The Montauk Project

Now that “The Dark Files” has aired, I thought I’d share some of my thinking about the Montauk Project, a conspiracy of seemingly endless strange claims.

As a quick primer for those who might just be stumbling into this subject, the Montauk conspiracy is one of the more elaborate tales in the entire field of paranormal and conspiracy-oriented thinking, involving allegations that a military base at the tip of Long Island, N.Y., housed secret efforts to create an army of up to 1 million “super soldiers.” These people, now known as “Montauk boys” (and also some “Montauk girls”), were allegedly victims of government mind control experiments. These soldiers would exist as a secret government military force, ready to be deployed wherever and whenever they’re needed, even off-planet or in different time periods. The story balloons from there, encompassing wormholes that allow for interplanetary journeys and even a time travel machine. Reptilian aliens make an appearance. And so does a Bigfoot-like creature created by pure thought.

The story gets so big, in fact, that its believers invoke it to resolve numerous mysteries. Montauk is one of a number of areas on Long Island associated with cancer clusters. This spike in cancer cases sometimes comes up among the Montauk project’s adherents, who look to the ominous radar tower, on the old military base, or experiments going on underground, as the possible culprit. There have been numerous stories about increased cancer rates throughout Long Island. The concern is not restricted to Montauk and possible causes vary depending on the source, including toxic landfills, utilities, gas additives in the well water and outdoor pollutants associated with industry. In fact, Suffolk County, where Montauk is located, has failed the American Lung Association’s air quality test. Suffolk is afflicted by a high level of pollution, much of it generated by man made industry and natural weather patterns. Coal-burning plants and other sources in the Midwest follow the Jet Stream and wind patterns push pollution into the area, reads one report.

In short, it seems grossly unlikely—a nonstarter—that any secret government program is to blame when well-known sources of pollution and the Jet Stream provide sufficient explanation.

The Montauk Project is also blamed for creating dramatic events in which deer scatter and run into town—scared, presumably, by something emanating from or happening at the old military base. Locals laugh this off, ascribing this often retold tale mostly to a single incident: A deer lost its footing while running through town, slid into a closed tavern door, righted itself and galloped off. I stayed in Montauk for about two weeks (I highly recommend Shagwong tavern; try the braised short rib). The place is famously thick with deer, which are so accustomed to living in the small town that at dusk they stroll along the streets, like vacationing families heading out to dinner. I would be more surprised, frankly, if none of these deer ever ended up downtown.

Believers in the Montauk Project raise further questions about security at the base, which has now been converted into a park. From my point of view, however, restrictions preventing trips underground or walks through hazardous areas reflect typical bureaucratic concerns about liability. Shots of the base’s old radar tower are dramatic, revealing panels missing from the big heavy dish—panels that weigh hundreds of pounds. Putting up a fence, lest people get killed, strikes me as a necessary safety precaution. And the presence of a work crew as seen in “The Dark Files,” operating complicated ground penetrating radar systems, further suggests a bureaucracy with lax security and nothing to hide.

I realize that up to now I am dealing with the small claims, but I am starting here because in some respects they represent the most immediately accessible aspects of the alleged Montauk conspiracy. As far as I know, we cannot travel back in time to see the alleged mind control experiment in action, so any residual weirdness might at least provide some scintilla of evidence that something there is out of the ordinary. Near as I could see, however, nothing was.

How was the talk of a Montauk conspiracy spawned? The short answer is that Preston Nichols started all of this, decades ago. As the legend goes, he was a technical expert on the project, but his mind had been scrubbed of any recall. Then he became part of a small group of people who started regaining memories of the experiments.  They first held gatherings to discuss their memories. Then Nichols wrote a book. Today, he looms as the story’s foundation: Want to get to square one? He’s it.

I wouldn’t want to hold anything he says right now against him, given his haggard state, but I still think we can investigate the man as he was many years ago, when his book first came out.

In his book, Nichols included electrical engineering diagrams. But I had a couple of electrical engineers look them over and neither thought the diagrams displayed any meaningful competency. I invite any believers, skeptics or strictly neutral parties with an interest in the Project to submit the drawings to still-more electrical engineers. Perhaps my guys are wrong. But my own sense is that this story started with Nichols and never gets off the ground. It is up to the people making a claim to present evidence, after all, and the entire foundation of the Montauk tale just crumbles.

Both Nichols and the Montauk story, I’d suggest, are also undermined by Stewart Swerdlow. A self-proclaimed “hyperspace intuitive,” Swerdlow claims to be one of the many thousands, if not cool million, subjected to the super soldier program. He also has a past conviction for bank fraud, in which he pleaded guilty to an embezzlement scheme. Swerdlow has since claimed the plea was coerced: The government wanted to discourage him from sharing his memories of Montauk. And of course, the presence of one opportunist doesn’t undermine the entire story. But Swerdlow was accepted as a “Montauk boy” long ago by Nichols, which strikes me as another blow to a tale that already can’t survive scrutiny.

Of course, believers will object to my analysis. And there is a danger that even discussing the Montauk Project can trigger some “backlash effect”: Sometimes, merely presenting conflicting evidence causes believers to cling to a false story more strongly.

I could go on. But I want to go big picture for a second. I am identified in the show as a skeptic, which isn’t a definition I’d reject. However, I’ve been a big critic of organized skepticism, primarily because I think it’s often too strident, condescending and dogmatic for its own good. I bring this up because I didn’t approach this as a debunking exercise. In my own head, I kept thinking, Well, can I find evidence that anything truly weird ever happened here? Can I find any evidence to indicate some facet, any facet, of the Montauk Project is real? But every time I interacted with this story, it seemed to fall apart like wet tissue paper in my hands.

There’s a particular moment in the show that captures the fragile nature of the whole tale, in which Brian Minnick—who often explored the abandoned military site as a teen—talks about some old food receipts he found there. The receipts supposedly dated from the time after the facility was closed, but he threw them away. “I’m really sorry,” he says.

“I’m sorry, too,” I reply. The thrown away receipts, in fact, matched my whole experience: Is there any evidence of any weirdness out there? Forget reptilian aliens. Forget time travel. Is there even… an unexplained grocery bill?

The short answer is, no.

The show does end with the discovery of some unidentified structures or anomalies beneath the ground, which might be consistent with a fuel storage tank or could represent… something else. I find that discovery interesting, but it doesn’t even begin to confirm the Montauk Project: It’s one thing to find a structure underground, after all, and quite another to discover what happened there.

I wanted a chance to do journalism on a subject—conspiracy theories—at the center of our national conversation. The topic of conspiracy theories, and the paranormal, for that matter, is in desperate need of smart coverage. And even a conspiracy theory like Montauk could provide a kind of jumping off point: I think it’s particularly important to explore why people might believe so outrageous a story in the first place. I’m also on the record, in past work, arguing that the stories we keep on the margins—the stories we usually push to the fringe—are worthy of and require serious exploration. And today, I remain confident, we still need that sort of investigation.