Is the Government Hiding UFOs?

Evasive tactics in government investigations of UFO sightings leave us wondering if they're hiding something.

Is the Government Hiding UFOs?

"You ever notice that UFO's never land at places like MIT or UCLA? They always land in some swamp in Arkansas where Billy Hot Dog and his cousin, Weenie, are out hunting. They're real good for reliable reports. It was big and round. Imagine if it landed in Times Square... taxi drivers would honk and scream out 'move that thing!' Bums would come and warm their hands by it and say 'This is nice!' " —Jay Leno

The three lights were clearly visible in the sky above the parking lot of the Thomaston, Georgia Lions Club, where Governor Jimmy Carter had just concluded his speech. The questions and congratulations of the 20 backslappers who had ushered the governor from the hall were suddenly silenced as the group turned to stare in the direction of the waning moon. The lights formed a cluster above the horizon, and appeared to be about the size of a quarter held at arm's length. They blinked red, then green. After drifting slowly across the sky for five minutes or so, during which time they remained in full view of the governor and his entourage, the lights quickly disappeared. None of the witnesses were willing to state uncategorically that what they had seen were birds, planes, or comic book heroes flying nighttime missions.

The sighting so impressed Jimmy Carter that three years later he made it something of a political issue. While campaigning for the presidency he told a reporter from the National Enquirer that, should he be elected, he would make every piece of information this country has about UFO sightings available to the public and the scientists. "I am convinced that UFO's exist."

Photo via Nibiru

UFO Enthusiast's New Hope

Students of the UFO mystery found Carter’s statement encouraging, although they adopted a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is attitude. They had been burned before by presidential hopefuls (Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford were two examples) who talked declassification of UFO material during their campaigns only to pigeonhole their promises once they took office. They hoped that Carter's election would signal a change in official policy, but they had learned to expect nothing.

Post-inaugural enquiries by such respected UFO investigators as Jim and Coral Lorenzen of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization in Tucson, Arizona, elicited vague but marginally encouraging responses. According to the White House, the declassification problem was to be turned over to the president’s National Science Advisor, who would release periodic public statements as the work progressed. The implication was that if there still remained material to be declassified, the government would insist that it be made publicly available, even if that material turned out to include something as startling as a captured UFO or an 8x10 glossy of the ambassador from Zeta.

The Air Force maintained—as it had for most of the 30 years during which it had been involved in the investigation of UFOs—that there was no declassification problem, that all UFO documents, photographs, and films in their files had been made public after the demise of Project Blue Book in 1969.

Four years later those same documents, photographs, and films were transferred from Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama, to the National Archives in Washington, where they are now fully accessible and reportedly in great demand despite their decidedly unstartling nature.

The general skepticism of the UFologists has been engendered by many years of mishandling, distortion, and bad faith on the part of the US government. From 1948 until 1969, when the Air Force was more or less actively and more or less publicly engaged in the study of the problem, frustrated "amateurs" had seen the UFO reduced in the eyes of officialdom from a genuine mystery worthy of scientific attention to an irritating and ultimately unmanageable exercise in public relations. By the time the Air Force officially withdrew from the field in 1969, they had succeeded only in alienating a sizable number of sincerely interested and honestly puzzled students of the phenomenon, many of whom had worked on one or another of the Air Force's own projects.

Military and UFOs

The first involvement of the Air Force with UFOs came as a reaction to the "flying saucer flap of 1947." A number of headline-making sightings occurred in the summer of that year, and the Air Force, still nervous at the capture of several high-echelon German rocket scientists by the Soviet Union, felt obliged to investigate the sightings on the chance that the mysterious objects might represent Russian secret weapons. The defense of national security was the underlying reason for the Air Force's entry into the UFO debate; It ultimately became the excuse for its exit.

The idea that UFOs might be extraterrestrial vehicles was seriously considered by Project Sign, the first of the Air Force investigating units, but was quickly rejected by then-Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg. (Ironically, firings from the California missile base that bears his name often generate false UFO reports.) By 1952, as sightings continued unabated while sneak nuclear attacks materialized only in the bad dreams of generals and politicians, the Air Force began to pooh-pooh the notion that people were seeing secret Soviet ultra weapons. Whatever the UFO's were, and the Air Force had some rather unflattering speculations on that topic, they did not seem to pose a threat to national security.

Technically, the Air Force's job was over at that point. Its personnel had concluded to their satisfaction that the little lights were not interested in destroying New York or Cleveland (perhaps regrettably in the latter case), and they should have been able to withdraw gracefully from all future consideration of the problem. But they could not. The fact that the Air Force had studied UFOs at all became in the public mind a tacit admission that the little lights were something more than swamp gas or mass hallucination. Something, the public mind decided, was going on out there, and the Air Force was obliged to find out just exactly what that something was, national security or no national security.

From that point forward the Air Force found itself in the unenviable position of having to deny its own interest in UFOs, this in the face of an ever increasing public demand for a solution to the mystery. Yet rather than take a straightforward approach, open its files, and invite qualified scientists to participate in an ongoing research effort, the Air Force decided that the public could only be calmed by making the sighting reports appear to disappear, or by offering suitable explanations for all but a very few of those that existed.

Inevitably, this approach led to the worst (and often the clumsiest) sort of distortion of evidence. Attempting to reduce the number of unexplained sightings, which for some years had reached as high as 60 percent of the total reports considered, the Air Force changed its classification system to include only two categories of reports: "probably explained," and "possibly explained." This system resulted in such scientific comments as "since the thing was on the ground, they should have called the army," and such eyebrow raising "explanations" as "the object seen was a bird with four lights."

Sighting reports continued to roll in despite the Air Force effort to closet them. Also, disenchanted former employees left Project Sign and its descendants Grudge and Blue Book to complain openly about the Air Force's inadequate resources and questionable methodology. Public clamor, initially limited to such lay investigation groups as NICAP and APRO, began to increase, with demands for a congressional hearing becoming more and more frequent. The Air Force countered with the findings of the Robertson Committee, which after discussing the problem for 12(!) decided that UFOs were fundamentally a waste of time; and with a similar study and statement by the Battelle Research Institute of Maryland.

Photo via No Fun

A Debate Ensues

Furious debate outside the government and stony silence (but little action) within characterized the next 16 years, until the Air Force, haggard and embittered at its failure to get itself off the public's hook, finally managed to sluff its problem off on the unsuspecting University of Colorado. The University agreed to do an exhaustive study of a sample of sighting reports and to come up with an answer as to whether or not the mystery deserved further scientific attention. Physicist Edward Condon, who in happier days had been one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, agreed to head the committee.

When the results of the study were published, it became apparent to nearly everyone that Condon had not read his own report. The study itself indicated that 20 to 40 percent of the reports reviewed had no reasonable explanations, and yet the conclusion—to which Condon publicly subscribed—stated that the UFO problem did not merit further concern! Despite this glaring contradiction and the outraged responses of private UFO organizations, the Air Force declared the verdict of the Condon Report to be final. Project Blue Book was summarily discontinued and its files shipped to Alabama. Apparently glad to have any excuse to get the UFO off its back, the Air Force exiled it for four years to the land of honeysuckle and integration problems.

UFO Sightings and Experiences

The real villain in the piece is, of course, the UFO itself. APRO estimates that it has collected over 30,000 sighting reports since 1952, and David Saunders, a computer scientist who participated in the Condon study, is known to be working on a computer analysis of 60,000 reports. These figures represent sighting reports, but it is common knowledge among UFO researchers that the vast majority of sightings are not reported to anyone. A 1973 Gallup Poll indicated that a full 11 percent of the US population (26 million people) claim to have seen something in the sky that they could not identify.

Something in the sky that they could not identify. How many "unidentified" flying objects could have been identified or explained by appropriate machinery and qualified observers? Percentage estimates of the number of truly unidentified objects tend to vary widely, depending on the source of the estimate. The lowest published figure for "unidentified" sightings was 4 percent, but this figure was issued by the Air Force during the mid 50s, when Project Blue Book was under mandate to leave no reports unexplained. (Before that directive, Blue Book was coming up with "unexplained" figures that ranged as high as 60 percent.) Project Grudge was forced to leave 23 percent of its reports in the unexplained category, while the Condon Committee admitted that 20 to 40 percent of the reports it surveyed had no known cause.

The problem is complicated by the wide variety of experiences claimed by UFO witnesses. Some, like Jimmy Carter, see lights in the night sky, which can often (although not always) be explained as planets, airplanes, meteors, satellites, or just another Tequila Sunrise. Jim Lorenzen says that only rarely does a nighttime sighting remain a mystery for long. Daylight sightings introduce another order of complexity, especially in those instances when the sightings are corroborated by radar, photographs, or motion pictures. Close encounters, in which the object is seen at a distance of less than 1,000 feet, are even more difficult to explain. If the "craft" lands, leaving scorch marks or symmetrical impressions in the ground; or if it reveals "occupants," the problems are multiplied almost exponentially, while claims of contact with aliens can leave UFO investigators muttering into their telephones.

To make things even more frustrating, the UFOs and their alleged occupants come in an enormous panoply of sizes, shapes, and descriptions. The "craft" are variously described as disc-shaped, cigar-shaped, spherical, or even conical. Aliens can be tiny, huge, metallic, lizard-like, or diaphonous. They may have eyes but no mouth and communicate by telepathy, or look like the Beach Boys and speak perfect English. All in all, they leave the impression that every civilization in the galaxy must be arriving at once.

UFO witnesses as a group are no more homogenous than the creatures they describe. APRO and other organizations do their best to weed out unreliable witnesses, the drunks, wife-beaters, and drug-crazed viewers who may be inclined to see things that aren't there, but their ultimate tests for reliability still lean heavily on the impressions of the witnesses neighbors, or occasionally on the results of polygraph tests. These criteria for reliability often do not eliminate the two types of witnesses who are probably the most damaging to the serious study of UFO's: the hoaxer, and the contactee. The hoaxer may present the smaller problem—once uncovered, he simply slips away—but the contactee, who claims to be acting under the direction of an alien society which has somehow chosen to reveal itself to him and him alone, makes the whole UFO enterprise suspect in the minds of skeptics.

Often the contactee is confused with the witness who has (or thinks he has) been abducted by extraterrestrials. Abduction cases are undoubtedly the most difficult to deal with. The stories the abductees tell are so fantastic that they beg to be discounted, yet it is evident that something extraordinary has happened: The witnesses are invariably traumatized after their experience, and often report inexplicable time lapses, temporary amnesia, nightmares, and strange physiological after-effects, despite the fact that extensive examinations usually find them physically and mentally sound.

Government Interruption

Many UFologists remained skeptical. Donald Keyhoe, former director of the National Investigating Committee on Aerial Phenomena, for years organized himself around the assumption that the Air Force was sequestering its best films and photographs in a secret file which also contained its most puzzling sighting reports. Jim and Coral Lorenzen also felt certain that there was at least some reports which had not yet been released, but they did not think that the Air Force was consciously hiding a cache of spectacular material. Rather, they simply pointed out that the inefficiency of military bureaucracy is legendary, and that there may have been boxes of reports lying about unnoticed in the storeroom of some obscure base.

The Lorenzens were more concerned by evidence that the Air Force was not the only government agency involved in UFO research. The CIA, operating in its customary shadowy style, had apparently been collecting UFO material since at least 1953, when it convened a panel of scientific "experts" to consider the problem. (The full text of the Robertson Report, names for the scientist who headed the committee, was not released until 1975, and even then the version that was distributed had obviously been sanitized.) Both the Navy and the Army had occasionally sent investigators to interview sighting witnesses, and Jim Lorenzen recalled at least one mention of a mysterious "UFO Board" in Washington. With the exception of the Robertson Report, no documents had been released by any of these agencies.

At the center of the issue was military procedure for classification and declassification. The armed forces and the CIA routinely classified any report the subject of which might pose a threat to national security. If that subject, whether it be internal conspiracy, foreign espionage, or unexplained objects in the atmosphere, proved not to be threatening after 12 years, the report was routinely declassified. If the Air Force did have a captured UFO or an alien envoy in its closet, it would not declassify that information until the spaceship and its pilot were proved benign, which, given the military's predilection to see even the fluoridation of water as potentially threatening, would probably occur only after the aliens showed up at a recreational vehicle exposition.

Whether or not the government is keeping such astounding material secret must remain a matter of speculation. What seems to be fact is that Washington is continuing the evasive tactics for which it has become so well-known, this in spite of Jimmy Carter's promise. There has, as yet, been no public statement from the National Science Advisor. Rumors circulate among UFologists to the effect that the problem has now been given back to the Pentagon. If true, then the circle which opened so tantalizingly during Carter's campaign is now apparently closed once again.

Skeptics and Enthusiasts

Like physics, the study of UFOs is still searching for its unified field theory, the one hypothesis that will simply and elegantly explain every aspect of the problem. Plenty of candidates have arisen, but none has satisfied even a healthy minority of UFO researchers. As in any controversial area, both sides tend to become emotional, which only further clouds an already cloudy issue, and a good deal of time is wasted in exchanges of insults, personality conflicts, and intramural rivalries. Apparently, we will have to wait for a solution until a spaceship lands in Brooklyn and the pilots ask to be taken to our leaders. (Who, by the way, would we take them to?)

The sides themselves can be defined easily enough: There are the debunkers who believe that all UFOs can be explained in terrestrial terms; and the enthusiasts, who prefer the intergalactic approach. Debunkers claim that those sightings which cannot be ascribed to hoaxes, misidentified planets, airplanes, and so on, must be the result of temperature inversion (the same phenomenon that makes the highway ahead look wet on a hot day), plasmas (free-floating atmospheric electricity), sundogs (sunlight refracted at peculiar angles), hysteria, hallucination, poor vision, or wishful thinking.

The trouble is that the skeptics tend to beat their chests over cases which can be so explained while ignoring those that can't, and often a close examination reduces their more exotic explanations to the level of birds with four lights. Temperature inversion, for example, is known to occur only at angles of incidence of four degrees above or below the plane of vision, which leaves 352 degrees unaccounted for. Atmospheric plasmas have so far been detected only near high-tension wires; UFOs have appeared in all parts of the sky, not to mention the ground. Sundogs do not stop car engines, as UFOs often do, and as far as we know no hallucination leaves geometric impressions in the ground that could not have been formed by anything weighing less than 80 tons.

The enthusiasts are in no better shape. The most prominent and most debated of their theories, that we are being studied (or teased) by an alien race with a super-elaborated technology, runs into difficulty when it tries to answer such reasonable questions as: Why would so many come so far—and violate so many natural laws in so doing—just to study (or tease) a race that is so obviously backward? The enthusiasts respond that the "so many" could represent either some sort of interstellar federation a la Star Trek or a series of disguises adopted, for whatever purpose, by only a few races; and that the "so far" may not be so far at all, especially if the aliens have bases somewhere in our solar system, or even in such out-of-the-way earthly sites as Antarctica or the bottoms of oceans. They argue that while travel between the stars may seem impossible to us primitives, an advanced technology could well have circumvented what we in our ignorance consider to be immutable laws governing travel at near-light velocities. (Interestingly enough, the highly-regarded Israeli physicist Benjamin Gal-Or stated a few years back that we have new and disturbing evidence to indicate that all our space-time notions may well be wrong.)

The enthusiast's biggest problem comes when they try to explain the alien's motivation and modus operandi. If the aliens are doing some sort of anthropological survey of earthbound life forms, why such an enormous research team? As astronomer Carl Sagan pointed out, "all the anthropologists in the world do not descend on the Andaman Islands because the fishnet has just been invented there." If, on the other hand, we are the objects of an intergalactic practical joke, why is the joke being carried on on such an elaborate scale? Surely the envoys from space must have something better to do with their time. And if the aliens have some other motive, why don’t they simply reveal themselves, announce their intentions, and proceed?

Perhaps we are simply not ready. Or perhaps the aliens are not precisely there. The computer scientist Jacques Vallee, who investigated UFOs in the US and Europe for over 30 years, favored a rather complicated theory which sees UFOs as some combination of collective psychic projection and actual physical effects, the results of someone's (our own?) attempt to program us in some as yet unknown direction. Citing Pavlov and Skinner, he pointed out that if one wants a subject to learn something and learn it well, especially if the something is outside the subject's normal view of the way things should be, one proceeds very slowly with a step-by-step process of enlightenment, and one introduces confusion into the learning process to keep the subject's mind open.

There is no doubt that confusion is one of the hallmarks of the UFO problem. And if the change in attitude among the academic community and the public at large over many years is an index, then the program was working. Whereas 50 years ago it was hard to find an academician or scientist who would touch the UFO question with a 10' caliper, we are now seeing something of an academic rush to join the battle.

The psychic component of Vallee's theory was necessary to make sense of what was quickly becoming a senseless mass of data. Abduction cases, in particular, just didn’t seem to yield to rational analysis based on physical possibilities, but they read somewhat more easily as experiences that somehow tap the well of common religious and mythical yearnings which Jung called the collective unconscious. Basically the theory goes that we humans are constantly, although unconsciously, searching for guidance, for some proof that we have not been left to handle this whole mess alone. In the absence of real revelation, real miracles, and real instruction, the unconscious rushes to supply us with what we so obviously need, while the conscious mode verbalizes the result and gives it the name of God, the Tao, the Cosmic All.

Jung himself saw flying saucers as an expression of his unconscious urge. Work by Alvin Lawson and William McCall seemed to support the idea, although their methodology was criticized by other researchers. Lawson and McCall hypnotized subjects who claimed to have no UFO experiences and give them the suggestion that they were kidnapped by space people. These "naive" subjects immediately poured out a wealth of detail to describe their imaginary experience and their imaginary captors, detail which was strikingly similar to that provided by "real" abductees. The implication was that both "real" and "imaginary" UFO experiences may have a base in the unconscious minds of the witnesses.

A tempting theory: promising, attractive, with many of the signs of elegance which one looks for in an all-embracing hypothesis. Unfortunately, though, the collective-unconscious-as-source-for-flying-saucers-theory, despite its initial good looks, simply does not explain the only hard evidence we have: Those nicely symmetrical, evenly spaced, pressure-compacted, maddening little holes in the ground.

Recommended Reading

Tales of government conspiracy to conceal UFOs run rampant, but what happens when the government officials themselves speak out? Read firsthand accounts of government UFO investigations in UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record.

A series of distinguished men, who over the years have been involved in the investigations of UFOs, have written firsthand accounts about the extraordinary incidents they have witnessed. Leslie Kean has published their accounts alongside 10 years of research on these phenomena in UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record.

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