by Robert Scott Martin
19 August 1999
Not only has the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency admitted its role
in trying to "correct" public opinion about UFOs over the last half
century, it now believes the policy caused "major problems" in
dealing with the public.
In an internal report entitled "CIA's Role in the Study of UFOs,
1947-90" (above link), agency historian
Gerald K. Haines portrayed the CIA as
consistently and deliberately working to suppress reports of
unidentified aerial phenomena since modern UFO sightings began with
the Kenneth Arnold case of 1947.
Still, even in a paper filled with covert attempts on the part of
both the CIA and the Air Force to "persuade the public that
were not extraordinary," Haines himself continued the suppressive
policy, perhaps unconsciously, by writing that the CIA "paid only
limited and peripheral attention to the phenomena" since the early
This tension in the report, written at the request of CIA Director
R. James Woolsey in 1997, is a telling reflection of the government
agency's troubled broader relationship with UFO sightings and
literature. Haines' history is studded with depictions of the CIA
not only repressing UFO reports and reviewing recommendations that
agents monitor UFO clubs for subversive activities, [emphasis added]
but also trying to hide its own interest in the matter.
Indeed, the struggle to "carefully restrict" and "forbid" any public
awareness of CIA involvement in UFO investigations eclipses the
actual investigations as the major thrust of the agency's UFO
efforts. Even though the agency had accepted the Air Force's
conclusion that there was only "a remote possibility" that UFOs were
interplanetary aircraft as early as 1952, investigations of the
"massive buildup of sightings" went on, just in case.
However, after 1953, when negative findings from a civilian panel
motivated the CIA to "put the entire issue of UFOs on the back
burner" entirely, Haines said the agency became almost exclusively
concerned with covering up its own involvement in the world of
unidentified flying objects.
This aggressive policy of public non-involvement was important to
the CIA for many reasons. First, a number of agency officials and
study groups over the years urged the CIA to "conceal its interest"
because such attention would seem to officially sanction to the
existence of UFOs. Although the agency itself, like the Air Force,
believed the chance of flying saucers posing a direct threat was
minimal, the fear that even unfounded public belief in the
phenomenon, if encouraged by government interest, could be enough to
"touch off mass hysteria and panic."
Particularly in the 1950s, the Cold War heightened this somewhat
obsessive concern with hiding any evidence of the CIA's involvement,
said Haines. Although the agency's UFO study group did not see any
security threat emerging directly out of flying saucers themselves,
even if they actually existed, the CIA was deeply worried by the
possibility that Soviet agents could use UFOs as "a possible
psychological warfare tool" or cloak a more Earthly attack with fake
Tantalizingly, Haines also noted that at least one CIA Director,
Walter Bedell Smith,
"wanted to know what use could be made of the
UFO phenomenon in connection with US psychological warfare efforts."
The report does not mention whether the agency followed up on this
opportunity to manipulate UFO reports in a more sophisticated manner
for its own purposes.
As the 1950s wore on, the CIA became even less interested in UFOs in
themselves and more concerned with covering up its own early
involvement with the phenomenon. In 1955, only the possibility that
the Soviets would eventually develop a flying saucer of their own
kept the investigations from ending completely.
Meanwhile, ironically, the CIA had built its own "unidentified
flying object," the U-2 surveillance aircraft, and sightings of
these planes needed to be kept out of the media. According to
Haines, Air Force investigators were "careful not to reveal the true
cause" of U-2 sightings. However, having no other means of
explaining the encounters, it is likely the field agents were forced
either to lie or retreat into a suspicious silence.
The return of
Haines argues that this suspicious silence was not a good strategy
for the agency, but the established need for secrecy left the CIA
with little choice while fervor over the government's role in
"covering up" UFO information grew. Even though the agency itself
"had a declining interest in UFO cases" by the late 1950s, it was
still spending considerable resources looking out for "the more
sensational UFO reports and flaps" [emphasis added] in order to
Ultimately, this policy backfired by highlighting the CIA's role in
investigation -- or the ominous cover-up thereof -- only to "add
fuel to the growing mystery surrounding UFOs." UFO researchers
blamed the agency for starting the UFO flap of the 1950s for
psychological warfare purposes, and the idea proved so persuasive
that even CIA Director Stansfield Turner asked his staff whether the
agency was "in UFOs" after reading a 1979 New York Times article.
At the end, Haines concluded, the tactics of silence and repression
were a failure.
"The UFO issue probably will not go away soon, no
matter what the agency does or says. 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
Indeed, much of that "distrust" was the
CIA's own doing, and the
benefits appear to have been limited. Despite the agency's best
efforts to keep UFO reports out of the media, according to Haines,
"an extraordinary 95 percent of all Americans have at least heard or
read something about UFOs, and 57 percent believe they are real."