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The Skeptic

ufo200It had to happen. Somewhere neatly slid into the coverage of Wikileaks and the leaked 250,000 diplomatic cables was this question, asked by a Guardian reader and answered by Julian Assange, the Wikileaker-in-chief: does his stash of hitherto secret government documents contain any information about UFOs?

Assange was taking part in an emailed question-and-answer session at the Guardian’s website. His answer: “Many weirdos email us about UFOs or how they discovered that they were the anti-christ whilst talking with their ex-wife at a garden party over a pot-plant. However, as yet they have not satisfied two of our publishing rules. 1) that the documents not be self-authored; 2) that they be original. However, it is worth noting that in yet-to-be-published parts of the cablegate archive there are indeed references to UFOs.” Within an hour every newspaper had picked up the story: UFOs! In the cables!

You can understand their excitement. For decades, every conspiracy theorist has believed that governments know for a fact that aliens have been visiting our planet and have been covering up the truth that’s out there. Exactly why it would be worth covering up has never really been clear to me. “To prevent mass panic” seems like an insufficient answer, given that many of these conspiracy theorists speak darkly of the terrible things that happen to the people who know the truth.

Though it has to be said, a surprising number still manage to publish books, appear on radio and TV shows, and make personal appearances at conferences without apparently ever being interfered with. The logical conclusion is that either there’s no conspiracy or these are not the people who know the real truth. But I digress.

I’m going to make a prediction here, just because I can: I am going to bet that the cables will turn out to contain exactly what Assange says: referencesto UFOs. They will not contain evidence of a government conspiracy to cover up the presence of aliens on our planet. They will not contain proof that aliens have visited our planet. At best – or worst, if you dislike pointless debates – they will contain utterly disputable anecdotes indicating that one or more people in diplomatic circles saw something in the sky they didn’t understand. It’s my guess, also, that Assange either knows or suspects this himself, but saw no reason to dampen worldwide interest in what Wikileaks might publish next. Like any traditional publisher, Assange knows his site needs as much audience and public attention as it can get.

This is especially true because Wikileaks has (like any modern publisher) funding problems. Back in June, a leaked message from an anonymous “Wikileaks insider” blamed Assange’s own behaviour for the organisation’s having failed to win a $532,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. In late 2009, Wikileaks shut down briefly for lack of funds. In August, the Wall Street Journal reported both of these things, noted that Assange claimed to have raised $1 million since the beginning of 2010, and criticised Wikileaks’ reticence about its financing given its mission to expose other people’s secrets. Sources in the story estimated the cost of running Wikileaks – rent, servers, internet connections, storage, some travel expenses – at about €200,000 a year, rising to €600,000 if the organisation were to begin paying staff.

In October, the Guardian and others reported that the internet payment service Moneybookers had closed down Wikileaks’ account because the organisation had been added to blacklists in the US and Australia. There are not that many trustworthy payment services on the net, and all of them are owned by skittish corporations who can be leaned on by one government or another. Paypal, for example, is owned by eBay; it, too, has suspended Wikileaks’ account, although only briefly. So even people who want to donate – and in the wake of “cablegate” many do, believing that the site’s activities are an example of free speech heroism – may not have the easiest time doing so.

In any event, Wikileaks has no revenue stream other than donations, just as it has no content stream other than donated documents. The best way to attract both is to make as big a public splash as possible. Frankly, I’d have thought UFOs were small beer compared to years of government diplomatic cables, but they’re a lot easier for the media to cover – you don’t have to do all that nasty research and get specialists to explain the context. Everyone knows what a UFO is and what it means (or think they do); explaining the relationships among the US, Yemen, and al-Qaida is a lot more complicated.

But we – as in skeptics – have been here before, and this is why I’m so confident in my prediction. This is hardly the first time a cache of government documents has been released that believers hoped would show that we are not alone: Project Blue Book and the Ministry of Defence’s report on its own UFO files – most notably its file on the Rendlesham case – are just two examples. So, I’d be happy to be wrong, but don’t get your hopes up. Wikileaks is wildly unlikely to be any different.

Wendy M Grossman is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic magazine and co-editor of Why Statues Weep, an anthology of the best from the first 21 years of The Skeptic.


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