Mirage Making’: Q&A with Mark Pilkington.
By Lee Nicholson
(Originaly posted at Open Minds Forum and American Chronicle 2010. September, 2010)
Following on from our recent review, Mark Pilkington author of Mirage Men: A journey in Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs, kindly offered to answer a few questions about the people, places and events described in the book. Read on to find out what he had to say:
LN - Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. I wonder if you could begin by telling us a little bit about how the project began?
MP: Hi Lee. The adventure that became Mirage Men began in 2004 with a telephone conversation between my friend John Lundberg (of the Circlemakers group), who was making a film about the UFO, mind control and crop circle researcher Armen Victorian. Victorian had made a name for himself in the early 1990s, writing on UFO bulletin boards and in magazines like Lobster. Armen Victorian’s real name is Henry Azadehdel and he was a former orchid smuggler turned greengrocer and landlord in Nottingham, England. Henry also lead an extraordinary double life that saw him crossing paths with many of the military and intelligence insiders interested in UFOs and paranormal phenomena, some of them part of Bill Moore’s infamous 'Aviary’, and it was one of them who suggested to John that he looked into the story of Richard Doty. John asked me who Doty was and once I’d told him about the Bennewitz affair and the role of disinformation in the UFO story we decided to pursue it as both a documentary film and a book. My book Mirage Men is the first result - the film will hopefully emerge in the future.
LN - In the first section of the book you describe your own personal UFO sightings, in particular at one point you mention seeing a "huge craft" I wonder if you would be willing to share more details on that?
MP: I was living in Austin, Texas at the time, spring 1995, and was being given driving lessons by a friend on top of a hill overlooking the city – I don’t remember exactly where I’m afraid. As we turned a corner I looked out over the vista and was sure, for a split second, that I saw a huge saucer hovering over Austin! It was just a momentary flash but I don’t take it as evidence for a physical craft – more likely some perceptual processing glitch that I 'texture-mapped' with UFO imagery. In a strange way the image prefigured scenes from Independence Day that came out the following year. Perhaps the whole thing was a false memory that bubbled up into my consciousness years later. I don’t know. I should point out that this was entirely different in nature to the silver sphere sighting I had with two friends that opens the book.
LN - Early on in the book and as part of your discussion about Project Serpo, you mention a "US Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL)" and float this as a potential source for the Project Serpo material, before revealing that in fact the "MOL" didn’t exist and you just made it all up! I wonder if you could explain that a little bit? Perhaps you were trying your hand at 'mirage making’? Or highlighting how easy it is to add disinformation into the mix?
MP: The Manned Orbiting Laboratory was a genuine attempt to launch a manned military reconnaissance platform into space. The project was announced in 1963 but was cancelled in 1971 as by that time unmanned satellites could do the same job much more safely and efficiently. My 'embellishment' is the superimposition of that programme onto the SERPO story. But yes, by weaving the MOL with the early suggestion that SERPO was the work of Alice Bradley Sheldon, aka SF author James Tiptree, I was trying to show how easy it is to build a convincing story – that might serve as disinformation – out of disparate facts.
LN - On a couple of occasions you draw parallels between the 'mirage men' and the work of John Lundberg and yourself in the field of crop circles. I wonder if you could briefly explain the motivation of the Circle Makers group, and what they are trying to achieve?
MP: The motivations of the various circlemaking groups have changed a great deal over the years, and each group has its different philosophy. But for John’s group, Circlemakers, crop circles are their art and the fields are their canvas. While they’re beautiful and impressive to look at however, the real magic, I would say the real art, is in their reception, the responses of those people who interpret and decode them. Without them, there would be no phenomenon, and I think you can say the same thing about UFOs.
LN - This activity has led to both yourself and John Lundberg being accused of government/intelligence connections in the past, how do you respond to such allegations?
MP: With a resigned shrug, and maybe a wink. Accusing people who don’t agree with you of being government agents is now standard practice in the UFO and conspiracy worlds – in fact I’d say it’s a badge of honour! For conspiracy mongers it helps to maintain divisiveness, a sense of 'us and them’, and to spread distrust of reasonable ideas that they aren’t comfortable thinking about. I can understand why people with a strong emotional or financial investment in promoting tales of ET visitation might see us as spreading lies when we talk about the mirage men, but I really can’t see why we’d be pretending that we’d made a few impressive crop circles. The intelligence agencies have enough on their plates already – I don’t know where they’d find the time to be making crop circles as well!
LN – Several researchers have commented that the book is very dismissive of several key cases and aspects of the phenomena, such as; Roswell, Antonio Villas Boas, MJ-12 and cattle mutilations and that the arguments presented are somewhat speculative. How would you respond to that?
MP: Yes certainly my interpretations of these incidents are speculative, some more so than others. I make this very clear in the book and in each case provide analogous examples from the long history of deception and disinformation in the military and intelligence arenas to show that such practices aren’t limited to the UFO field.
It's an inescapable fact that disinformation operations have been carried out in the UFO arena since the early 1970s, so I wanted to reconsider some key moments in the development of the UFO story within this context and see if they fit, and I think they do, though as I say, some better than others.
Please be aware that I'm not presenting a grand unified theory of UFOs as intelligence hoaxes, instead I'm trying to show how the UFO myth has emerged through a subtle and complex interplay of cultural, political, psychosocial and historical forces. Disinformation and deception exercises are just one part of this weave and UFOs are just one of many themes that can be deployed as cover for covert operations.
What I'm trying to do is present another context for thinking about these events, one based in the cultural, political and technological realities of what was going on at the times that they took place. Unfortunately we don't have all the pieces of this particular puzzle, but I believe that we have enough of them to piece together a plausible alternative narrative to the ETH, because as yet, after more than six decades, there is absolutely no hard evidence for the reality of extraterrestrial involvement in human affairs. Hopefully one day some new testimony or files from the archives might shed more light on the suggestions that I present in Mirage Men, but until then we can only speculate and I have tried to do so reasonably and responsibly.
LN – Rick Doty plays a key roll in the story of the book. What were you impressions of him? Did you enjoy his company? Did you think he believed the things he told you? And do you still keep in touch?
MP: Rick is a fascinating, complex character and I’ve taken great pains to represent him and our interactions with him fairly and accurately in the book. Whether or not he believed the things he told us is a crucial question and one that I can’t answer - I know that different people have reached their own conclusions after reading what Rick told us. I haven’t heard from him for some months now, and part of his last email to me is included in the book, with Rick’s permission. John and I liked Rick and hope that we’ll get to meet him again one day.
LN – Many people have suggested that the operation against Paul Bennewitz was not officially sanctioned by AFOSI, yet you make a very strong case for AFOSI involvement, not just with Bill Moore and Paul Bennewitz, but with numerous individuals over a very long period of time. Could you tell us little about that please?
MP: I suggest that the Air Force, through AFOSI’s Special Projects or PJ Unit and its predecessors, have long been involved in promoting UFO stories as part of their overall security programme to protect advanced and classified aviation technologies. An article about black aircraft in a recent edition of Air and Space magazine summed this up nicely: "I once asked a Groom test pilot whether tainting classified-aircraft sightings with the UFO stench was ever done intentionally. He smiled and replied: "It´s worked for 50 years. Why would we change now?" [Air and Space Magazine, 1 Sept 2010]
LN - You describe in the book how Rick Doty was kind enough to escort you onto Kirtland AFB and give you both a guided tour, you also make it clear that you did not enter any classified areas. Yet I recall seeing emails several months later accusing Rick Doty of having breached security by taking you onto the base, there was also a mention of "foreign agents". Could you explain what that might have been about?
MP: Yes Rick gave us a great civilians' tour of part of the base, though of course we saw nothing that was in the least bit sensitive. Somehow word of this leaked out via the UFO insiders' grapevine, along with the allegations that John and I were 'foreign agents’. The intention was clearly to damage Rick; while John and I have our suspicions as to who was behind the rumours, we don’t know what the exact reason for spreading them was. My own hunch is that we got caught up in a personal vendetta between members of the intelligence community who are interested in UFOs.
LN - At one point in the narrative Rick Doty states that his "DIA contacts" were engaged in a private screening of footage depicting an interview with an EBE, apparently the footage was shown to the conference organizers along with a few other unnamed parties. Do you believe that the footage was real, and did you ever try to verify it’s existence with those alleged to be present?
MP: Yes, this took place towards the end of our week at the Laughlin conference. We were getting quite weary of the games being played around us at this point – time for us to interview people was running out – and took the whole episode to be a ruse. It’s a clear sign of our general wariness that we decided there was nothing to be gained from asking those named as having seen the film.
In hindsight this was perhaps something that we could have done, but I really don't think we'd have learned anything. I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if we'd said yes, we'd watch the film, but I strongly suspect that 'something' would have come up and we wouldn't have been able to do so. Personally I don't believe that the film was real and my sense is that the whole episode was cooked up to motivate Bill Ryan before his Serpo presentation. Bill was beginning to feel anxious and somewhat disillusioned and disorientated about the whole affair and Rick's description of the film was a kind of pre-game pep talk.
LN – In a similar vein, you were told of alleged photographs of "EBE 2" which might possibly be released "if they proved to be genuine", given that this was four years ago it seems unlikely that they will be released, if indeed they ever existed in the first place. This seems to be a common theme throughout the book, a promise of 'smoking gun' evidence which never materializes, what do you think might be the purpose of this?
MP: Yes, once again I think this was another of Rick’s yarns, though a good one. The rumours act like cliffhangers in an old time RKO serial – they are lures, and baits; they keep the audience hanging at the edge of their seats for the next great revelation. Except in this case, it never comes – UFO disclosure has been 'just about to happen' since the days of Donald Keyhoe.
LN – The UK MoD’s Provost and Security Service (P&SS) have been rumoured to be interested in the UFO subject for many years. In the book you tell of an unnamed source who confirmed carrying out disinformation against a UK based UFO researcher in the early 90s, I wonder if you would be willing to expand on that?
MP: Not at this stage, but I hope to pursue this story further and write about it in the future.
LN – I think it would be fair to say that the book is generally very dismissive of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), although you do acknowledge a real unidentified core phenomena, you seem to approach the topic from a sociological perspective and highlight the lack of conclusive evidence. Many people, and I count my self among them, would counter that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" (to quote Bud Hopkins.) How would you respond to that?
MP: As I think anyone who reads the book will soon realise, I’m not a debunker. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of anomalous aerial phenomena, I just don’t think that the ETH goes even part way towards making sense of what is surely the most amazing story of modern times.
I appreciate Budd Hopkins' line and would never rule out any possibility. I’m a fortean, a practicing agnostic, and as such I’m as open to the idea of life existing out there in the universe as anyone else. However, I also recognise that the conditions for life on Earth are quite rare – the so called Goldilocks Effect – and it’s solipsistic of us to expect life elsewhere to look like people wearing shiny silver Buck Rogers space suits, like Villas Boas’s captors, or even the big-eyed homunculi popularised by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We humans have always believed that we share the earth with other intelligences, and we do – it’s called nature – but we’ve interpreted this presence, this sense of the other, in different ways according to the way we see the world around us. ET visitors are just the latest variation.
I don't reject ETs, but I do reject the ETH as a root cause for the multiple events and experiences bundled together under the umbrella of the UFO phenomenon. The notion that UFOs are flying discs piloted by extraterrestrials from Outer Space became popular just as the Cold War entered a critical phase in the early 1950s. Until then flying discs were considered to be either Soviet or US experimental aircraft and indeed disc-shaped planes had been a reality since the 1930s – there's nothing alien about them. Generating anxiety about Russian aircraft over the USA was potentially very dangerous at a time when the extent of the Soviet infiltration into senior military and political circles was only just becoming clear. My own suspicion is that once the USAF and others accepted the fact that they couldn't stop some people being interested in UFOs, they realised that the notion of ET visitors was one that could be more easily contained, managed and dismissed. That might explain, for example, why you have things like the famous LIFE magazine article of April 1952 that gave official USAF approval to the idea that UFOs were from outer space.
LN - On page 277 of the book you describe a meeting with former senior CIA Analyst Dr Christopher 'Kit' Green. Dr Green presents a very interesting scenario in which UFO material is distorted and exaggerated by the intelligence community so as to desensitise the masses to a less controversial core story which might be revealed at some point in the future. You describe your own shock and discomfort at hearing this scenario, yet it is not clear whether Dr Green is talking from first hand knowledge or simply speculating. What were your thoughts about this?
MP: Kit is a smart man and as I describe in the book our meeting with him made quite an impact on John and myself. Kit presented us with a very interesting context for the spread of disinformation in the UFO community, something I would imagine that he was, and still is, aware has been going on for some time. Now, whether Kit *knows* this desensitisation programme is real or whether he *believes* it to be real, is a crucial distinction, and one that he himself drew our attention to. As it is I don’t know the answer.
LN – In many ways the book describes a journey of discovery, of meetings with numerous fascinating characters and evidence of intelligence community involvement in the UFO subject. I wonder how this might have affected you personally and how, if at all, it may have affected your perspective of the UFO subject and the core phenomena?
MP: I’ve learned a huge amount from the whole Mirage Men experience, and in a way I wish I could do it all again knowing what I now do. But I think the main thing I’ve taken from it is the recognition of just how powerfully beliefs – and they can be in anything from the belief in UFOs as ET spacecraft, to belief in a god, or belief in a government conspiracy to make god look like an ET spacecraft – can shape people’s hearts and minds and change their lives. We’re all aware of this on an abstract level, but getting involved with this project has made that understanding concrete for me, even physical at times. As such it became very clear what Rick meant when he said that he and AFOSI really didn’t have to do very much to convince Paul Bennewitz that Albuquerque was under threat of alien invasion. It’s their implicit understanding of this, of the power of influence, that makes the mirage men and their work so effective and you can see this influence at work in all aspects of life. In fact there’s one we unfortunately see every day – it’s called advertising.
LN – At one point in the book you suggest that "where the subject of UFOs and advanced technology is being discussed the intelligence community will always be listening". Here at Open Minds Forum we have a Google Analytics account and can confirm that to be the case. I wonder if you have used similar software to determine if any of the 'Mirage Men' are reading your website(s) and/or blog?
MOP: It's interesting to know that the intelligence guys are fans of Open Minds. I hope they're interested in Mirage Men too, but I don't know. Perhaps one day they can tell me how close to the mark my speculations are!
LN – Have you received any feedback from any of those discussed in the book, and if so what is the general consensus?
MP: One of the people we interviewed feels that they’ve been unfairly represented, which I’m sorry about, but as yet there’s been no other feedback. I expect we’ll hear something once the dust has settled.
LN – The book is soon to be released in the US, do you have any plans to return there for a book tour?
MP: I’d love to do a tour but I’d have to pay for it off my own back, and my advance for the book was on the modest side! So if anyone wants to bring me over, and contribute to my flight costs, I’d be more than happy to talk at your event. Meanwhile I’m doing a number of radio interviews over the next few weeks, so people can tune into those and I’ll list them on the Mirage Men blog - miragemen.wordpress.com
LN – Once again thank you very much for your time. Is there anything you would like to say in closing?
MP: I hope people will read Mirage Men with open minds. I’ve been immersed in the UFO story for over twenty years and this represents my own Estimate of the Situation thus far.
Ultimately I wanted to do three main things with this book: 1) try to demonstrate to people who aren't otherwise interested in the UFO subject why it is so fascinating and important and 2) to try to present the development of the UFO story within the context of Cold War espionage, technology, deception and psychological warfare. and 3) write a fresh, engaging and responsible book on a subject that has intrigued me for most of my adult life.