From Outer Space
The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov 03, 2007
Fears of an
alien invasion created greater alarm in the US than the threat
of a Soviet nuclear attack, writes Philippe Mora.
1979, The New York Times reported that despite
repeated, feverish denials, the CIA had indeed investigated
the UFO phenomenon: "CIA Papers Detail UFO Surveillance"
screamed the headline. The report is said to have so upset
the then CIA director, Stansfield Turner, that he reportedly
asked his staff: "Are we in UFOs?"
was yes - since the late 1940s, apparently. But exactly how,
what, when, why and who remained layered in mystery, leaving
grist for the conspiracy mill.
year a raft of newly unclassified CIA documents revealed
that the remote possibility of alien invasion elicited
greater fear than the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack.
interesting still, the CIA documents show that despite
decades of repeated public denials, behind the scenes there
raged a series of inter-agency feuds that involved the
highest levels of the US government.
of UFOs - and dabbling in psychological warfare techniques -
not only focused the attention of the US government elite
for 50 years, but of some of the greatest scientific and
military minds of the era.
the 1950s CIA files clearly document an explosion of
activity by US intelligence and military bodies concerned
with studying every possible implication for the US, and
other Western democracies, of UFOs. The phenomenon, so
adored by the cinematic world, was reflected in the CIA's
fixations. Indeed, while highly educated CIA employees
experimented by giving each other surprise LSD trips in
1953, there were others, in other parts of the agency,
dealing with a flood of UFO reports.
significantly, after a burst of intense scrutiny in the
early '50s, the available documents effectively go cold.
Why? The Kafkaesque explanation provided is that few files
were kept because these would only confirm that the CIA was
investigating UFOs. A 1995 CIA review stated: "There was no
formal or official UFO project within the agency in the
'80s, and agency officials purposely kept files on UFOs to a
minimum to avoid creating records that might mislead the
public if released."
wildly eclectic UFO files cover everything from "flying
saucers over Belgian Congo uranium mines" to Nazi "flying
A 1953 memo
shows that the physicist John Wheeler, while critically
involved with Edward Teller in the creation of the hydrogen
bomb, was available to the "CIA attack on the flying saucer"
problem. The urgency of the H-bomb race was his priority,
but he "would be pleased at any time to discuss the issue
briefly", the memo said.
recommended two "foreign nationals" who could help with the
"problem", including the "mysterious problems of ion paths
and magnetic focusing" and "cosmological electrodynamics".
1995 report was titled: CIA's role in the study of UFOs
1947-90: a diehard issue. Collated and written by Gerald
Haines, the CIA's National Reconnaissance Office historian,
its detailed summary of CIA involvement inadvertently
undermined its "UFOs-don't-exist" conclusion. The document
begins with a June 24, 1947, report from the pilot Kenneth
Arnold, who spotted nine unidentified objects near Mount
Rainier, Washington state, travelling at an estimated 1600
kmh. Haines did not mention that days later, on July 8,
1947, the Roswell Daily Record reported a US Army
press release below the headline "RAAF captures flying
saucer on ranch in Roswell region".
noted that that controversy, coloured with Byzantine
denials, dogged the CIA and its UFO investigations for
decades. Using operational names like Project Blue Book,
Story, Grudge, Sign, Saucer, Moon Dust and Twinkle, the US
Air Force and other entities always looked into UFO
sightings with the CIA peering over their shoulders.
The US Army,
of course, promptly retracted the Roswell story but it and
the "flying saucers" spotted by Arnold triggered a flurry of
sightings and conspiracy theories that continue to this day.
The US Air
Force finally admitted in 1994 that there had been a
cover-up at Roswell - of a secret project known as Mogul,
created to monitor Soviet nuclear tests using high-flying
balloons - and that the "aliens" were crash-test dummies.
"Ufologists", naturally, were sceptical of this belated
explanation. For 50 years now, right across the globe,
people have been reporting sightings of giant, luminous
flying saucers, cigars, globes, triangles and doughnuts.
Aliens have allegedly abducted, probed and impregnated
scores of hapless earthlings. Some believe that a top-secret
entity, called Majestic-12, was formed in 1947 by the then
president, Harry Truman, in an attempt to deal with the
Roswell event. It was supposedly established to aid
interaction with aliens. The FBI labelled the Majestic-12
documents a hoax, but the story persists to this day.
Intriguingly, the unclassified documents show that within
the CIA, there was an uber-intelligence group called ONE,
created by a CIA director, General William Bedell Smith. His
tenure spanned the period between October 1950 and January
1953. These documents confirm that ONE was concerned with
In 1978 the
CIA came under strong pressure from a series of freedom of
information requests about UFOs and reluctantly released
about 800 documents. The reasonable claim by The New York
Times at the time was that the files confirmed intensive
government concern about UFOs.
branded by the CIA as the press being sensationalist.
According to the CIA's self-critique on the issue,
bureaucratic clumsiness, charges that witnesses were being
asked to keep sightings secret, and CIA officers talking to
civilians about UFOs while wearing air force uniforms, had
added "fuel to the growing mystery surrounding UFOs and the
CIA's role in their investigation". The 1995 Haines report
concluded: "The belief that we are not alone in the universe
is too emotionally appealing and the distrust of our
government is too pervasive to make the issue amenable to
traditional scientific studies of rational explanation and
painstaking review of hundreds of unclassified documents
reveals that the CIA at the highest level, far from being
incompetent, displayed good faith in its efforts to examine
the mystery of UFOs over a period of decades. These
investigations covered a gamut of inquiries: scientific,
political, cultural and military.
the air force was the agency given the task of investigating
UFOs from 1948 onwards, the CIA remained deeply involved.
This is best reflected in a memo to the agency's deputy
director for scientific intelligence, titled Flying
Saucers and dated August 3, 1952: "It is recommended
that CIA surveillance of subject matter (flying saucers), in
co-ordination with proper authorities of primary operational
concern at the Air Technical Intelligence Centre (ATIC), be
continued. It is strongly urged, however, that that no
indication of CIA interest or concern reach the press or
public, in view of their probable alarmist tendencies to
accept such interest as 'confirmatory' of the soundness of
'unpublished facts' in the hands of the US government."
most reports were "phoney" or explainable, it said, "caution
requires that intelligence continue coverage of the
On July 28,
1952, Winston Churchill wrote to his secretary of state for
air: "What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount
to? What can it mean? What is the truth?" The minister's
response on August 9, 1952, provided the ground rules for
most official responses that continue until today. These
were that a 1951 study had found that all reports could be
explained by astronomical or meteorological phenomena,
mistaken identification of aircraft, balloons, birds,
optical illusions and psychological delusions, or were
But in the
CIA at the time, two other responses were countenanced: the
need for vigilance and caution because extraterrestrial life
could exist, and the potential for "psychological warfare",
including fears that popular hysteria could be exploited by
are best represented in a memo in March 1949 from a Dr Stone
in the CIA Office of Scientific Intelligence to a Dr Machle
that states: "A rapid perusal of your [flying saucer]
documents leaves one confused and inclined to supineness."
Yet with a
deluge of UFO reports over the next four years, the matter
suddenly assumed a modicum of gravitas, reflected in many
top-secret documents. General Smith said: "There was one
chance in 10,000 that the phenomenon posed a threat to the
security of the country, but even that chance could not be
taken." On July 1, 1952, there was an about-turn: General
Smith wrote to the director of the Psychological Strategy
Board established by Truman the previous year: "I am today
transmitting to the National Security Council a proposal in
which it is concluded that the problems associated with
unidentified flying objects appear to have implications for
psychological warfare as well as for intelligence and
operations. I suggest that we discuss at an early board
meeting the possible offensive and defensive utilisation of
these phenomena for psychological warfare purposes."
for this "proposal", I found versions addressed also to the
secretary of defence. Some of their highlights, quoting
directly from the documents, include: "[Since] 1947 there
have been about 1500 official reports of sightings and [of
these] the air force carries 20 per cent as unexplained."
And: "Operational problems are of primary importance and
should be attacked at once [including] determination of what
[use could] be made of these phenomena by US psychological
warfare planners and what … defences should be planned in
anticipation of Soviet attempts to utilise them."
suggested a plot that transcends Stanley Kubrick's Dr
Strangelove: the CIA, in the face of unknown phenomena -
or even an attack from outer space - was seemingly more
concerned about what the Russians might do with UFOs than
with the objects themselves. The CIA's interest in the
Soviet and Chinese study of UFOs continued for decades. But
on October 2, 1952, General Smith received this ominous note
from his Office of Scientific Intelligence: "Flying saucers
pose two elements of danger which have national security
implications. The first involves mass psychological
considerations and the second concerns the vulnerability of
the US to air attack." In January 1953 the Office of
Scientific Intelligence convened a committee to review the
UFO "problem". Its members reviewed "75 case histories of
sightings", taking intense interest in a Tremonton, Utah,
sighting that included a Kodachrome movie of "1600 frames".
At the air
force's request, the US Photo Interpretation Laboratory
spent 1000 hours making "graph plots" of the film frames,
concluding that the objects were not birds, balloons,
aircraft or reflections and that they were "self-luminous".
In a tone of reasonable scepticism, it suggested that the
public be educated to avoid hysteria.
Office of Scientific Intelligence panel dismissed the
military conclusions, suggesting instead that the mysterious
objects were seagulls reflecting sunlight.
21, 1953, another memo concluded that the panel had found no
evidence of "physical threat to the security of the US". The
convoluted memo stated: "The subject UFO is not of direct
intelligence interest. It is of indirect intelligence
interest only insofar as any knowledge about innumerable
unsolved mysteries of the universe are of intelligence
interest." But it also noted the potential for "interference
with air defence by intentional enemy jazzing", the
possibility of interference by "overloading communication
lines", or the possibility of "psychological offensive by
the enemy timed with respect to an actual attack".
and the original Tremonton "seagull" film were then made
part of an Office of Scientific Investigation briefing on
January 29, 1953, to the entity known as ONE. The air force
briefed ONE on UFOs the next day and its 11 members included
"Dr Edgar Hoover [sic], William Bundy, General H. Pull and
Admiral B. Bieri [Eisenhower's chief of staff]".
documents reveal that ONE was an elite think tank within the
CIA and that General Smith created the Office of National
Estimates on the issue.
But it was
said its "ultimate approval should rest on the collective
judgment of the highest officials in various intelligence
agencies". This was to give it the prestige of the best
available and most authoritative advice from the government.
Smith created the Office of National Estimates under the
auspices of the National Security Act of 1947. His opinion
was that ONE would form the "heart of the CIA and of the
national intelligence machinery".
Langer, a Harvard historian, was its chairman, and while
there is no record of whether ONE thought the Tremonton film
showed seagulls or UFOs - or of what the air force told them
the next morning - ONE is as close as we get to a documented
version of the rumoured Majestic-12 group.
Cold War in full swing, the CIA was also watching for UFO
activity behind the Iron Curtain. Field stations were to be
alerted to any mention of flying saucers by Iron Curtain
countries and the CIA discovered that the Soviet
establishment mirrored its own ambiguity about UFOs.
spotlight Soviet articles in 1968 that show some scientists
thought they were real, while others ridiculed the sightings
as US propaganda.
sceptic noted, with tongue firmly in cheek: "The number of
saucers always grows sharply on the eve of presidential
elections. This is difficult to explain.
people on other planets lay bets on who will win in the next
elections - the Republicans or the Democrats."
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