In Greek mythology, Cassandra is endowed with the gift of prophesy. But Cassandra is also cursed; her prophesies are never to be believed.
As former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke writes in “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes,” modern-day “Cassandras” – experts who sound the alarm over catastrophic or paradigm-shifting events – are often ignored.
Clarke, who served in the Reagan, Clinton and both Bush administrations, is all too familiar with this phenomenon. Like the engineer who foresaw the space shuttle Challenger catastrophe, the lone intelligence analyst who warned of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Louisiana State University professor who issued dire predictions years before Hurricane Katrina and the “outsiders” who foresaw the 2008 financial collapse, Clarke’s desperate warnings of an impending terrorist attack fell on deaf ears before Sept. 11, 2001.
Writing in 2017, Clarke is prescient about the risks of a global infectious disease outbreak.
Shortly after “Warnings” was published, a stunning exposé of U.S. government efforts to investigate unidentified flying objects appeared in the New York Times. An accompanying article paints a vivid portrait of an extraordinary, multi-witness UFO encounter off the coast of southern California. A follow-on piece describes naval aviators’ frequent observations – corroborated by multiple sensors – of unknown objects exhibiting seemingly highly advanced technology.
More recent revelations make clear that fighter pilots are often left stunned by UFOs.
Critically, officials have high confidence that secret U.S. aircraft or experimental technologies are not responsible for these perplexing encounters. At the same time, analysts have no evidence that a foreign power is behind hundreds of UFO reports.
At this point, any intelligence analyst worth his salt should sound the alarm about the UFO phenomenon. And if policymakers are, in fact, receiving such warnings, Cassandra’s curse appears to be alive and well.
As Clarke writes in “Warnings,”“agenda inertia” – when too many issues compete for attention – is one of many factors that keep decisionmakers from acting on dire warnings from experts.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall demonstrated this phenomenon recently, saying that he does not focus on UFOs because there are “a lot of known threats out there that we’re working very hard to protect the [U.S.] against. I’d like to focus on those.” (Sec. Kendall did also say, “I think we should take the [UFO] phenomenon seriously” and called for “real technical investigation of what they are.”)
Beyond “agenda inertia,” Sec. Kendall’s comments highlight the core challenge posed by the UFO conundrum.
Congress is demanding that the Department of Defense and the intelligence community – entities laser-focused on national security threats – conduct a sweeping, thorough investigation of UFOs. But in a world teeming with threats, defense and intelligence agencies will always focus limited resources on well-defined risks. As Kendall notes, UFOs do not fall into this category.
This mismatch between organizational priorities (mitigating threats) and the nature of the UFO phenomenon (no unambiguous threat) likely lies at the root of Congress’s palpable frustration and “disappointment” with the government’s slow progress on resolving the UFO problem. (Importantly, NASA, an organization focused on science, rather than threats, is proceeding “full force” on an unprecedented study of UFOs.)
Of course, many other factors cause policymakers to resist acting on warnings of looming disaster or a paradigm-shifting event.
According to Clarke, “initial occurrence syndrome” – when a phenomenon has never occurred previously – frequently inhibits timely and appropriate responses to warnings. At the same time, “complexity mismatch” can paralyze decisionmakers who lack the expertise to understand key pieces of data (such as the extraordinary technologies needed to execute anomalous flight characteristics). Policymakers can also resist acting on warnings, no matter how convincing, if they are based on incomplete data.
Moreover, as Clarke notes, “Decision makers don’t typically welcome predictions of impending disaster.” While UFOs may not represent an inevitable catastrophe, they are a perplexing “unknown.” Woe to the analyst who presents policymakers with evidence of a compelling, yet entirely unknown, phenomenon that may (or may not) pose a grave threat. Such ambiguity is anathema to rigid bureaucratic structures, missions and mindsets.
Cassandra’s curse strikes even more forcefully if the analyst sounding the alarm on UFOs cannot offer decisionmakers concrete recommendations to address this mysterious phenomenon. Policymakers, after all, are answerable to higher-ranking policymakers who expect options for navigating a particular issue.
At the same time, a unique cognitive trap can impede objective analysis or action on UFOs. If decisionmakers believe that a technology, risk or threat simply cannot exist, then all data indicating otherwise is ignored, trivialized or explained away.
Clarke alludes to this “It can’t be, so it isn’t” phenomenon, writing that policymakers presented with compelling evidence of an impending catastrophe “often go into an implicit state of denial. They may not dispute the evidence and reject the warning, but they don’t act as though they actually believe it to be true.”
Capt. Edward Ruppelt, the first director of Project Blue Book (the U.S. Air Force’s decades-long investigation of UFOs) wrote that scientists and “experts” who embrace the “It can’t be” approach to UFOs “are dangerous, if for no other reason than history has proved them so.”
As Ruppelt notes, the French Academy of Sciences once vehemently denied that “stones” (meteorites) could fall from the sky. At the same time, “world-famous astronomer” Dr. Simon Newcomb claimed “that flight without [balloons]” is impossible without “the discovery of some new material or a new force in nature.” Similarly, the chief engineer of the U.S. Navy claimed that any attempts to fly “heavier-than-air vehicles was absurd.” For his part, President Truman’s chief of staff told his boss that the atomic bomb “is the biggest fool thing we have ever done… [it] will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.”
Importantly, however, not all Cassandras sounding the alarm on the UFO phenomenon are government intelligence analysts with high-level security clearances.
As Clarke writes in “Warnings,” Cassandras “often seek out and interpret data that others overlook, collect facts that no one else bothered to assemble, or derive new insights from data others already have.” To that end, a small group of private citizens has examined, in excruciating detail, three government UFO videos that accompanied the New York Times’ 2017 exposé. These individuals now hold the gold standard of analysis: reproducible, verifiable data.
Sophisticated mathematical modeling, for example, corroborates eyewitness accounts of a well-documented 2015 UFO encounter. This is robust evidence that an unknown object demonstrated anomalous flight characteristics only achievable with highly advanced technology.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.