By John Greenewald, Jr. – The Black Vault – Originally Published August 24, 2020
In April of 2020, the Department of Defense (DOD) shocked the world by releasing three videos they considered Unidentified Aerial Phenomena or UAPs. Although the three videos had already leaked and had been in the public domain for years, the official release of them represented a continued aura of transparency surrounding the UFO issue by the Navy, when all other military branches have been primarily silent on the issue. However, it appears that transparency may have morphed back into a shroud of secrecy. A string of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by The Black Vault, one which recently went through the appeal process, may have completely crushed the hopes that the Navy would reveal startling new information about their connection to the Pentagon’s UFO study known as AATIP. This two and a half year effort by The Black Vault may also foreshadow future secrecy which may surround the recently announced “UAP Task Force.”
Navy and the AATIP
The Navy’s involvement in the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP, was first revealed in February of 2018. In an interview with Luis Elizondo, the man who says he ran the secret UFO study, he called out the Navy specifically as one of the sources for UFO case files that he utilized while working within the Pentagon.
“AATIP receives the cases from various different channels, so where our office sat at the top of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, we had multiple avenues of approach,” Elizondo said in a recorded video to Open Minds TV. “So you had, in some cases, reporting would come up through Navy channels; in other cases it would come up through Air Force channels; in other cases it would come through the intelligence community; and as the focal point, if you will, for this capability, all roads I guess lead to Rome in this particular case. All roads led to our office regarding the phenomena.”
Using this testimony, The Black Vault filed FOIA request DON-NAVY-2018-005476 on March 15, 2018, with the Navy. Within weeks, the request yielded a denial that any records existed pertaining to AATIP. The letter claimed that not a single photograph, video, report, letter, or memo existed within the Navy’s possession, that was supplied to, sent to or received from, the AATIP program which operated within the Pentagon.
Although no appeal was filed by The Black Vault at the time, another shred of evidence presented itself in September of 2019, when Swedish researcher and journalist Roger Glassel received a statement from the Navy. “The AATIP program involved offices from across the Department of Defense, including Navy,” spokesperson Joseph Gradisher told Glassel. “Details remain classified. For additional information, I would refer you to the Department of Defense.”
This statement offered a second irrefutable piece of evidence, which came from the Navy itself, that the AATIP and the Navy worked hand in hand in some capacity while the program was running. So, within days of that statement being given to Glassel, The Black Vault refiled the request previously denied, in which the Navy spokesperson’s statement was added as additional proof that records should exist. That request was identified as FOIA Case DON-NAVY-2019-011490.
Despite the new evidence, the second request yielded the same denial as the first.
It took much longer to deny on the second go-around, but this request was also given a “no records” determination by the Navy. However, this time, The Black Vault appealed the decision and filed appeal case NAVY-2020-003752.
Armed with Navy spokesperson Gradisher’s statement, and with Elizondo’s added testimony, it was felt that between the two, grounds for an appeal were met that a proper search was not done, and responsive records should exist.
The appeal was processed, and just like the requests which came before it, was denied. However, with a FOIA appeal, denials are not simply “no records” determinations. Rather, they offer much more detail, case law, and citations on why a case is denied. This additional legalese is due to the fact that the next step beyond an appeal, is litigation, so agencies, along with their lawyers, often try to dot their I’s and cross their T’s when it gets to this point.
Although many FOIA cases related to AATIP have come up empty, and many are still pending, this particular FOIA appeal denial represents the first seeking AATIP records that The Black Vault is aware of. With it, the Navy has likely set a legal precedent on how certain pieces of information are handled when submitted to the DOD within a FOIA request/case. And the precedent, does not offer a promising future for transparency and openness on the UAP issue.
“Your appeal is a request for a final agency determination under the FOIA. For the reasons set forth below, I must deny your appeal,” E. J. Osterhues from the General Litigation Division of the Judge Advocate General’s office said in the letter.
What followed were the brutally dry details on why this appeal was denied, and it is with those details that makes this all incredibly relevant for future research endeavors seeking information related to AATIP.
Breaking Down the Denial
When an appeal is filed, you outline why you feel the agency did not do their lawful duty of searching for records (there are other reasons to appeal, though not relevant here). In this particular case, this is called an appeal of the “adequacy of the search.” After The Black Vault outlined Elizondo’s testimony along with the Navy’s statement in the appeal itself, the Office of the Judge Advocate General then broke down each point and refuted it within their response.
First addressed, was the statement by the Navy spokesperson, which stated that the Navy had a role within the AATIP. Osterhues claimed that they could not verify the statement. “After receiving your appeal my office researched that quote and found no evidence Mr. Gradisher made that statement,” the letter outlined. “Even if he did, AATIP involvement by the Navy does not otherwise undermine a reasonable search, nor does it require the Navy to actually send records to the AATIP.”
The seemingly odd part of this, is that the Navy could not even confirm what the Navy had already said. To ensure no stance by the Navy or DOD had changed, since that has happened before, The Black Vault wrote the Pentagon to ensure the statement received by Glassel was not only genuine, but still represented the current stance of the department.
It took only hours for the Pentagon to respond. “While Joe Gradisher is away from the office, I can confirm that he did provide that A5 response to Roger Glassel in September 2019 and it is an accurate statement,” spokesperson Susan Gough said in a July 21, 2020, dated email.
It is unclear why the Navy could not do the same to verify the statement, but alas, even if they did verify it, they already dismissed the relevance of it.
Second, they addressed the testimony of Elizondo. Here, the Navy reiterated a much contested and very controversial aspect to this entire saga. The DOD denies Elizondo ever had assigned responsibilities on the program, and he did not serve as the director.
“You argue that Luis Elizondo, a supposed former director of AATIP, stated the organization received records from the various military services and therefore Navy records must exist,” the letter outlined. “However, the Department of Defense specifically has stated Mr. Elizondo never served as the Director of the AATIP and his statements are pure speculation that do not otherwise undermine the IDA search.”
Although this is not a new claim by the DOD, and Elizondo has addressed this prior, The Black Vault reached out to Elizondo for another response and reaction. His comments are published here, in full and unedited, to ensure his voice is heard on the matter:
“I’m greatly disappointed but not surprised. When the U.S. Government’s last resort is to refer to a single sourced opinion article, you know their position is getting desperate. This response is clearly a vindictive effort by some in the Pentagon to inflict retribution on myself and others for speaking the truth to the American people. It’s a failure for any real journalist to not recognize this is the eighth time the government has changed their position on this matter in the last three years; even contradicting their previous official statements. There are numerous senior former and current government officials who have stated for the record my role in AATIP to include the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (the AATIP Program sponsor), Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Christopher Mellon, the Secretary of Defense’s own Press Secretary Dana White, numerous senior scientists, contract personnel, and even existing members of the Taskforce to name only a few. What is intriguing is that despite the overwhelming evidence and documentation that exists at both the classified and unclassified levels that the government continues to deny information that is easily verifiable. In essence, calling all of these individuals liars is not only despicable but duplicative and should cause one to wonder whether there is a real conspiracy to hide the truth to which we are privy. For those individuals who remain vindictive and untruthful, they will eventually be held accountable for their actions.”
To again ensure accuracy and verify that the Navy properly represented the current DOD stance, as rumors have circulated the DOD was possibly changing its position on Elizondo’s role on AATIP, The Black Vault reached out again to the Pentagon to clarify.
“Regarding Elizondo and the AATIP program, the department’s position has not changed. Elizondo had no assigned responsibilities for AATIP while he was in OUSD(I),” said Gough in another e-mail dated July 31, 2020.
The importance of dismissing the Navy’s own spokesperson, along with the testimony of Elizondo at the appeal level, is that it likely sets a future legal precedent on future FOIA cases, appeals and litigation (the next step in the FOIA process after an appeal), should the latter ever come to pass. To date, there has been no AATIP related FOIA litigation that is known.
The question then becomes if the Navy will not consider a statement from their current spokesperson or a former DOD employee who says he directed the program, who will be allowed to offer up testimony they would take?
Regardless of the answer to the above, there is one takeaway from the appeal letter that is easily missed. After the Navy dismisses their own spokesperson, along with the testimony of Elizondo, they say one thing that ultimately shuts down the entire effort to gain access to documents, photographs, videos, or whatever else the Navy supplied the AATIP.
“AATIP was disbanded in 2012 and therefore any records you seek, if they ever existed, may have been permanently transferred, destroyed, or otherwise no longer able to be located by the IDA [Initial Denial Authority].”
In other words, given the assumption records did exist based on the testimony outlined in the appeal – they are just gone. Whether the evidence has been shredded into millions of pieces of confetti or it all has been moved to an undisclosed location that the Navy will not identify, they simply are not there in the eyes of the FOIA.
Elizondo re-affirmed this week to The Black Vault that the Navy did, in fact, supply AATIP information of some kind, but added, “I cannot comment nor elaborate on the nature and type of information provided to AATIP during my tenure.”
Was the Evidence Trasnferred to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)?
If the records were transferred to an undisclosed location, rather than all copies being shredded beyond recognition, could the location be OSD at the Pentagon?
Despite the controversy behind Elizondo’s position on the AATIP, one thing that has never been disputed is his employment at the DOD, specifically within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, or OUSDI, a component of OSD. The hierarchy and structure of OSD gets to be a bit overwhelming to fully understand, but it has been widely reported that AATIP, UFO research study or not, operated out of OSD/OUSDI where Elizondo worked.
Now, why could this all be a clue? Well, in May of 2019, just after documentation was leaked by KLAS-TV investigative journalist George Knapp that showed how the Pentagon videos were “released” to the public (later shown to likely be misreported), a request was filed by The Black Vault to the Navy for the three videos labeled as the FLIR1, Gimbal (identified on the form as “Gimble“) and GoFast. This was FOIA case DON-NAVY-2019-006391.
The response from the Navy just two weeks later? The request needed to be filed to OSD to access the videos and obtain their release.
The request was immediately refiled to OSD under FOIA case 19-F-1231.
The response from OSD a month after that? The request was forwarded to the Navy for a response.
A phone call was made to the Pentagon to show the FOIA effort to get the FLIR1, Gimbal and GoFast videos was becoming a ping pong match, bouncing around back and forth between the two agencies. The answer that was given, was that the the Navy did not have the videos, and through the first FOIA case determined OSD did. The reason OSD bounced it back to the Navy, was that OSD could not determine if the videos could be released since they were not their own videos. Rather, OSD sent the videos it had in its possession to the Navy for the review. This is what is called the “Original Classifying Authority” or OCA. It is the OCA that needs to make the decision if a record can be released. Navy videos = Navy decision.
That therein lies the possible clue. The three videos released in April by the Navy, are Navy videos, hence why it was the Navy that released them through NAVAIR. However, what the original FOIA case DON-NAVY-2019-006391 proved, was that even though those videos were Navy records, the Navy did not have them in their possession. They were “permanently transferred” (reference the appeal letter language) to OSD, and there they sat until The Black Vault got the Pentagon to find them, and forward them to the proper OCA for declassification. (It should be noted – The Black Vault received the final determination for this string of FOIA requests approximately one hour after NAVAIR released the videos on their website. The end result was a full grant of my FOIA request, and a link to the videos was provided in their letter. The Black Vault spent nearly a year working on these cases to secure the release of the three videos.)
To test the theory, The Black Vault reached out to Elizondo again regarding the FLIR1, Gimbal and GoFast videos, and asked about their use (if any) within the AATIP program.
“Yes they were part of Navy resource material, however the nature with which they were obtained I am unable to comment other than that were through official channels.”
Although Elizondo could not expand further, it may be safe to assume that those three Navy videos, which would likely have been originally obtained from the Navy, is a prime example of material that was sent to OSD/OUSDI — then no longer held within Navy archives. Once sent, the videos could have been destroyed at the Navy, but retained at OSD, therefore generating a “no records” determination by the Navy.
If the above is true — what other material may have suffered the same fate at the Navy, but is just waiting to be discovered at OSD?
The Black Vault has numerous open FOIA requests to OSD since 2017, including multiple FOIA appeal wins, that may play a role in future AATIP disclosures. This will be reported on when available.
More UAP Videos
Despite the alleged absence of material sent to AATIP by the Navy, The Black Vault also pursued the video designation of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” that was given to the FLIR1, Gimbal and GoFast videos, in a much more broader sense.
After the official release of the videos by the Navy in April of 2020, The Black Vault filed FOIA case DON-NAVY-2020-007226, which asked for other videos with the same “UAP” designation within the Navy’s holdings.
In the government record research realm, a general rule of thumb is if there is one (in this case, three), then there are more. Therefore, the intent was to discover additional videos, or lists of them, that revealed what else was there.
Their official response was a push back that represents one of the biggest conundrums in the FOIA process. In a letter dated July 15, 2020, the Navy shot the request down.
“We are unable to process your FOIA request. In accordance with 32 C.F.R. § 286.5(a), a requester is required to reasonably describe the records sought and provide sufficient detail to enable personnel to locate those records with a reasonable amount of effort.”
Here is the conundrum. It is known that the designation “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” exists. It was revealed by The Black Vault in September of 2019. Well before the Navy “officially released” the videos, they made comment on the leaked versions designating them “UAP.” However, the Navy said that on this request seeking other videos with the same designation, it did not reasonably describe the records sought. Apparently, a date, time, location, branch of the Navy, etc., are all required for the Navy to process this specific request seeking other UAP videos (an appeal is being pursued).
The conundrum is simply put like this: By law you have a “freedom of information” to know, yet, if you don’t know the exact details which would come from actually utilizing that freedom successfully without pushback, you ultimately lose that “freedom of information” because you, well, don’t have enough information required to access it.
This all may sound confusing, convoluted, and frustrating, and it is.
Though do not be too dismayed by what you just read. Despite the hardships and conundrums of the FOIA process, The Black Vault’s pursuit of the AATIP truth is far from over.
The Black Vault has been told UFO related documents were destroyed in the past, and although it took seventeen full years, The Black Vault finally found them through research, determination, and never saying “never.”
The AATIP truth will be sought after by the same means, no matter how long it may take.