SARASOTA, Fla. — From his post as a senior intelligence officer for the Secretary of Defense, Luis Elizondo knew by 2017 he had two choices: 1) make peace with silence and continue sitting on the Cold War's deepest secret, or 2) resign from a career he loved in order to fulfill his duty to serve the United States.

The dilemma: How to bypass obstructionists in the Pentagon in order to deliver the most accurate information available to top military leadership regarding a potential national security threat. The problem: That potential threat involved unidentified flying objects (UFOs), perhaps the most ridiculed and marginalized issue of our time.

If he decided to leave the Department of Defense, he would be challenging official history, twisted by decades of cultural punchlines about Little Green Men. It would require exposing a longstanding fiction imposed by the hopelessly obsolete Project Blue Book, shuttered in 1969.

For half a century, Blue Book was the military's final word on the limits of its curiosity into the unsettling implications of UFOs enjoying unimpeded access into U.S. airspace. Although the world had long since moved into a new century, the standard press release routinely dispensed by the Air Force was a museum relic, as rote and intractable as the Berlin Wall was during Leonid Brezhnev and the Stasi.

It reassured inquiring minds that there was "no evidence" indicating the mystery was extraterrestrial, and that further investigation was pointless. "No UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force" ever represented a "threat to our national security," asserted the USAF, which produced the Blue Book conclusions.

More significantly, however, the canned response included this whopper: There was "no evidence" that UFOs represented "technological developments or principles beyond the range of modern scientific knowledge."

Elizondo, Riverview High School Class of 1990, knew better.

For four years, beginning in 2008, the Army veteran and counterintelligence agent had been the director of a secret Pentagon study on UFOs or, in more politically acceptable parlance, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). The evidence he had assembled, in fact, explicitly negated Air Force claims about zero gaps between known technology and what UFOs were exhibiting. But efforts to walk that evidence up the chain of command were being repeatedly stifled.

Elizondo, however, had an ace to play. It was a card that former Blue Book director Capt. Ed Ruppelt alluded to as far back as 1956 but never made public: gun camera footage.

Elizondo had contemporary video, three separate clips showing three separate incidents of UFOs violating restricted air space, interrupting active naval exercises and outperforming frontline warplanes. Better yet, the images offered metadata, such as air speed and altitude, acquired through multiple targeting modes, including infrared. Two of the sequences contained pilot audio reactions.

The path that brought Elizondo to this history-making crossroads began in Sarasota, haunted with painful childhood memories of a broken family and financial devastation. But one of the saving graces was his decision to join the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at Riverview.

JROTC provided structure and discipline at a time he was "making dumb decisions" and floundering. It was also the first time "I experienced what it's like to be on a team, where they had your back and you had theirs."

At the Pentagon, Elizondo belonged to a small but dedicated — and still unnamed — team that wanted the UFO story to come out. And that teamwork invigorated one of his favorite quotations, from Rudyard Kipling: "As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack."

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Elizondo's long-shot plan to jump-start an adult conversation on UFOs faced more than bureaucratic intransigence. Nor were decades of hoaxes, crackpot messiahs, tabloid sensationalism and Hollywood freak shows the most formidable obstacles.

Political scientists Alexander Wendt (Ohio State) and Raymond Duvall (University of Minnesota) argued in 2008 that a meaningful appraisal of the phenomena would require the human species to reimagine itself somewhere other than at the top of the food chain. In an essay titled "Sovereignty and the UFO" published in the journal Political Theory, they were skeptical of humanity's ability to relinquish its anthropocentric conceits.

"... the truth is that after sixty years of modern UFOs," wrote Wendt and Duvall, "human beings still have no idea what they are, and are not even trying to find out. That should surprise and disturb us all, and cast doubt on the structure of rule that requires and sustains it."

A GS-15 employee by now, the civilian equivalent of a colonel, Elizondo chose to attack that structure by working within it. Rather than list the red-flag terms "UFO" or "UAP" in the subject field of his request for the release of the smoking-gun videos, Elizondo soft-peddled the mission. He labeled the objects of his query as "UAV, Balloons, and other UAS" footage, geek shorthand for conventional Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones.

On August 24, 2017, the DoD's Office of Publication and Security Review cleared the videos, nicknamed "GoFast," "Gimbal" and "FLIR."

None had been previously classified; in fact, the latter had been leaked to an obscure public website in 2007.

An acronym for Forward Looking Infrared — for the F-18 thermal imaging camera that captured a UFO off the coast of Baja, California, during maneuvers in 2004 — the FLIR sequence would be more famously referred to as the Tic Tac incident, for the shape of the object being pursued. Navy radar indicated it plunged from 80,000 feet to 20,000 feet in less than one second, a "liquifying" velocity.

"GoFast" and "Gimbal" were recorded by Navy jetfighters off the Eastern seaboard in January 2015.

"GoFast" captures the moment of jubilation when an F-18 targeting system locked on to a small, elusive white orb skimming above the Atlantic. More detailed than the Tic Tac, the "Gimbal" footage shows a UFO swiveling on its axis in flight. Both videos are considerably more dramatic than the Tic Tac because they contain the astonished pilots' reaction.

"There's a whole fleet of 'em, look on the AESA ..." "My gosh!" "They're all going against the wind, the wind's 120 knots to the west." "Look at that thing, dude! ... Look at that thing! It's rotating."

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Born in Miami, Luis Elizondo IV moved to Sarasota around 1975. That's when his father, Luis Elizondo III, a food and beverage manager, helped open the Hyatt hotel in Sarasota. Dad would later work with the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort before branching out into the restaurant business. Among his startups, now defunct, was Michelangelo's in St. Armands Circle.

Dad also spent two years in one of Fidel Castro's prisons. A Cuban exile, the elder Elizondo volunteered for Assault Brigade 2506, whose ill-fated mission to overthrow the communist dictatorship with CIA support ended with the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961.

Elizondo describes his Sarasota childhood in self-deprecating terms, as socially awkward, "not popular at all," "not good with the ladies," and "the last kid ever picked on a team." He says "I knew at a young age I would have to take care of myself — I did not want to get beat up anymore." He credits dad for putting steel in his spine. "I grew up," he adds, "in a paramilitary environment."

He watched his parents' marriage collapse, along with family finances. He worked odd jobs to make ends meet, from busing tables at Red Lobster on South Tamiami Trail to delivering copies of the Herald-Tribune. When times got tougher, he sold his own clothes at the Red Barn flea market in Bradenton.

Riverview High offered a glimpse of the way out.

"I was told, don't go to ROTC because, at the time, there were a lot of troubled kids who went into it and not necessarily by choice," he says. "It was wonderful for me because we had kids from all over Sarasota, from rich kids to kids from the beaches to Newtown. Nobody saw social strata or economic lines or ethnicity. There was only one color that mattered, and that was green."

A member of the ROTC color guard, Elizondo also joined the drill team and the RHS wrestling team, his entrée into martial arts. But it was chemistry class that put the hook in him.

"I fell in love with science, because where there's science, where there's mathematics, there's truth," he says. "I often tell people, there's a whole universe around you, and if you know how it works, it will give you a better appreciation of what life is about.

"There's a pattern of reality that exists, whether it's the neural connections in the human brain or the patterns of the lungs and the vascular system in the human body or the path that a river takes down a mountain or even these large, super Magellanic galactic clusters in the universe — and you realize these patterns are all the same.

"What science does is, it opens up the aperture that allows you to look at things in a fundamentally different way, in a way that we're not used to looking at them."

Elizondo attended the University of Miami, where he double-majored in microbiology and immunology, with minors in chemistry and math. The degree would've qualified him for Officer Candidate School. Instead, he entered the Army as a grunt, in 1995: "My father said, in order to lead, you've first got to know how to follow."

Not quite four years into his hitch, Elizondo held a specialist's rank when he was recruited by a "special program" involving national intelligence. He went on to draw multiple assignments that sent him into the shadows of South America, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. He would report to the Secretary of Defense, the Office of National Intelligence, the White House and other bosses he still can't talk about today.

By the autumn of 2017, as director of the little-known National Programs Special Management Staff tucked inside the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSDI), Elizondo was ready for Plan B.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Elizondo said his research suggested "a direct correlation" between UFOs and "our nuclear and military capabilities." The phenomenon's displays of "beyond next generation capabilities" could present "a tactical threat to our pilots, sailors and soldiers." However, "bureaucratic challenges and inflexible mindsets" continued to bury the evidence, and there was no way forward.

Elizondo submitted his resignation letter on Oct. 4, 2017.

On Oct. 11, he stepped out from behind the curtain, onto a stage in Seattle, and into a novel partnership perhaps best described as uniquely American.

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It was an all-star cast.

There was Hal Puthoff, the pioneering engineer renowned for pursuing quantum physics through experiments involving ESP and remote viewing, via the CIA's Stargate Project. There was Jim Semivan, who spent 25 years as a spy with the CIA's Directorate of Operations. And there was Steve Justice, formerly of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced technology division, whose Tennessee twang could make arcane jargon understandable.

Most notably, there was Chris Mellon, a veteran Beltway insider and Elizondo's most indispensable ally in Washington, D.C.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence during the Clinton and Bush administrations, former Staff Director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), Mellon became a player in the 1980s when he conceived and drafted a bill establishing what would become U.S. Special Operations Command. He formally ended his 19-year career in government in 2004, but he retained key contacts and connections.

Also: Mellon and Elizondo had been collaborating behind the scenes to unclog the UFO stovepipe at DoD.

"Chris is one of the greatest strategists I've ever worked with. He's always thinking of second- and third-order consequences, and that's very rare. When you're playing checkers," says Elizondo, "Chris is playing three-dimensional chess."

Introducing that lineup — running the show, in fact — was Tom DeLonge, off-and-on frontman for California pop-punk band Blink-182, whose 1999 "Enema of the State" album sold 15 million copies worldwide.

An avid and tenacious UFO buff, DeLonge had convinced his stage partners to join a commercial venture to research the issue, develop advanced technology and promote awareness through various entertainment platforms.

Three years in the making, DeLonge's public benefit corporation was called To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTSA). It was seeking investors and preparing to eradicate the UFO stigma.

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The shoe dropped on Dec. 16, 2017. The New York Times ran a story on Page 1A about Elizondo's stymied UAP project, complete with videos. Almost simultaneously, Politico Magazine published its own version. Then the whole world jumped on it.

It was a $22 million program, advocated quietly in 2007 by a bipartisan trio of aging Senate lions, Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). It was called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), an outgrowth of another DoD acronym, the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Program (AAWSP), initiated by yet another acronym, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Details remain incomplete; most of the research papers commissioned by AATIP have not been released. A security oath prevents Elizondo from sharing everything he learned.

Although AATIP funding expired in 2012, Elizondo — who says he was recruited to run the operation in 2008 without any prior knowledge of UFOs — insisted to the Times that military UFO research was ongoing, with a small staff under a new name.

The centerpiece of the Times scoop was the 2004 Tic Tac incident, involving F-18 fighter pilots from the elite Navy unit, the Black Aces, aboard the USS Nimitz.

Retired Cmdr. David Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight went on record about giving futile chase to a UFO intruding upon war-game exercises. As Fravor closed in, the Tic Tac jammed his radar, which he would later label "an act of war." He pursued the craft to the deck of the ocean, where he noticed it moving as erratically as a cursor on a computer screen; directly below it, the water was stirring as if upon shoals, suggesting something had just submerged.

After the craft broke contact and vanished, Fravor was informed by radio that the enigmatic radar target had instantly popped up at a prearranged rendezvous point, some 60 miles away.

The pilot who videotaped the Tic Tac, Chad Underwood, volunteered his own eyewitness account to the Times in 2019.

Within days of the Times story, Raytheon Technologies, developer of the sensor that captured the Tic Tac, trumpeted a news release quoting a senior chief engineer: "We might well be the system that caught the first evidence of E.T. out there."

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Military encounters with UFOs have been reported since World War II. But maybe the most riveting single-group testimonial occurred at the National Press Club in Washington in 2010. Seven Air Force veterans gathered to discuss apparent UFO surveillance of nuclear missiles, some of which resulted in ICBMs becoming inoperable.

The seven were among more than 150 veterans and civilian engineers who have shared their stories in "UFOs and Nukes," a 2008 book by author Robert Hastings. CNN livestreamed the press conference, but the media never followed up. After all — none of those startling incidents were made of solid gold, i.e., official government video.

"I received the videos, the now famous videos, in the Pentagon parking lot from a Defense Department official. I still have the originals in the packaging," Mellon told director James Fox in "The Phenomenon," a documentary released in October. "This is a case where somebody bent the rules a little bit, and they did so for the larger good and we're absolutely all better off because of it."

Elizondo's decision to go public caught the Pentagon flat-footed. Various spokespersons alternately confirmed the story, denied AATIP was a UFO/UAP program, and discounted Elizondo's role in it. Subjected to a security investigation, Elizondo says the DoD pushback was generated by the same officials who sat on the AATIP data.

Undeterred, the TTSA team has been on offense for the past three years, pressing for transparency in legacy media, digital startups, podcasts, cable/network TV, news magazines and public radio. And the dominoes have been falling ever since.

In an April 2019 surprise, the Navy publicly announced it was updating its pilot reporting protocols to better accommodate UFO encounters. Two months later, Sen. Mark Warner, vice chair of the SSCI, told reporters he'd attended a classified Pentagon meeting on UFOs that focused on "safety concerns"; days later, President Trump told ABC he'd been read in as well.

Its content shaped by TTSA members, History Channel's "Unidentified" series premiered in June 2019, with an eye on updating largely uninformed congressional audiences on the controversy.

Season 2, which aired last summer, was filled with veterans responding to Season 1. Retired USAF Col. Jim Cobb, onetime Senior Command Director at NORAD, offered a rare glimpse into the inner sanctum at its Cheyenne Mountain base in Colorado.

Cobb discussed an extended-duration UFO event that materialized in commercial American air corridors through Canada and exited off Florida in 2008. Multiple assets were deployed in vain to intercept the bogey. The drama, Cobb recalled, left "the entire room standing."

In April 2020, the Pentagon ratified Elizondo's gambit. It announced it was officially posting the "FLIR," "GoFast" and "Gimbal" videos online as part of the historical record.

Last June, The New York Times reported that astrophysicist Eric Davis, employed by a defense contractor, claimed to have given a classified briefing to a DoD agency in March, in which he stated there have been retrievals of "off-world vehicles not made on this earth."

After attending a different closed-door briefing, SSIC chair Sen. Marco Rubio announced the inclusion of an "Advanced Aerial Threats" directive to the proposed 2021 intelligence budget, submitted on June 17.

The AAT provision instructed the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense to produce an unclassified status report on the phenomena. It instructs the FBI to perform a "detailed analysis" of UAP, an order to be completed within 180 days of the spending bill's passage. The budget passed on Dec. 27 with the UAP rider intact.

The most surprising item in the SSCI directive was an acknowledgement that a previously unpublicized entity, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), has been collecting data as well. But that bit of news wasn't formally announced until nearly two months later. On Aug. 14, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist made it official, declaring the UAPTF's mission statement is to "improve its understanding of, and gain insight into, the nature and origins of UAPs."

In August, the nation's oldest popular science magazine, Scientific American, openly lobbied for a transparent and all-out "interdisciplinary approach" to confront the UAP conundrum.

Following the U.S. lead, Japan's Self Defense Forces announced new procedures for military pilots to log UFO encounters. The issue was reportedly raised in September when Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with his Japanese counterpart in Guam.

In November, a 58-page analysis published by a conservative Israeli foreign policy think tank — the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies — weighed in on expectations for the Pentagon's UAPTF. It described the SSCI's concerns over the military bureaucracies' uncoordinated hoarding of UFO data as "a fairly damning indictment" of DoD policy.

In short, the taboo surrounding the UFO mystery is disintegrating. Among the most stunned is Ohio State professor Wendt who, a decade ago, maintained that the debate now underway was next to impossible.

"I am pleasantly surprised, and I would attribute the whole change to the resistance of the fighter pilots, who are the ones actually having the experiences and were getting angry that nothing was being done about it," he says. "Hats off to them for proving my theory wrong, in a sense."

But Wendt's crystal ball is dark.

"I think there's an urgency in finding out what these UAPs are. But it was urgent 30 years ago and nobody did anything," he says. "If we now agree that this is a situation that's going to gradually unfold, then what we need to do is prepare the population. And how do you do that?"

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In December, Luis Elizondo, Chris Mellon and Steve Justice parted ways with TTSA. Some DeLonge-watchers suggest the departures may have been precipitated by TTSA's appointing of private equity entrepreneur Christopher Mizer to its board of directors. Elizondo says it was just time to move on.

"Tom (DeLonge) is really focused on the entertainment side, so there's not a whole lot for Chris, Steve and I to do," he says. "We're not entertainers. Our talents lie in engaging governments, Congress and international organizations, and we're ready to shift into second gear. Entertainment is one way to do it, but it's not comprehensive."

Three years after joining TTSA, Mellon says it accomplished the mission.

"In short order, TTSA succeeded in getting the issue on the front page of the New York Times," he stated in an email. "We also facilitated official inquiries by Congress. Ultimately, the entire conversation has changed. Now an official DoD investigation is underway, and Congress is asking for a public report.

"These historic results would not have occurred without Lue's direct involvement."

As the White House prepares for a new resident, a familiar face in the UFO subculture — John Podesta — is consulting with transition team members. Former chief of staff to President Clinton and adviser to President Obama, Podesta tweeted in 2015 that his "biggest failure of 2014" was "not securing the disclosure of UFO files." But the times have obviously changed.

"I'm talking to you from Washington, D.C., and I don't live here," Elizondo says in a post-Christmas interview, some 2,000 miles from his home in Wyoming. "What does that tell you?

"Look, this is not a political conversation, OK? This is a conversation about humanity. Whether it's a Trump administration or a Biden administration or any administration thereafter, we have a moral obligation to arm our leaders with the most accurate information available so they can make informed decisions.

"I think at the end of the day, we have to speak the truth to the American people," he says. "Whether we're talking about Kim Jong Un and North Korea with ballistic missiles capable of hitting L.A., or whether we're having a conversation about cancer, I want to know. If I know I have cancer, maybe I can do something about it.

"And at the end of the day, if the American people decide they don't want to make this a priority, great, at least we were finally allowed to have that conversation."

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Thirty years removed from Riverview High, Elizondo says if he had to do it all over again, he would teach.

He lauds erstwhile ROTC instructors Don Christiansen and Thomas Sweeney, wrestling coach Earl Jones, an English teacher whose name he wishes he could remember, and chemistry teacher Bill DeMay, who nominated him for the Phi Beta Chi science honor society, though Elizondo doubts his grades merited the attention.

"I suspect Mr. DeMay knew I had some challenges in my home life. But that's what any good teacher does, they try to build you up," he says. "I didn't realize that at the time. I know a lot of those teachers are gone now, but they still live in my heart.

"They didn't focus on the top 10 percent, they focused on the bottom 10, me being in that group. I remember seeing them interacting with these kids, sitting with them at lunch, offering to buy them breakfast, counseling them. The best teachers aren't necessarily going to teach you everything that's in the lesson book — they're going to teach you about life.

"I am who I am today because they decided to invest in me and believe in me. Even when I didn't believe in myself, they did. I am forever grateful."

Reporter Billy Cox has been writing about UFOs for the Herald-Tribune since 2007, in a blog called De Void.

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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