Disclosure can be a tricky thing. The Gulf of Tonkin, COINTELPRO, Weapons of Mass Destruction—governments lie. Throughout history there has been an incentive for leaders to spread disinformation because of the minimal costs associated with getting caught. Propaganda, when executed properly, can sway opinions, but bad actors will often go unpunished regardless of outcome. (In 2003, for instance, the Bush administration was able to create a pretext for invading Iraq by convincing Americans of a link between al-Qaeda and Sadaam Hussein, even as no such relationship existed.)
On the other hand: the truth is out there. Sometimes you want to believe in something so badly, beyond all reasonable comprehension, that you are willing to accept information coming from an anonymous source. And, occasionally, that information may be accurate! (FBI special agent W. Mark Felt, under the cover of the pseudonym Deep Throat, disclosed information about the Nixon administration’s Watergate break-in to journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1973.)
The trick comes in distinguishing good information from bad information, in recognizing disinformation. But how do you know when someone is lying to you? It can be maddening trying to tell the difference. As a result, there is a long, complicated history of government disinformation programs targeting American citizens, with an unusual subset focusing on the UFO community. Beginning at least as early as the 1970s, the United States military and associated intelligence agencies began seeding disinformation to UFO researchers, for reasons that still remain a mystery to this day. Of course, operations like this do not appear out of the blue, they have to begin somewhere.
Paul Bennewitz is a figure that looms large in modern UFO mythology. He represents the end of the naive utopianism of early ufology, a period defined by the curiosity of men like J. Allen Hynek and shows like Star Trek, and the beginning of its shift towards anti-government militarism, an era overrun with paranoid cranks like Behold a Pale Horse author Bill Cooper and spooky programs like The X-Files. Though he may not have been as prolific in his writing as later ufologists, Bennewitz is still among the most influential figures in the field today, if not the most.
But as far as visionaries go, Paul Bennewitz would be an unlikely candidate. He was a scientist and military contractor working for the United States Air Force when he became involved in UFO research, by chance, in 1979. He attended a conference on cattle mutilation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after learning of the subject, and it was there that his (and our) cosmic journey began.
At the conference, Bennewitz connected with others devoted to researching unusual and unexplainable subjects. Within a year he was conducting hypnotic regression therapy on UFO abductees in an aluminum foil encased car and reaching out to his contacts in the Air Force about UFOs hovering above a New Mexican mountain rage, and within two he would write a seminal 25-page manifesto that would give life to beliefs in the UFO community ranging from grey aliens to government cover-ups. These ideas would outlive Bennewitz, who distanced himself from his work on UFOs by the end of the eighties, the immense weight of this forbidden knowledge too great for one man—even a visionary.
How does one chart a course from curious onlooker to mad prophet? In his paranoia, Paul Bennewitz created something greater than himself, greater than the people around him, greater even than the field of ufology itself. He birthed a way of believing, a kind of religion-without-religion. Paul Bennewitz created a movement. And it required one simple trick.
The government lied to Paul Bennewitz.
In the year before the airing of UFO Cover-Up? Live!, the UFO community was in a state of frenzy over news that a shadowy organization was operating covertly within the United States government. The group, allegedly a collection of high-level American military officials convened to cover-up the crash at Roswell in 1947, came to be known as Majestic-12.
The theory emerged after a series of public disclosures by ufologists over the summer of 1987, notably British author Timothy Good who outlined the scope of the clandestine project in Above Top Secret: The Worldwide U.F.O. Cover-Up. In the book, Good describes it as follows: “According to a document acquired by TV producer Jaime Shandera in 1984, a highly secret panel, code-named ‘Majestic 12’ or ‘MJ-12,’ was formed by President Truman in 1947 to investigate UFOs and report on its findings to the President. The document, dated 18 November 1952 and classified TOP SECRET/MAJIC/EYES ONLY, was allegedly prepared for President-elect Dwight Eisenhower, and includes the astonishing statement that the remains of four alien bodies were recovered two miles from the Roswell wreckage site…”
Finally, disclosure! In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle to promote UFO Cover-Up? Live!, Jamie Shandera stated that an operative in the intelligence community passed him the MJ-12 document to expose a cover-up. The government was hiding information about the Roswell crash because knowledge of the existence of UFOs would change, in Shandera’s words, “[c]ulture, thought processes, technology.” According to Shandera: “Some might build a religion around the alien. They’d think it was the second coming. Others would think it was the Antichrist.”
There was one problem.
No one in or out of government could verify the authenticity of the original MJ-12 document. Moore, Shandera’s professional partner at the time, claimed it was genuine and that he had other documents confirming its authenticity, while the United States military, the institution directly implicated in the document, denied any knowledge of MJ-12. Complicating matters, Moore and Shandera appeared to have a financial incentive in disclosing the information. Writing in the August 1987 edition of Saucer Smear, a popular UFO newsletter, editor Jim Moseley noted that the documents “conveniently make the Roswell incident (about which [Moore] has written a book) the most important event in world history.”
Was MJ-12 real? Only one person knew—Bill Moore and Jamie Shandera’s intelligence operative, the same person they put in contact with Michael Seligman on UFO-Cover-Up? Live! The MJ-12 information would have a profound influence on the direction of the show.
“[Seligman] was looking over his shoulder all the time, it was kind of comical,” Tracy Tormé, the producer of the show’s Gulf Breeze segment, stated. “We used to play games where I would be talking to one of the producers and they would say, ‘Hold on a minute, MJ-7 is on the phone,’ and I would say, ‘Wow, that’s weird, I just talked to MJ-9.’ We would say it to rib Michael Seligman because he seemed to think once he knew about this stuff the Men in Black were going to show up at his door.”
According to supervising producer Curtis Brubaker, once the intelligence contact became involved, Seligman swore everyone on the cast and crew to oaths of secrecy. “He seemed to get more and more paranoid,” he recalled. “I was the last hold-out because I was the guy who brought the concept in. He circulated non-disclosure agreements to everyone in the crew. I refused to sign it, I think I was the only one. He couldn’t fire me very well. But after everybody signed them, he seemed to get paranoid more and more and wouldn’t tell us what he was learning from these unusual contacts.” Whatever this information was, it altered how Seligman viewed UFO Cover-Up? Live! Said Brubaker: “That input became the heart of the narrative of the show.”
Changes were not limited to the on-air content. After meeting with the intelligence contact, Seligman dropped the live element altogether.
“[He] very stupidly made everybody on the show read off of cue cards,” exclaimed Tormé when asked about the show’s format. “And the whole thing that was great about the show was that it was live. It’s in the title!”
Much as in the first two LBS series, UFO Cover-Up? Live! chose to bank on the name of a celebrity host in conjunction with the show’s controversial subject matter. Mike Farrell, an actor best known for his role as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt on the television series M*A*S*H, signed on with the expectation that he would be part of a spontaneous live event, but this, he stated in a phone conversation during the fall of 2021, changed the day of the shoot. “I was dissatisfied with the show when I learned that I was not allowed to ask questions beyond what was on the script,” Farrell said. “There were people who came on, who made certain claims, and I was given a script to serve as how to ask questions and what to prompt them to say. It was very frustrating to me to not be able to follow up.”
The change, however, allowed for greater control over what appeared on-screen. This became evident with the introduction of two anonymous guests who popped up the day of the shoot hidden behind digitally-obscured black screens and spoke through electronically-modified voices. Was this a Cosmic Watergate? The presentation certainly learned towards portraying these figures as potential Interplanetary Deep Throats. From a production standpoint, at a minimum, one could concede this might heighten the suspense of their revelations, but…
When the show aired live, references to Bill Moore and Jamie Shandera were scattered throughout as a tease to their segment, the program’s big disclosure event. After a grueling hour of inane banter with guests on subjects like hypnotic regression therapy and Soviet sightings, Farrell introduced the two and they explained how they uncovered the intricate web of government agencies connected to the Majestic project. Moore noted that the classified information he received on the subject had come from a figure he identified only as Falcon. Shandera quickly followed, stating, “We joined forces in June of 1982 and Falcon told us about MJ-12.”
Another anonymous figure, Condor, had appeared earlier in the show, briefly, to insinuate Project Blue Book was compromised, a distraction created to discredit the UFO phenomenon. Falcon, identified via a chyron as a “govt. intelligence official,” followed up on that by detailing the extent of the conspiracy. MJ-12, said Falcon, was an organization that dictated policy related to “exterrestrial activity and contacts.” President Truman created it as the real Blue Book, to investigate and analyze UFOs, and information fed to MJ-12 came through yet another secret organization, Project Aquarius.
While this may sound like your run-of-the-mill deep state conspiracy theory, Falcon explained that it was much bigger than anyone could imagine. In what would come to be the show’s defining moment, its big disclosure, Falcon stated, “Presently, as of the year 1988, there is one extraterrestrial being. He’s a guest of the United States government and he’s remained hidden from public view.” Named EBE by the government—short for extraterrestrial biological entity, obviously—the being was three feet tall and grey-skinned. And it worshiped the universe as a supreme being, listened to Tibetan throat singing music… and enjoyed strawberry ice cream? An unusual disclosure, to say the least. When asked why this was all he had to offer, Falcon responded flatly, “I personally feel this information should be presented to the public.”
UFO Cover-Up? Live! landed with a thud. Not only did it do poorly in the ratings, but it was savaged by believers and skeptics alike. The day after its airing, The Pensacola Journal News, which had provided positive coverage in the weeks leading up to the show, ran a headline in big, bold letters exclaiming, “EXPERT CALLS UFO TALE FAKE”. The subsequent article covered show guest and NASA scientist Robert Nathan debunking the local UFO sightings in Gulf Breeze, Florida. (A model of a UFO resembling the one in photos provided by Ed Walters would later be found in the attic of his former home. Walters any involvement in fabricating the model or photos.)
Even the normally supportive UFO Magazine, a publication that profiled both Moore and Shandera in past issues, could offer only criticism. Editor Vicki Cooper asked The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence author Victor Marchetti, a former spook himself, to review the program and provide his thoughts on the show’s intelligence operatives. Marchetti pulled no punches. “From the intelligence point of view,” he observed, “ufology would be an easy field to disrupt. The people in it and their combined attitudes—their paranoia, gullibility—make it easy to ‘feed’ a few things at a time, a little bit here, a little bit there, to get everybody running in circles. The only reason they’d do that is if they have something they really want to hide—and don’t want anybody even lucking out and stumbling on the right direction. If there are current contacts with aliens, they don’t want people knowing about that.”
UFO Cover-Up? Live! went from a show about a government cover-up to one accused of participating in a government cover-up. Central to this was the presence of the show’s mysterious informants. Who were Falcon and Conor?
NEXT TIME: Disclosure