ENCINO, California — Motivated by curiosity, fueled by obsession and empowered by the Freedom of Information Act, John Greenewald Jr. has assembled what may be the largest collection of UFO documents in the world.
And it’s all online for anyone to see — which is the way the 26-year-old Californian thinks it should be.
As a teenager, Greenewald was fascinated by UFOs. Like many other kids in the 1990s, he used the Internet to learn more.
But simple Web searches weren’t enough for Greenewald. When he discovered something interesting about UFOs, he wanted hard copies, so he asked for them.
Before he even had a driver’s license, Greenewald was writing to the CIA, the NSA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency — requesting government documents about UFOs using a 40-year-old law called the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
FOIA requests, frequently used by journalists and watchdog organizations, compel federal agencies to provide declassified information to any citizen that requests it. Greenewald says he’s made well more than 2,000 FOIA requests.
And he says it’s been worth the effort, yielding about half a million documents from the government.
The first one he requested concerned a UFO sighting in Iran in 1976 — a large rectangular object with pulsing colored lights. When a fighter jet scrambled to intercept it, the report says, its instruments went haywire.
Greenewald scans most of his documents and archives them online on a website he calls the Black Vault, where anyone with an interest in the paranormal can check them out.
“I thought to myself, ‘Hey, if I’m looking for this, other people have got to be looking for this,'” Greenewald says.
Getting information from the government is no easy task. Agencies don’t always jump to fill the orders — Greenewald has waited years for some of them.
“I’ve learned specifically that the U.S. government and military cover up a lot.” — John Greenewald Jr.
And the agencies are finicky, rejecting requests if they are too vague or narrow. Even when a request is just right, the information may be classified.
“I’ve learned specifically that the U.S. government and military cover up a lot,” says Greenewald. “It doesn’t matter what subject you’re dealing with, it doesn’t matter what time frame you’re dealing with.”
The biggest cover-up of all, he says, is Area 51 in Nevada — which is the center of many UFO conspiracy theories. For years the government denied it even existed. It still doesn’t appear on any maps. But Greenewald has a letter in his Black Vault from the Department of Energy acknowledging that Area 51 was annexed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1958, and that the area now part of Nellis Air Force Base.
As to America’s most famous UFO legend, the alleged crash of a flying saucer in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, Greenewald says the government has changed its story several times — calling it everything from a weather balloon to an Air Force crash test.
The documents Greenewald has collected may show that the government has been less than totally honest about some of the incidents. But when asked what they’re trying to cover up and why — he’s uncertain.
“These documents, letters, memos, reports… they’re not written like books,” he says. “They’re not written like storylines where you can read through and see. They’re just clues. You’ve got to put them together. What does the story say overall?”
Greenewald has turned that puzzle into his profession. A sought-after expert in the UFO field, he produces TV documentaries and hosts a weekly Internet radio show that is available on his Black Vault site.
Does Greenewald himself believe in extraterrestrial life?
“I’m 99.9% sure and I believe in something out there,” he says. “Have they been here? I don’t know. Have I seen them? No.”
Perhaps the mystery itself is enough — as long as it helps pay the rent.