In the summer of 1996, John Greenewald, fifteen years old and fascinated by UFOs, was living at his parents’ house, in the San Fernando Valley. Like his dad, an ex-Marine who worked as a welder on the space shuttle and Mars landers, Greenewald liked looking up at the stars. One day he decided to feed his curiosity by surfing the Web, which at the time meant dialing into America Online and waiting patiently. When he had a connection, he went to the Computer UFO Network, or cufon, a site that had been around since, believe it or not, 1983, disseminating “reliable, verifiable information” on UFO phenomena. cufon had just posted what it claimed to be a document from the United States government describing the sighting of a mother ship—that is, a large aircraft that could release smaller “parasite” aircraft—flying over Iran.
Greenewald clicked. It was a report from Tehran Province dated September 1976. As they would later relate to the Iranian Royal Command, four civilians had seen something strange hovering in the sky one evening after midnight. The IRC sent an F-4 jet to investigate. “The visual size of the object was difficult to discern because of its intense brilliance,” the document read. It was emitting a rapidly alternating four-color strobe pattern; the lights moved so quickly “that all the colors could be seen at once.” When the fighter pilot got within twenty-five kilometers of the object, his instrumentation and communications equipment failed. When he retreated, everything began working again. Then a smaller object “came out of the original object” and headed at great speed toward a second F-4 that had come to observe. Eventually, the smaller craft returned to the mother ship and headed toward a small house with a garden. After that, no more evidence was found. The people in the house reported hearing a loud noise and seeing a lightning-like brightness.
Greenewald could not believe what he was reading. Nor could he fathom that this supposedly real document came from the US government. But he read on, and saw that the file had been obtained through something called a Freedom of Information Act request. He decided to try it out for himself.
On August 11, 1996, he mailed a foia request to the Defense Intelligence Agency, in Washington, DC, asking for the same document about the Tehran incident. About two weeks later, a response arrived in the mail. Robert P. Richardson of the DIA had sent a copy of the document Greenewald had seen on the cufon website. It was real. The mother ship wasn’t necessarily real. But the document he’d read was absolutely proven to have been a government memo describing the sighting of a ship. Greenewald was floored.
Being a teenager, with plenty of time to indulge his obsession, he saw an opportunity. If he could send one letter and get back a document about a UFO, why not do it again? Using the original letter as a template, Greenewald began filing foia request after foia request. Back then, the turnaround time for a request was far quicker than it is now. “It’s really night and day,” he told me recently. It averaged, by Greenewald’s estimate, a couple of months before he heard an answer; today the wait is often measured in years. Once he got the hang of the system, he thought to himself: there should be a repository for this kind of stuff on the internet, an archive of government documents collected through foia. Nothing like that existed, so he started his own.
For twenty-four years, Greenewald, now thirty-nine, has been the proprietor of the Black Vault, an archive that holds more than two million pages, all obtained by foia request. Each month, the site attracts at least three hundred thousand unique visitors, who together download about ten terabytes of documents. Recently, Greenewald began hosting a popular podcast, which he uses to drill deeper into the documents he obtains and to discuss them with experts on the topics they cover. He has also written two books and appeared on TV discussing the files he’s unearthed.
It is not his full-time job. Greenewald has a few ways he generates income from the site—the books, a Patreon, Google and YouTube ads, T-shirts—but those just about pay for Web hosting. In his early twenties, he worked as a bartender; for a while he was a producer and writer for documentaries and television series like UFO Relics, UFO Files, and Secrets of the Freemasons. Now he runs a business importing and selling low-cost earbuds to schools, gyms, and hotels. The Black Vault remains a hobby. “There’s no money to be made by giving out information for free,” he said.
The focus remains on UFOs and topics such as Bigfoot, the JFK assassination, and the CIA’s mind-control experiments. Greenewald posts findings on more mainstream news or historical topics, too, like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Recently, he has been making requests related to the novel coronavirus, about the lab in Wuhan, China, where some believe the virus originated, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, to see how seriously the agency was taking the pandemic in its early stages. But for Greenewald, the Black Vault is not a project with a political agenda. “There’s no ‘Democrats have more secrets’ or ‘Republicans have more secrets.’ It’s not like that. They all got secrets,” he said. “No matter who you deal with, you’ve got something to pursue.” He added, “There’s no such thing as transparency.”
The site’s slogan—“Exposing government secrets… one page at a time”—suggests a certain confrontational philosophy, one that might place Greenewald in a camp with Julian Assange or Edward Snowden. Greenewald, however, is adamant that his work—based only on the acquisition of documents through the formal request process—is different from theirs, and he does not view them as heroes. (He once mused on Twitter about Snowden being tasked by the US government to leak the documents he did.) “He’s a rule follower, which I think surprises a lot of people, because they see a site and they think it’s this niche cottage industry where maybe he’s something like WikiLeaks. But he’s not,” Tim McMillan, an investigative journalist and frequent Black Vault podcast guest, said. “He’s not somebody that seeks classified information through back-channel means.”
Greenewald has no major ax to grind with federal agencies, and no deadlines. Sure, he gets frustrated by what he considers a flawed, if not broken, foia system. “I think it’s to their advantage to just say, ‘Well, sorry, we got these big backlogs of cases,’ and I don’t think that they really try that hard to bring them down,” he told me. And lately, the coronavirus has become an opportunity for the FBI and other agencies to rust the foia wheels even more.
But Greenewald can afford to wait. In one case, documents he requested took thirteen years to arrive. That was fine. His patience, he believes, is a large part of what makes the Black Vault valuable. “You can take something that took more than a decade to come to my mailbox and give it to the public for free in an instant—that’s why I do it,” he said. “I’m fairly hooked on the whole foia thing.”
In the beginning, Greenewald called his site “John’s World.” It had all the requisite early-Web HTML design quirks: text and links that were barely readable against dizzying tiled-image backgrounds. He hosted it via a service provider called Primenet, now long defunct. The hosting was free, but it came with storage limitations. He couldn’t just scan and post all the documents he was receiving in the mail. Not when he had only five megabytes—the file-size equivalent of one or two contemporary smartphone pictures—to work with.
So he typed in the documents by hand, literally copying, letter by letter, hundreds of pages of material and posting it all on John’s World. To make the files as legible as possible, he created a legend of codes for redacted and unreadable text. It was slow and painstaking work. But gradually he realized that people were reading the site. A user who wished to stay anonymous—he lived outside the United States—was so impressed by what Greenewald was doing that he wired him four hundred dollars to buy a flatbed scanner. Greenewald had cash left over, so he bought a domain name and secured the kind of hosting capability that would mean he didn’t have to type everything out anymore. After a year or so, Greenewald updated the site with its new name, the Black Vault, to conjure vaults of information with blacked-out redactions. Plus it sounded cool.
The Black Vault kept on drawing interest. In 1999, NBC aired a ninety-minute special called Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us?, which included a four-minute segment on Greenewald, then still in high school, skinny with a clean-shaven face and a crew cut, being interviewed while sitting at his family’s Gateway 486 computer. The host of the special, Robert Davi—a gravelly-voiced character actor who appeared in The Goonies—called Greenewald “a folk hero to the UFO community” and “quite a nuisance to the United States government.” Davi reported that the Black Vault then hosted more than six thousand pages of documents, all obtained through foia requests. The day the show aired, the Black Vault website received so many visitors—more than eight million, according to Greenewald—that his Web host crashed.
The Black Vault’s biggest score to date may be its material related to MKUltra, a top-secret CIA project that involved dozens of mind-control experiments on US citizens and others. In 1973, as MKUltra was ending, Richard Helms, the CIA director, ordered that all documents related to the program be destroyed. But a few years later, twenty thousand pages of MKUltra documents were discovered in the agency’s archives. In the late nineties, Greenewald filed a request for copies of all of them. In 2004, he received four CD-ROMs of documents in an unsearchable .tiff format, along with readable text files. In 2016, a visitor to the Black Vault reviewed the files and an accompanying index and noticed that more than three hundred documents were missing or incomplete. Greenewald sent a foia request for the missing files, but the CIA said it could not find them. Greenewald then sent a ninety-seven-page fax to the CIA proving their existence. The CIA admitted it had made a mistake but said that Greenewald would need to pay $425.80 for the remaining pages. With help from a GoFundMe campaign, he raised money to pay the fees. (In the meantime, he converted all of the original files to readable and searchable PDFs.) There were some more bumps in the road, but in November 2018, he finally received the last of the pages, which are now available on his site to download for free.
These documents include details on Projects artichoke and bluebird, which explored whether the CIA could control human behavior with the use of hypnosis or hallucinogens like LSD and peyote. There is a report investigating whether people who have been hypnotized score differently on polygraph tests, another on the development of natural and synthetic toxins to incapacitate and immobilize an enemy, a memo on the potential of using wildlife telemetry in an intelligence-gathering capacity, and a letter about using pyrotechnic material—flash bombs—to blind people. The MKUltra documents are a hundred James Bond movie ideas rolled into a pile of real-life experiments.
The Black Vault, now with a more modern and clean layout than that of its first iteration, is not the only internet-based archive of government documents. A recent paper by David Cuillier, a journalism professor at the University of Arizona, listed the Black Vault as one of seven civilian archives, alongside sites like Government Attic and AltGov2. Michael Morisy, the cofounder and chief executive of MuckRock—an even larger database of government files, established in 2010—told me that Greenewald’s work has been groundbreaking. “John has done a really amazing job building up an archive with really important documents and also really weird documents—and some really weird documents that are important,” he said. Greenewald’s trove, amassed strictly according to his whim, includes material that professional reporters might not have sought out as newsworthy, or that they wouldn’t have found useful for a story at hand. “There’s a lot of really unexpected value, because something might seem frivolous today and it becomes really important in six months or a year,” Morisy said.
I am one of many journalists who have used the Black Vault as a source. Over the past few months, its materials have been cited in stories in The Intercept, Wired, Newsweek, Business Insider, USA Today, Popular Mechanics, Vice, and the Washington Post. Sarah Scoles, a freelance science writer in Denver, first encountered the Black Vault while reporting on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program—a Pentagon research project that recently released videos of unidentified flying objects spotted by Navy pilots. Scoles often found that when she sought a document, Greenewald had already filed a request for the same one. In her new book, They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers, she included a chapter about his research efforts. “He has millions of pages of documents,” she said. “John spends more time on it than I do—or that I have time to do.”
The Black Vault podcast—called either Inside the Black Vault or The Black Vault Radio, depending on where you’re listening—is downloaded about fifty thousand times per episode. Greenewald also livestreams the conversations on video, usually using Zoom, for one of his YouTube channels. When I set up a Zoom meeting with Greenewald, he was sitting in his home office, which has become his recording studio. He lives in northern Los Angeles County with his wife—Sabrena, an intensive care nurse and a clinical coordinator at a hospital—and their two children. “Seeing his passion for it is amazing,” Sabrena told me, when I asked her about the Black Vault. “It boggles my mind how he finds the time to do these things. Waking up at 4:45 in the morning, earlier sometimes, or waking up in the middle of the night to get this information out and disseminating it to so many people.” That behavior, she added, can also be disruptive to a household. “Then there’s the wife side of me that’s like, ‘He is obsessed.’ ”
Greenewald resembles a slightly rounder Seth MacFarlane, with a sharp buzz cut and clean-shaven face. He has a crisp radio voice. The day we spoke he wore—as he always does when recording a podcast—a black polo with “The Black Vault” embroidered on the left breast. His mic was just off to the side. Behind him was an audio mixer with blinking lights and his automatic document feed scanner, more advanced than the flatbed model he bought as a teen. “That really sped up getting documents online,” he said.
I asked Greenewald if he considers himself a journalist. After all, when he files foia requests, he does so under the news media category in order to get fee waivers. And sometimes he goes beyond merely pursuing and posting foia documents to write up posts based on the information he finds. He will press for answers—as he did recently when he got the US Navy to admit on the record for the first time that the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program videos did, in fact, depict unidentified flying objects. And he gets on the nerves of government officials in the way reporters do. In 2013, an attorney from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy suggested in an email that Greenewald and Jason Leopold, a famously foia-heavy journalist, are part of a “foia posse.” (Leopold obtained a copy of the email by foia request.)
But Greenewald doesn’t identify that way. “Even though I write articles and interview people and get quotes, I’ve just never considered or labeled myself a journalist, simply because I didn’t do the formal schooling,” he said. For a while he called himself an archivist. “But at this point I don’t even know if that’s accurate, because it is more than that. I’m trying to educate the public on what really is there to be discovered. I’m not sure how to label it.”
He enjoys seeing what professional journalists do with the files he shares. “It’s a side effect to what I do,” he explained. “Obviously, I like to give people the raw information, the uneditorialized version, so they can make up their own mind.” He’s fascinated by how people will read the same document and reach different conclusions. “The interpretation for some audience members is, ‘That’s it. I’m convinced. They’re hiding alien evidence.’ Then you have someone else go, ‘This is kind of interesting, but it doesn’t really prove much,’ ” he said. “It shows that people really are thinking for themselves. And even though I may disagree with their ultimate conclusion, they care enough to push their own belief systems.”
Though Greenewald is not especially interested in storming the halls of power, the Black Vault traffics in theories that have sometimes embroiled it in controversy. In 2018, Greenewald appeared on Alex Jones’s InfoWars (on the same episode as Roger Stone) to talk about the MKUltra documents and modern attempts by the military to allow soldiers to control robots with their brains. In early March, on the Black Vault podcast, Greenewald hosted Jordan Sather, a right-wing YouTube star, to discuss QAnon, a conspiracy theory Sather espouses. Greenewald received criticism for giving Sather a platform, but he told me that he didn’t consider it an endorsement of QAnon. “I personally don’t buy into that whole allegation that there’s this secret person or persons that are posting from the inside of the White House and they’re doing all this stuff,” he told me. “That show was actually spawned by me publicly stating I do not believe in this whole conspiracy thing when it comes to QAnon. But I received a response from the CIA that said they would neither confirm nor deny that they have documents on QAnon. I thought that was interesting. Because generally if the government doesn’t have it, they will say, ‘Well, sorry, we have no records.’ ”
Greenewald does dabble in some unlikely theories. For instance, he believes that the US government shot down United Airlines Flight 93 after the World Trade Center was hit—“as crazy as that sounds,” he said. A lot of the Black Vault fan base trades in conspiracies, too, as he’s learned from interacting with them on social media, in YouTube comments, and when they call him (his office number is listed on the website). Sather, for instance, has lately been spreading claims about covid-19, including that Big Pharma and the deep state are avoiding using chloroquine to fight the disease because it won’t turn a profit. I wondered if that bothered Greenewald, since Sabrena has been working on the front lines of the pandemic. “Sometimes you just have to jump in and call it a conspiracy theory,” Greenewald said. “But a lot of times you go find some underlying truth to it and then just go from there and you let the evidence guide you.”
I asked Greenewald if he would ever publish leaked documents—files that the government doesn’t want the public to see. He said it would depend on the level of classification and his ability to authenticate them. “If there was any sign that something was classified, I would not publish that at all—that I can comfortably say,” he told me. “Using the Freedom of Information Act, I will push and push and push and push as hard as I can, but I know that I will never break down that wall.” His father’s father was in the Navy, Greenewald explained, and worked on classified projects like the Bell X-1, the rocket-engine-powered airplane that Chuck Yeager flew to break the sound barrier. At one point, Greenewald submitted a foia request to find a report his grandfather had written. Greenewald considers himself a patriot; if he’s told by officials that a document can’t be released, he likes to think they have a good reason. “I skate the line between trying to respect national security and keep things secret that should remain secret,” he said, “but in the same respect reveal things that I feel that the public should know about.”
His answer, maybe, was a function of what he most wants to know about: whether aliens are flying overhead, not whether the state has acted counter to the interests of its citizens. “I do believe that there are certain secrets that need to be kept,” he said. “But I also say we should know as many secrets as we can.”
Inside the Black Vault – Columbia Journalism Review