by Philippe Mora
November 3, 2007
In January 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?"
The answer 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.
But this 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.
More 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
The subject 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.
Throughout 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.
But significantly, after a burst of intense scrutiny in the early
'50s, the available documents effectively go cold.
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
"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."
But the wildly eclectic UFO files cover
everything from "flying saucers over Belgian Congo uranium mines" to
Nazi "flying saucers".
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.
Wheeler recommended two,
"foreign nationals" who could help
with the "problem", including the "mysterious problems of ion
paths and magnetic focusing" and "cosmological electrodynamics".
A secret 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
The report noted that that controversy, colored 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 skeptical 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 labeled 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 UFOs.
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.
This was 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
My 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.
And although 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."
Although most reports were "phony" or
explainable, it said, "caution requires that intelligence
continue coverage of the subject".
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 deliberate
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 an
The skeptics 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
"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
"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
utilization of these phenomena for psychological warfare
Searching for this "proposal", I found
versions addressed also to the secretary of defense. 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."
"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 … defenses should be
planned in anticipation of Soviet attempts to utilize them."
This memo 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
"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 skepticism, it suggested that the public be
educated to avoid hysteria.
But the Office of Scientific Intelligence panel dismissed the
military conclusions, suggesting instead that the mysterious objects
were seagulls reflecting sunlight.
On January 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 defense 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".
This report 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
These 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.
General 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".
William 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 rumored
With the 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.
The files spotlight Soviet articles in 1968 that show some
scientists thought they were real, while others ridiculed the
sightings as US propaganda.
One Soviet skeptic noted, with tongue firmly in cheek:
"The number of saucers always grows
sharply on the eve of presidential elections. This is difficult
to explain. Maybe people on other planets lay
bets on who will win in the next elections - the Republicans or