There is a group of people in America that may be more committed to prying documents from the government than just about anyone else: People who believe that Unidentified Flying Objects are real.
UFO believers have been dutifully trying to prove the existence of alien life forms for decades, largely by submitting countless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These requests are so exhaustive, they've actually spawned new laws for how government decides to give up its other (more mundane) secrets.
"There are individuals who file FOIA requests every single time a new report of a UFO comes in, asking all the relevant agencies to look for mentions of a triangular object" says Kel McClanahan, an attorney specializing in national security and privacy law. "Every major military agency receives an enormous amount of requests about UFOs."
One of those FOIA requesters is 32-year-old John Greenewald Jr., a television producer and writer in North Hollywood, Calif. He says he's filed hundreds of FOIA requests about UFOs. He filed his first request when he was 15, and received a four-page document detailing the 1976 Tehran UFO encounter that read "like an X-Files episode." After that, he says he "was hooked," and has since amassed more than 700,000 pages of government documents, most of which he's posted online.
He's not the only one. Larry Bryant, who spent decades writing for U.S. Army publications, claims that he has "filed more UFO-related lawsuits in federal court than has anyone else in the entire universe."
It's not unusual for a UFO FOIA case to make it to court. In a 1981 case, Ground Saucer Watch v. CIA, William Spaulding, head of a small UFO group, alleged that the CIA was hiding information about the "Robertson panel," a government intelligence advisory committee that met in 1953 to investigate a spate of UFO sightings. The group filed a FOIA lawsuit, which forced the CIA to conduct a search of all UFO-related documents — even if it was a piece of paper stuck under a secretary's desk.
According to the CIA's website, "It was much like the John F. Kennedy assassination issue. No matter how much material the Agency released and no matter how dull and prosaic the information, people continued to believe in an Agency coverup and conspiracy."
McClanahan says the real implication of this case came in determining how far down the rabbit hole an agency has to go to find a document. "While the court ended up ruling against Ground Saucer Watch, it took for granted that the agency had to do a full, comprehensive search for requested documents. And it also set a line where if you're looking for, say, every document about Martin Luther King Jr., and one of those document mentions a church unless they are independently relevant to MLK." Today, the original 1981 case has been cited in hundreds of other decisions, and the CIA proactively puts UFO documents dating all the way back to the 1940s on its website.
Like the CIA, other government agencies are expected to search in every nook and cranny for a FOIA request, even one about aliens. In a 2007 case, Kean v. NASA, a plaintiff requested historical documents concerning an object that allegedly fell from the sky and crashed in Kecksburg, Pa., in the 1960s. The court ultimately determined that NASA didn't adequately search for the documents, and directed NASA to come up with a plan to look for them again.
Even when a UFO group doesn't win a case, like what happened in 2001 in Citizens Against UFO Secrecy v. DOD, it still provides useful information for Americans wishing to file future FOIA requests. In UFO Secrecy, the plaintiff produced dozens of eyewitness accounts of the alleged UFO, but the court determined that "even if the eyewitness accounts prove the existence of an object, they do not prove the existence of documents about the object in the possession of" the agency. So even if Benghazi conspiracy theorists produced dozens of eyewitnesses to support a certain allegation, it makes no difference if the government doesn't have any documentation of it. "Because of this case, you'll see plaintiffs fighting about whether or not something happened — but a judge working by the book will rule against them, because they didn't fight the right fight," says McClanahan.
Finally, say that a concerned American is looking for all information related to harmful contaminated water at the Marine Corps Camp Lejeune military base. Would the more effective search be "water tanks and toxins," or "water tanks or toxins?" Thanks to Citizens Against UFO Secrecy, the government ultimately has to choose the conjunction that is not unusual and unreasonable, so the hypothetical requester doesn't end up with a lot of information about random water tanks.
Whether or not you fall into the camp of the 36 percent of Americans who believe that UFOs are zooming around Earth, you've got to hand it to the persistence of the believers — the CIA and the National Security Agency are actually dumping UFO-related cables on their public websites. "What other advocacy group can say that they're getting the government to proactively disclose everything there is to know about a subject?" says McClanahan.
As John Greenewald Jr. puts it: "I would say all of my requests have been successful, in a way. Even a negative response tells a story and offers evidence.... In regards to UFOs, there is always something to look for."