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The long, strange history of John Podesta’s space alien obsession

Alien abduction warning signs are posted in the "alien vault" booth during the Black Hat USA 2015 cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

You know how sometimes you stake out a controversial or weird position solely for effect, using it to troll people you know, and then over time you sort of convince yourself that your position is right? For example, one time I was hanging out with friends and I decided that I was going to tell everyone I hated Stanford. There was no reason for it; it just seemed funny to me. But then I just ... started sort of hating Stanford and its fancy campus and its "oh, we're Ivy League but not weird and old and also no snow" thing. By the time I ended up actually moving to California, I legitimately thought Stanford was pretty lame. A tree mascot? Get over yourselves.

So every time there's a news article about where Hillary Clinton adviser (and former Bill Clinton chief of staff) John Podesta talks about how President Hillary Clinton would release classified information about UFOs -- as he did again on Thursday -- I'm led to wonder. Is he just taking the joke too far? Has he committed so completely to the bit that now he just sort of answers the questions about space aliens without blinking? Or ... does he think that the government has information about visits from outer space that should be shared more widely?

A little history is in order.

During the 1990s, there was an effort by Laurance Rockefeller (of the Rockefeller Rockefellers) to encourage the United States government to release any classified information it had about extraterrestrials, alien spacecraft and UFOs. The effort, referred to as the Rockefeller Initiative by UFO truthers, included meetings between Rockefeller and senior Clinton administration staff. In August of 1995, the Clintons stayed at Rockefeller's ranch in Wyoming, and Hillary was photographed with him while holding a book titled, "Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life." (A large number of documents pertaining to Rockefeller's advocacy on this issue were released under the Freedom of Information Act several years ago.)

The subject was not an uncommon one for the White House at the time. That Christmas, Bill Clinton gave a speech in Belfast, in which he described letters he'd gotten from schoolchildren. He thanked a 13-year-old named Ryan for his letter and did his best to answer Ryan's question. "No," Clinton said, "as far as I know, an alien spacecraft did not crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. And Ryan, if the United States Air Force did recover alien bodies, they didn't tell me about it, either, and I want to know."

Podesta started as deputy chief of staff for Clinton in 1997 and stayed with the president until the inauguration of George W. Bush. He himself was apparently somewhat obsessed with aliens. In 1998, The Post quoted Press Secretary Mike McCurry. "John can get totally maniacal and phobic on certain subjects," McCurry said. "He's been known to pick up the phone to call the Air Force and ask them what's going on in Area 51."

After Clinton left the White House, Podesta's advocacy continued. In 2002, he spoke at the National Press Club to encourage the government to release whatever information it had about investigations into unidentified flying objects.

Leslie Kean, who wrote a book called "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record" -- with a forward from Podesta -- explained that effort in 2015.

"In 2002," Kean and co-author Ralph Blumenthal wrote, "Podesta began publicly supporting what became a landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Freedom of Information, an independent advocacy group. NASA had been stonewalling and refusing to release its records concerning a significant 1965 UFO incident in Kecksburg, PA." Documents were released, but they "did not include one iota of information relating to the Kecksburg case, despite an earnest and thorough effort by NASA staff."

It's apparently those documents to which Podesta was referring when, after a brief stint working in the Obama White House, he tweeted that failing to secure the release of UFO files was his "biggest failure of 2014."

(It's worth noting that under President Obama, the CIA for the first time released information about Area 51, and that Obama was the first president to acknowledge it.)

After Podesta joined Hillary Clinton's campaign last year, the subject came up once again. In December, she told a reporter in Conway, N.H., that she would "get to the bottom" of the UFO issue. Why?

ABC's Jimmy Kimmel raised the subject with Clinton during an appearance at the end of last month -- as he had with her husband and with President Obama. Kimmel noted that Bill Clinton had looked into the issue -- in particular about Area 51, as he said to Ryan in Belfast -- and asked what she would do.

Clinton pledged, again, to release whatever information the government had that could be released.

Which brings us back to the conversation between Podesta and CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday. "What I've talked to the secretary about, and what she's said now in public," he said, "is that if she's elected president, when she gets into office, she'll ask for as many records as the United States federal government has to be declassified, and I think that's a commitment that she intends to keep and that I intend to hold her to."

UFO theorists would demand that we look at the evidence at hand. And that evidence seems clear: Podesta is not joking about his interest in alien life. It's not necessarily clear that he knows that there is evidence of alien life buried in a giant wooden box in some government warehouse, but it's clear that he thinks that what does exist should be made public.

Or that he's really, really committed to the bit.