennewitz was but one of many targets for rogue personalities in (and outside) of government. The deeper I go into the subject, the more I read, the less I feel I understand—but the more obsessed I become.

Of the three, Gorightly’s new book Saucers, Spooks and Kooks might be the most interesting. Bishop and Pilkington offer strong, well-researched material that plainly observes that Paul Bennewitz was the target of government harassment. At one time or another Bennewitz was surveilled by at least five different government agencies, a veritable “alphabet soup of spooks” by Gorightly’s estimation, from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The attention eventually became too much and Bennewitz suffered a mental breakdown; he was committed by his family, and he left the field of ufology shortly after. Gorightly alleges to uncover a reciprocal relationship between the ufology community and their would-be disinformers—in some cases Bennewitz’s own friends working with a government doing its damndest to gaslight him. In what initially appears a side tangent, Gorightly explores the origins of a syndicated TV special that aired in the United States on UFO disclosure. Both Bishop and Pilkington mention the special in passing, alternately pegging the air date as either November 14, 1988 or October 18, 1988. Gorightly devotes a substantial amount of the book to the special, definitively identifying its original air date as October 14, 1988, as a way of showing how some ufologists may have been complicit in lying to the public about the UFO phenomenon. In one of the book’s most startling revelations, Gorightly connects the special to a disinformation program targeting Bennewitz. Bill Moore, a UFO researcher responsible for the mainstreaming of the Roswell crash and—more important—a close friend of Bennewitz who worked with the Air Force to seed Bennewitz disinformation, is revealed here to have had a larger hand in shaping its production than previously thought. Did Moore disinform the public in the same way he lied to Bennewitz?

Each writer approaches the subject of Paul Bennewitz from a different angle. Bishop favors straight reporting, Pilkington gonzo journalism, and Gorightly archival research. None of the approaches are necessarily better, though I tend to favor Gorightly’s deep dives into UFO zines and newsletters. By providing ufologists a platform to speak on their own behalf—or giving them enough rope to hang themselves, if you’d prefer—Gorightly builds off existing reporting to uncover new angles in the Bennewitz mystery that somehow illuminate and confound in equal measure. He accomplishes this by allowing Bennewitz to recede into the background when necessary so he can highlight the many strange personalities that made up the UFO community in the eighties. The most enigmatic of these “kooks,” as Gorightly playfully identifies them, is Tal Levesque, a mercurial presence who may have contributed to (or indirectly inspired) UFO lore ranging from David Icke’s reptilian overseers to Bennewitz’s own theory of a secret underground base in Dulce, New Mexico. Gorightly, a sometimes associate and confidant of Levesque, is no stranger to tricksters, having written books on Operation Mindfuck architect and Discordianism co-founder Kerry Thornley. While his interactions with Levesque appear congenial, there’s an undercurrent of mischievous to to a degree that even Gorightly himself seems aware. In an interaction between the two late in the book, Levesque lets slip (intentionally?) that he used to call into a popular radio program that would inspire the creation of the ubiquitous Coast to Coast A.M. Gorightly immediately connects Levesque to a caller who would provide first-hand accounts of Bennewitz’s Ducle base theory. Gorightly guesses, possibly not incorrectly, that Levesque’s intentions point to an ulterior motive.

This speaks to why continued research into esoteric and fringe subjects is so important. “Much ‘drops thru the crack’ so to speak.” Paul Bennewitz was obsessed with the idea that the government was covering up some kind of deal with extraterrestrials, just as Greg Bishop, Mark Pilkington, and Adam Gorightly are obsessed with the idea that the government covered up a disinformation program targeting Paul Bennewitz. I, too, am obsessed. The books about Bennewitz offer compelling evidence in favor of an argument that the government is covering something up on a much grander scale. With the prospect of a government report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a rebanding of UFOs for the age of information warfare, looming on the horizon this June, it’s clear that something isn’t right. If the government lied to Paul Bennewitz, what’s stopping it from doing the same to us?

Saucers, Spooks and Kooks: UFO Disinformation in the Age of Aquarius is out now via Daily Grail Publishing.