By Robert Scott Martin
posted: 05:14 pm ET
18 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," 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 UFOs 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 1950s.
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, 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.
Concealment of CIA interest
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 UFO reports.
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 the repressed
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" in order to suppress them.
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 evidence."
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."