An extraordinary 95 percent of all Americans have at least heard or read something about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), and 57 percent believe they are real. Former US Presidents Carter and Reagan claim to have seen a UFO. UFOlogists--a neologism for UFO buffs--and private UFO organizations are found throughout the United States. Many are convinced that the US Government, and particularly CIA, are engaged in a massive conspiracy and coverup of the issue. The idea that CIA has secretly concealed its research into UFOs has been a major theme of UFO buffs since the modern UFO phenomena emerged in the late 1940s.
In late 1993, after being pressured by UFOlogists for the release of additional CIA information on UFOs, DCI R. James Woolsey ordered another review of all Agency files on UFOs. Using CIA records compiled from that review, this study traces CIA interest and involvement in the UFO controversy from the late 1940s to 1990. It chronologically examines the Agency's efforts to solve the mystery of UFOs, its programs that had an impact on UFO sightings, and its attempts to conceal CIA involvement in the entire UFO issue. What emerges from this examination is that, while Agency concern over UFOs was substantial until the early 1950s, CIA has since paid only limited and peripheral attention to the phenomena.
The emergence in 1947 of the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union also saw the first wave of UFO sightings. The first report of a "flying saucer" over the United States came on 24 June 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot and reputable businessman, while looking for a downed plane sighted nine disk-shaped objects near Mt. Rainier, Washington, traveling at an estimated speed of over 1,000 mph. Arnold's report was followed by a flood of additional sightings, including reports from military and civilian pilots and air traffic controllers all over the United States. In 1948, Air Force Gen. Nathan Twining, head of the Air Technical Service Command, established Project SIGN (initially named Project SAUCER) to collect, collate, evaluate, and distribute within the government all information relating to such sightings, on the premise that UFOs might be real and of national security concern.
The Technical Intelligence Division of the Air Material Command (AMC) at Wright Field (later Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) in Dayton, Ohio, assumed control of Project SIGN and began its work on 23 January 1948. Although at first fearful that the objects might be Soviet secret weapons, the Air Force soon concluded that UFOs were real but easily explained and not extraordinary. The Air Force report found that almost all sightings stemmed from one or more of three causes: mass hysteria and hallucination, hoax, or misinterpretation of known objects. Nevertheless, the report recommended continued military intelligence control over the investigation of all sightings and did not rule out the possibility of extraterrestrial phenomena.
Amid mounting UFO sightings, the Air Force continued to collect and evaluate UFO data in the late 1940s under a new project, GRUDGE, which tried to alleviate public anxiety over UFOs via a public relations campaign designed to persuade the public that UFOs constituted nothing unusual or extraordinary. UFO sightings were explained as balloons, conventional aircraft, planets, meteors, optical illusions, solar reflections, or even "large hailstones." GRUDGE officials found no evidence in UFO sightings of advanced foreign weapons design or development, and they concluded that UFOs did not threaten US security. They recommended that the project be reduced in scope because the very existence of Air Force official interest encouraged people to believe in UFOs and contributed to a "war hysteria" atmosphere. On 27 December 1949, the Air Force announced the project's termination.
With increased Cold War tensions, the Korean war, and continued UFO sightings, USAF Director of Intelligence Maj. Gen. Charles P. Cabell ordered a new UFO project in 1952. Project BLUE BOOK became the major Air Force effort to study the UFO phenomenon throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The task of identifying and explaining UFOs continued to fall on the Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson. With a small staff, the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC) tried to persuade the public that UFOs were not extraordinary. Projects SIGN, GRUDGE, and BLUE BOOK set the tone for the official US Government position regarding UFOs for the next 30 years.
Early CIA Concerns, 1947-52
CIA closely monitored the Air Force effort, aware of the mounting number of sightings and increasingly concerned that UFOs might pose a potential security threat. Given the distribution of the sightings, CIA officials in 1952 questioned whether they might reflect "midsummer madness.'' Agency officials accepted the Air Force's conclusions about UFO reports, although they concluded that "since there is a remote possibility that they may be interplanetary aircraft, it is necessary to investigate each sighting."
A massive buildup of sightings over the United States in 1952, especially in July, alarmed the Truman administration. On 19 and 20 July, radar scopes at Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base tracked mysterious blips. On 27 July, the blips reappeared. The Air Force scrambled interceptor aircraft to investigate, but they found nothing. The incidents, however, caused headlines across the country. The White House wanted to know what was happening, and the Air Force quickly offered the explanation that the radar blips might be the result of "temperature inversions." Later, a Civil Aeronautics Administration investigation confirmed that such radar blips were quite common and were caused by temperature inversions.
Although it had monitored UFO reports for at least three years, CIA reacted to the new rash of sightings by forming a special study group within the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) and the Office of Current Intelligence (OCI) to review the situation. Edward Tauss, acting chief of OSI's Weapons and Equipment Division, reported for the group that most UFO sightings could be easily explained. Nevertheless, he recommended that the Agency continue monitoring the problem, in coordination with ATIC. He also urged that CIA conceal its interest from the media and the public, "in view of their probable alarmist tendencies" to accept such interest as confirming the existence of UFOs.
Upon receiving the report, Deputy Director for Intelligence (DDI) Robert Amory, Jr. assigned responsibility for the UFO investigations to OSI's Physics and Electronics Division, with A. Ray Gordon as the officer in charge. Each branch in the division was to contribute to the investigation, and Gordon was to coordinate closely with ATIC. Amory, who asked the group to focus on the national security implications of UFOs, was relaying DCI Walter Bedell Smith's concerns. Smith wanted to know whether or not the Air Force investigation of flying saucers was sufficiently objective and how much more money and manpower would be necessary to determine the cause of the small percentage of unexplained flying saucers. Smith believed "there was only 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." According to Smith, it was CIA's responsibility by statute to coordinate the intelligence effort required to solve the problem. Smith also wanted to know what use could be made of the UFO phenomenon in connection with US psychological warfare efforts.
Led by Gordon, the CIA Study Group met with Air Force officials at Wright-Patterson and reviewed their data and findings. The Air Force claimed that 90 percent of the reported sightings were easily accounted for. The other 10 percent were characterized as "a number of incredible reports from credible observers." The Air Force rejected the theories that the sightings involved US or Soviet secret weapons development or that they involved "men from Mars"; there was no evidence to support these concepts. The Air Force briefers sought to explain these UFO reports as the misinterpretation of known objects or little understood natural phenomena. Air Force and CIA officials agreed that outside knowledge of Agency interest in UFOs would make the problem more serious. This concealment of CIA interest contributed greatly to later charges of a CIA conspiracy and coverup.
The CIA Study Group also searched the Soviet press for UFO reports, but found none, causing the group to conclude that the absence of reports had to have been the result of deliberate Soviet Government policy. The group also envisioned the USSR's possible use of UFOs as a psychological warfare tool. In addition, they worried that, if the US air warning system should be deliberately overloaded by UFO sightings, the Soviets might gain a surprise advantage in any nuclear attack.
Because of the tense Cold War situation and increased Soviet capabilities, the CIA Study Group saw serious national security concerns in the flying saucer situation. The group believed that the Soviets could use UFO reports to touch off mass hysteria and panic in the United States. The group also believed that the Soviets might use UFO sightings to overload the US air warning system so that it could not distinguish real targets from phantom UFOs. H. Marshall Chadwell, Assistant Director of OSI, added that he considered the problem of such importance "that it should be brought to the attention of the National Security Council, in order that a communitywide coordinated effort towards it solution may be initiated."
Chadwell briefed DCI Smith on the subject of UFOs in December 1952. He urged action because he was convinced that "something was going on that must have immediate attention" and that "sightings of unexplained objects at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major US defense installations are of such nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles." He drafted a memorandum from the DCI to the National Security Council (NSC) and a proposed NSC Directive establishing the investigation of UFOs as a priority project throughout the intelligence and the defense research and development community. Chadwell also urged Smith to establish an external research project of top-level scientists to study the problem of UFOs. After this briefing, Smith directed DDI Amory to prepare a NSC Intelligence Directive (NSCID) for submission to the NSC on the need to continue the investigation of UFOs and to coordinate such investigations with the Air Force.