After the Cold War ended, the culture of secrecy and the operational style of the CIA
began to change. Its director appeared on a radio talk show, and it became possible for
citizens to pressure the CIA in ways unheard of during that earlier era.
Ufology has been
a beneficiary of these changes.
In late 1993, inquiries from several UFO researchers led CIA Director R. James Woolsey
to order a review of all CIA files on UFOs. This agency-wide search occurred in 1994 and
centralized the CIAs UFO files.
Taking advantage of this opportunity, government
historian Gerald K. Haines reviewed the documents, conducted interviews, and wrote a study
examining the CIAs interest and involvement in UFO investigation and government UFO
policy from 1947 until 1990.
Hainess study was published in Studies in Intelligence, a classified journal
published quarterly for the intelligence community. The article, "CIAs Role in
the Study of UFOs, 194790," appeared in the first semiannual unclassified
edition for 1997, on pages 6784.
This is a rather important document because it is the first time that a government
agency has written a review of its involvement with UFOs. Although the study had been
available at least since June when I downloaded it from the CIA Web site, it did not
receive widespread publicity until early August.
But when the press learned about the
Haines study, the attention was dramatic. The story was carried in most large newspapers,
on the NBC Nightly News, and many other media outlets. A typical headline from the Chicago
Sun-Times reads, "CIA feared UFO hysteria." Several columnists used the CIA
history as an opportunity to bash the CIA and secrecy in government, as exemplified by the
column by David Wise (author of The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and
Power) in the New York Times "Big Lies and Little Green Men."
The media generally focused on two aspects of the Haines article. In a brief section
entitled "CIAs U2 and OXCART as UFOs," Haines claims that many UFO
sightings in the late 1950s and 1960s were actually misidentified secret American spy
planes. Moreover, he alleges that the Air Forces Project Blue Book was in on this
cover-up, purposely misled the public, and falsified (Haines didnt use that word but
that is plainly what the Air Force would be doing) UFO explanations. This is important
news if true, and the media rightly played up this angle.
Note that the CIA is not accused of deception by Haines; rather, it is the Air Force
that willingly concocted the bogus explanations. Reporters asked the Air Force for
comment, and on August 4, Brigadier General Ronald Sconyers told the press, "I cannot
confirm or deny that we lied. The Air Force is committed to providing accurate and timely
information within the confines of national security."
General Sconyers sounds a bit like a weasel-worded politician, and his statement hardly
serves to reduce the controversy. The second topic seized upon by the press and played up as
news was the CIA-sponsored Robertson Panel from 1953.
Yes, that is correct, the Robertson
Panel, whose report has been well-known to anyone interested in UFOs for over 30 years
now. That the press could consider the recommendations of the panel to be news at this
late date speaks volumes for the intelligence, reporting skills, and historical knowledge
of the Fifth Estate. (The Washington Post, in full damage-control mode, said in an
editorial that the study was "not an exposé full of new revelations," but the
paper had already published an article claiming the opposite.)
Press coverage focused on the panels recommendations that UFO reports be debunked
(a policy Blue Book followed assiduously after 1953), that UFO groups be watched, and that
there was a danger the Soviets might use UFOs to clog the channels of communication and
then launch a nuclear attack.
The deception about our spy planes was just a small part of
Although the press was only late by about 40 years, their coverage of this aspect of
the report is a positive note for ufology. What is clear from the tone of most articles is
that the CIAs (and Air Forces) lies about UFOs are just further examples of
all the many lies the American public had been told during the Cold War.
And for once,
Ufologists are being viewed in a sympathetic light by the media as direct victims of
Coming on the heels of the Air Forces second report on Roswell, the tide has
begun to turn against the government in the UFO debate. More and more, it is becoming
apparent the government has lied about UFOs for years, and that it still may be lying
Although the press gave so much coverage to the Haines article, it missed part of
the story, failed to do any independent investigation, and generally swallowed the report
as written. As Paul Harvey says, now for the rest of the story.
The CIAs excessive secrecy
The report by Haines is remarkably brief, given the CIAs complex UFO involvement.
In its Internet version the full article is 21 pages in length, with eight pages of that
for footnotes (with several interesting tidbits buried there).
Whole swaths of history,
such as the early 1970s, are compressed into a few paragraphs or sentences. Certainly a
more complete study could be done, and perhaps the classified version is a bit longer.
Nevertheless, to this credit, Haines several times makes it clear that the CIA bungled
the handling of UFOs because of its policies of excessive secrecy, in effect fueling the
idea of a massive UFO cover-up (for which, not surprisingly, Haines finds no evidence).
For example, in 1957 Leon Davidson, a UFO investigator who worked at getting the Robertson
Panel report released and was a believer in a government coverup, was working on a
UFO case involving a strange tape recording made by the Maier sisters of Chicago.
tape had actually been analyzed by the CIAs Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI)
and found to be "nothing more than Morse code from a US radio station."
When Davidson wrote to Dewelt Walker, the CIA officer who had contacted the Maier
sisters, Walker obfuscated and refused to provide a straight answer about his role.
Davidson persisted, the CIA had the Air Force contact Davidson saying that Walker
"was and is an Air Force Officer." Then to further screw things up, the CIA had
one of its officers dress in an Air Force uniform and contact Davidson, claiming to speak
on behalf of the Air Force. One cannot blame Davidson for believing there was a cover-up
because, obviously, there was.
As Haines writes, "Thus, a minor, rather bizarre
incident, handled poorly by both the CIA and the Air Force, turned into a major flap that
added fuel to the growing mystery surrounding UFOs and CIAs role in their
In another incident, officers from the Contact Division (CD) of the CIA obtained a UFO
photograph from Ralph Mayher in November 1957. After the photos were returned (with no
comment or analysis for Mayher), he contacted the CD for the CIAs evaluation because
he wanted to mention it on a television program on which he was going to appear. The CIA
Major Donald Keyhoe, head of NICAP, heard about these events and contacted the CIA to
confirm the story. But the CIA refused, referring the matter to the Air Force, even
though, as Haines writes, "CD field representatives were normally overt and carried
credentials identifying their Agency association." No wonder, again, that Ufologists
would conclude the government was lying about its UFO activities.
Monitoring of UFO investigators
Although the CIA clearly lied to Davidson and Keyhoe, the actual UFO events at the
heart of each story were mundane and not of particular importance. More sinister is the
suggestion that the CIA (or FBI at the CIAs direction) has monitored UFO groups and
Haines has no direct evidence for this, but it is unclear where such
records would be kept or whether they would even be at the CIA (rather than the FBI).
Certainly, the FBI has files on various Ufologists, including Richard Hall, head of the
Fund for UFO Research and long-time staffer at NICAP.
A complete history of the CIAs involvement in UFOs should have discussed this
critical issue in depth; after all, the Robertson Panel recommended that UFO groups be
monitored for subversive activities.
That Haines did not fully discuss this subject can
probably be attributed to his ignorance of UFO history, to the lack of documentation about
this subject in CIA records, and perhaps, to the scope of his article which is more
concerned with the investigation of UFOs rather than the investigation of Ufologists.
The one bit of evidence Haines does include involves Leon Davidson again. In 1958,
worried about future inquiries about government UFO investigation, the CIA met with the
Air Force to discuss what to do with such requests.
CIA officer Frank Chapin "hinted
that Davidson might have ulterior motives" and he suggested having the FBI investigate
Davidson. Haines says the record is unclear as to whether the FBI ever acted on this
suggestion, but it is not clear how deeply Haines investigated this possibility
Although the evidence is circumstantial, there are other hints that the government was
monitoring UFO groups long before these discussions. In their book UFOs Over the Americas,
Jim and Coral Lorenzen detail several rather bizarre incidents of what would seem to be
rather clumsy attempts to learn the Lorenzens motives for their UFO investigations
and the work of APRO, the organization they founded.
These occurred in several states over
at least a dozen years, and the Lorenzens sound more amused by the experience than upset.
In point of fact, just about any Ufologist would have been pleased to have the Air
Force or CIA approach them and ask for advice about UFO investigations or what types of
cases the investigator was receiving. The problem faced by these agencies, as Haines
outlines, is that an excessive policy of secrecy kept them from openly contacting UFO
investigators who most likely would have cooperated with government requests for
As evidence, in early 1965 CIA agents finally did meet openly with Richard
Hall at NICAP offices, who gladly gave them copies of UFO reports for the CIAs own
review of the UFO situation.
The Robertson Panel
There is no more pivotal event in the CIAs involvement with UFOs, perhaps in the
U.S. governments interest in UFOs, than the Robertson Panel of January 1953. Haines
devotes just over a page to this critical study, which provides him no room for nuance or
much more than a bare reciting of the facts.
In his review of CIA documents he demonstrates the very high-level CIA interest in UFOs
engendered by the UFO flap in the summer of 1952 and, especially, the sightings over
Washington, D.C. A special study group was formed within OSI to review the UFO situation.
Director Walter Bedell Smith "wanted to know whether or not the Air Force
investigation of flying saucers was sufficiently objective," and he wondered
"what use could be made of the UFO phenomenon in connection with US psychological
Memos and meetings were frequent in late 1952 as the CIA considered what should be done
about the UFO problem. Hainess research shows that the Robertson Panels
concerns about the clogging of communication channels and the use of UFOs to disrupt U.S.
air defenses were taken straight from CIA concerns expressed in internal memos during the
summer of 1952.
In other words, the Robertson Panel, despite the eminence of the
scientists involved, appears to have been carefully orchestrated by the CIA to come to the
conclusions it did, which included debunking UFOs with the help of the Air Force Project
Blue Book. Haines does not comment on this element of the CIAs role in determining
Spy planes and UFOs
I turn now to the issue that so dominated press coverage of Hainess article, the
claim that many UFO reports were caused by secret aircraft flights. Given the nature of
many UFO reports of objects seen at close range low to the ground, Ufologists have
uniformly found this claim preposterous.
I have over the years personally reviewed the
majority of Blue Book reports and know that that they were not caused by
misidentifications of spy planes. But because this is such an important claim, here is the
full discussion of this issue by Haines.
In November 1954, CIA had entered into the world of high technology with its U-2
overhead reconnaissance project. Working with Lockheeds Advanced Development
facility in Burbank, California, known as the Skunk Works, and Kelly Johnson, an eminent
aeronautical engineer, the Agency by August 1955 was testing a high-altitude experimental
It could fly at 60,000 feet; in the mid-1950s, most commercial
airliners flew between 10,000 feet and 20,000 feet. Consequently, once the U-2 started
test flights, commercial pilots and air traffic controllers began reporting a large
increase in UFO sightings.
The early U-2s were silver (they were later painted black) and reflected the rays from
the sun, especially at sunrise and sunset. They often appeared as fiery objects to
observers below. Air Force BLUE BOOK investigators aware of the secret U-2 flights tried
to explain away such sightings by linking them to natural phenomena such as ice crystals
and temperature inversions.
By checking with the Agencys U-2 Project Staff in
Washington, BLUE BOOK investigators were able to attribute many UFO sightings to U-2
flights. They were careful, however, not to reveal the true cause of the sighting to the
According to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U2 project and
the OXCART (SR-71, or Blackbird) project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s
through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2)
over the United States.
This led the Air Force to make misleading and deceptive statements
to the public in order to allay public fears and to protect an extraordinarily sensitive
national security project. While perhaps justified, this deception added fuel to the later
conspiracy theories and the cover-up controversy of the 1970s.
The percentage of what the
Air Force considered unexplained UFO sightings fell to 5.9 percent in 1955 and to 4
percent in 1956.
What exactly is the evidence for the claim that "over half of all UFO reports . .
. were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights"? In one footnote, Haines
mentions the monograph The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The
U-2 and OXCART Programs, 19541974, by Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E.
A colleague at CUFOS tried to obtain a copy of this reference, which was published
by the CIA History Staff, but has been told the monograph is classified. That makes it
impossible to verify its accuracy.
In a second footnote, Haines mentions a telephone
interview with a John Parongosky, who "oversaw the day-to-day affairs of the OXCART
program." I would like to call Mr. Parongosky myself, but have been unable to find
any listing or address for him.
In any case, there is a very straightforward step which could verify this claim about spy
planes, one I am surprised was not taken by at least one reporter. If the Air Force was
lying about the cause of UFO sightings to protect the secrecy of our spy planes, then
obviously the heads of Blue Book would have been central to the deception.
Yet no one seems
to have contacted any of these officers, most of whom are still living, for a comment.
I had previously spoken to Lt. Col. (Ret.) Robert Friend, head of Blue Book from about
1958 to early 1963, on a matter of UFO history, so I called him again recently to discuss
Friend had not heard about the CIA report (he doesnt watch much
television and doesnt follow UFO news closely these days), but he was very
interested to learn about its existence. He asked me for a copy plus any news stories I
had on the report.
I read to him the discussion by Haines reproduced above and then asked for his comment.
Almost the first words he said were that it is "absolutely not true" that he or
his Blue Book team were covering up spy flights as alleged by Haines.
He found the whole
idea laughable, and he knew Blue Book did not receive more reports from pilots and air
traffic controllers after the U-2 began flying.
I asked him if he had ever concealed classified activities that were reported as UFOs.
Friend indicated that, indeed, this had occurred on a few occasions, but it was not a
regular occurrence. I inquired as to whether he had regular contact with the CIA at Blue
He said that he did because the CIA overlooked no potential source of information
and wanted to keep tabs on all government intelligence activities. In addition, the Air
Force had utilized the services of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the
CIAs photo analysis office, to analyze UFO photos.
However, in none of his contacts
with the CIA or U-2 project staff was Friend ever told to conceal sightings of the U-2 by
To be absolutely sure before I ended the conversation, I asked Friend whether the
project had ever received a sighting which he recognized as caused by a U-2 (or other
secret aircraft). He said, to his recollection, no. Once again, he chuckled about the idea
of half of all UFO reports being caused by manned reconnaissance flights.
I then read him
the statement by Sconyers quoted earlier, in which the general cannot "confirm or
deny that we lied." This brought a guffaw from Friend, who wondered why Sconyers, or
anyone currently in the Pentagon, should know what happened 30 years ago.
We both marveled
at how the press and the military (and Haines) had failed to contact the obvious central
figures in this alleged cover-up.
In summary, then, the claim that motivated the press coverage of Hainess report
is inaccurate and is not evidence for a CIA and Air Force cover-up of UFO sightings and
lies to the American public.
Yet the CIA and Air Force did knowingly debunk UFO sightings,
and Blue Book personnel often came up with any old explanation so that the yearly summary
sheets would have only a small percentage of unidentified sightings.
So Im not too
unhappy that the CIA and Air Force were taken to task for something they didnt do,
but it is important to set the record straight.
Forcing disclosure of CIA records
Beginning in the mid-1970s, UFO researchers began using the Freedom of Information Act
(FOIA) to request government, including CIA, documents on UFOs. Once again, the CIA
mishandled the requests.
After William Spaulding, head of Ground Saucer Watch, wrote in
1975 requesting UFO records, the CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator Gene Wilson wrote
to Spaulding that the Robertson Panel was "the summation of the Agency interest and
involvement in UFOs." As Haines states, "Wilson was ill-informed."
Not believing Wilsons statements, Ufologists sued the CIA for records and won the
release of about 800 pages in December of 1978.
Since the CIA had, unwisely, been denying
its involvement in UFO matters, the media was surprised to learn how many documents were
held by the agency. The New York Times claimed as a result that the CIA was probably
secretly involved in the study of UFOs.
CIA Director Stansfield Turner was so upset by this that he asked his senior officers
"Are we in UFOs?" He received a negative answer from his deputy and so moved to
quash a new lawsuit asking for the withheld documents from the first
Notwithstanding the reply Turner got, Haines found that the CIA continued a few
activities during the 1980s. As he writes:
During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Agency continued its low-key interest in UFOs and
UFO sightings. While most scientists now dismissed flying saucers [sic] reports as a
quaint part of the 1950s and 1960s, some in the Agency and in the Intelligence Community
shifted their interest to studying parapsychology and psychic phenomena associated with
CIA officials also looked at the UFO problem to determine what UFO
sightings might tell them about Soviet progress in rockets and missiles and reviewed its
counterintelligence aspects. Agency analysts from the Life Science Division of OSI and
OSWR officially devoted a small amount of their time to issues relating to UFOs.
included counterintelligence concerns that the Soviets and the KGB were using US citizens
and UFO groups to obtain information on sensitive US weapons development programs (such as
the Stealth aircraft), the vulnerability of the US air-defense network to penetration by
foreign missiles mimicking UFOs, and evidence of Soviet advanced technology associated
with UFO sightings.
If I hadnt checked the calendar after reading this, I would have sworn this was
1952 and I was reading of CIA concerns about how UFOs could be used by the Soviets against
the United States, as eventually expressed in the recommendations of the Roberson Panel
report. Some things never change, at least during the Cold War.
Haines notes that during
this period, "Agency officials purposely kept files on UFOs to a minimum to avoid
creating records that might mislead the public if released," and Haines says he found
almost no documentation on CIA involvement with UFOs in the 1980s. This certainly is an
effective method to circumvent FOIA, but it hardly leads to further confidence in the CIA.
Finally, in an intriguing footnote, Haines says that the "CIA reportedly is also a
member of an Incident Response Team to investigate UFO landings, if one should occur. This
team has never met." Say what?
He offers no evidence for this statement, which, if
true, belies the notion that the government completely ignores UFO reports.
In the end, Hainess article is not as revealing as press reports indicated, but
it does open a window on CIA activities that have long been closed to the public.
its chief contribution will be the documents referenced in the footnotes which can now be
specifically requested through FOIA by an enterprising UFO historian.
analysis is unremittingly pedestrian, but he does admit that CIA errors of commission and
omission contributed directly to the notion of a UFO cover-up, and he demonstrates that
there was indeed a cover-up, though not of spy planes, of a UFO crash near Roswell, nor
other events of similar import.
Another effect of Hainess article is a gradual shifting of media
opinion toward granting greater credibility to the statements of UFO groups and
investigators and a concomitant greater distrust in government claims about its UFO
This is all to the good and here the old phrase "better late than
never" surely applies.
source & references:
by Mark Rodeghier
Mark Rodeghier is CUFOS scientific director.