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The CIA Saucer Watch

by Jim Hougan
(original information found at TOTSE.com)

The message coming out of the CIA in recent months is that it’s very much a “vanguard” operation. We know now that for more than a decade before Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests,” the Agency was buying LSD by the gallon and testing it on unwitting “volunteers,” while at the same time contemplating Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) as an ideal means of secret communication (covering its bases by having magicians reveal the secrets of their trade, especially with regard to “mind-reading acts”). Hypnosis was another plaything of the Agency, as was behavioral modification and a host of other non-scheduled disciplines.

Assuming that this vanguardism was not an aberration, but typical of the Agency’s foresight and supposed open-mindedness, we may wonder upon what scientific and mystical frontiers they’re currently standing. Biofeedback? TM? Pyramid power? Silva Mind Control? Has the Agency funded the study of more paranormal phenomena — Kirlian photography, psychokinesis, dousing? Does the CIA have a Tac Squad of black-magicians, alchemists bent on manipulating the value of Russian gold reserves? Does it have its own psychics and astrologers and, if so, what are their GS ratings?

I bring up all these things in light of a formerly secret CIA report that has been quietly declassified: Report of Meetings of (the) Scientific Advisory Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects, Convened by (the ) Office of Scientific Intelligence, CIA, January 14-18, 1953. A notorious document within the community of UFO buffs, its existence has long been known: indeed, a censored version has been published in at least one book devoted to UFOlogy. What has not been generally available, however, is the fact that the Report was prepared under the auspices of the CIA. Indeed, it’s precisely that fact that has been the censors’ target.

The significance if the CIA’s involvement in the UFO controversy is substantial. And, if we can put aside our prejudices concerning the subject of “flying saucers” — prejudices which, as we’ll see, have been shaped by the Agency’s mass psychologists — we’ll find that the Report documents a proposed course of action that constitutes a dangerous breach of the CIA’s Charter forbidding domestic operations. The questions raised by the Report are fundamental ones concerning the subservience of scientific objectivity to “national security” goals, the manipulation of national myths, and the use of psychological warfare tactics in peacetime against the very public whose tax dollars support the Agency’s operations. And the questions are specific as well. For instance: did the CIA place American UFO groups under surveillance, as the Report panelists recommended? Were Arthur Godfrey and Walt Disney (and other celebrities) used in a domestic psywar campaign to “debunk” UFOs — as some panelists recommended? Does the CIA routinely, or only occasionally, manipulate American “myths” — as the Report makes clear that it does? Are the conclusions of scientific advisory panels to the CIA and other government agencies arrived at via the scientific method or, as the Report suggests, by political prescription? The “CIA-UFO conspiracy” is an ideal case in point.

To understand the significance of the Report, it should be noted it was produced at the very zenith of the Cold War. Rapid scientific advances in such fields as nuclear energy and jet propulsion had ignited the imagination of the public, while hostility toward China and Russia added an element of paranoia to the country’s mood. At the same time, “flying saucers” were a relatively new phenomenon in the sense that, while strange lights had been seen in the skies for centuries, it was not until the late ’40s that they became a subject of national speculation, a cause celebre. Initial investigations of these early reports of bizarre aerial phenomena suggested that most — 75% or so — could be attributed to natural causes poorly observed, optical illusions, hoaxes, equipment malfunctions or other such banal origins. But that left a significant number of sightings, films and artifacts which could not be rationally explained and which, therefore, literally constituted “Unidentified Flying Objects.” The nature of those objects could be almost anything, but many suspected them to be intelligently-guided aircraft — Russian, American, or Martian. (This was no exaggeration. According to an article by Pentagon staffer Maj. David R. Carlson in The Aerospace Historian [Winter, 1974], a Top Secret 1948 “Estimate of the Situation,” prepared by the USAF Air Technical Intelligence Center, concluded that UFOs were “interplanetary” in origin.) Amid this mix of scientific progress, political paranoia, and seemingly impossible occurrences in the air, the 1953 CIA Panel was convened.

The Panel, composed of seven highly prestigious scientists, (Dr. H. P. Robertson, Chairman, California Institute of Technology; Dr. Luis W. Alvarez, University of California; Dr. Lloyd Berkner, Associated Universities, Inc.; Dr. Samuel Goudsmith, Brookhaven National Laboratories; Dr. Thornton Page, Office of Research Operation, Johns Hopkins University; Dr. J. Allen Hynek, Ohio State University; and Mr. Frederick C. Durant, Arthur D. Little, Inc.), was attended by the upper echelon of the Agency’s Office of Scientific Intelligence, and apparently reported directly to Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). (That the Panel reported to the DCI is a fact, though it’s not known for certain who was DCI at the time of the Report’s completion. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith retired as DCI on Feb. 9, 1953; Dulles served as Acting Director from then until Feb. 26, when his appointment as DCI was confirmed.)

The CIA made it clear from the start, however, that its interest in UFOs was operational rather than academic. While several days were spent studying films of UFOs, reports by the Air Force and Battelle Institute, and listening to numerous interviewees, the Agency had little interest in the subject per se. For one thing, there was no evidence that the “saucers” represented a security threat: they hadn’t bombed anything and, in the absence of hardware indicating otherwise, they didn’t seem to be Russian. That they might be extraterrestrial in origin was a possibility that might be raised, but only in order to dismiss it. Nevertheless, there were dissenters among the Panelists, and among the witnesses. According to the report:

It was interesting to note that none of the members of the Panel were loath to accept that this earth might be visited by extraterrestrial intelligent beings of some sort, some day. What they did not find was any evidence that related the objects sighted to space travellers. Mr. Fournet, in his presentation, showed how he had eliminated each of the known and probable causes of sightings leaving him with ‘extraterrestrial’ as the only one remaining in many cases. Fournet’s background as an aeronautical engineer and technical intelligence officer (Project Officer, Bluebook for 15 months) could not be slighted. However, the Panel could not accept any of the cases sighted by him because they were raw, unevaluated reports. Terrestrial explanations of the sightings were suggested in some cases and in others the time of the sighting was so short as to cause suspicion of visual impressions.

Elsewhere, the Report discusses spectacular films of UFOs sighted over Trementon, Utah, and the resultant briefing by representatives of the U.S. Navy’s Photo Interpretation Laboratory (P.I.L.).

This team had expended (at Air Force request) approximately 1,000 man-hours of professional and sub- professional time in the preparation of graph plots of individual frames of the film, showing apparent and relative motion of objects and variations in their light intensity. It was the opinion of P.I.L. representatives that the objects sighted were not birds, balloons or aircraft; were not reflections because there was no blinking while passing through 60 degrees of arc and were, therefore, ‘self-luminous.’ Plots of motion and variation in light intensity of the objects were displayed. While Panel Members were impressed by the evident enthusiasm, industry, and effort of the P.I.L. team, they could not accept the conclusions reached…”

Despite the “enthusiasm” of the P.I.L. team (reading between the lines, I come up with “They’re flying saucers, goddammit, look at them!”), and in the absence of any evidence to back up what amounted to their dogmatic skepticism, the panel concluded that if further extensive tests were conducted (which they would not be),”…the results of such tests would probably lead to creditable explanations of value in an educational or training program.” In other words, “If we broke our necks trying, we might be able to convince people that these things, whatever they are, are something other than what they would seem to be.” The conclusions reached by the P.I.L. team, after exhaustive efforts, were unacceptable simply because they didn’t conform to the (untested) hypotheses of the CIA panelists. The panelists therefore decided that the objects filmed over Utah must be seagulls or “pillow-balloons” or airplanes or camera tricks or something.

It was this attitude, reflecting CIA policy on the matter, that led the Air Force Bluebook project (analyzing UFO reports) to be dubbed “The Society for the Explanation of the Uninvestigated.”

My purpose here, however, and I hasten to point it out, is not to convince anyone that UFOs are anything other than what the acronym implies — “unidentified.” My intention is, instead, to emphasize the absence of scientific certainty prevailing at the time, the lack of objectivity exhibited at most of the meetings, and the palpable intention of the panelists to dismiss, virtually out of hand, any evidence that challenged existing orthodoxy. In any case, since the CIA and the majority of panelists had discounted the UFOs as phenomenal figments, it might be thought that this would have ended the matter. But that isn’t how things work at CIA headquarters.

The panel concluded that while UFOs didn’t constitute”…a direct physical threat to national security…the continued emphasis on the reporting of these phenomena does, in these parlous times, result in a threat to the orderly functioning of the protective organs of the body politic.”

Specifically,”…panel members were in agreement with O/SI [Office of Scientific Intelligence, CIA]…that dangers might well exist resulting from:

a. Misidentification of actual enemy artifacts by defense personnel.

b. Overloading of emergency reporting channels with ‘false’ information…

c. Subjectivity of public to mass hysteria and greater vulnerability to possible enemy psychological warfare.”

The Report then goes on to point out that the first two of these “dangers” are “not the concern of CIA,” but rather that of the Air Defense Command (ADC). What the CIA is concerned about, however, is the third “danger.” As the Report makes clear, the Agency feared that the “myth of UFOs” might lead to an “inappropriate” response by the public in case of nuclear attack or an invasion of the U.S. by air. (Just what the Agency had in mind in this regard is uncertain: one supposes they feared Russia’s surrounding its MIGs with phosphorescent papier mache, thereby posing as flying saucers, and landing in suburbia with demands that they be taken to our leader.) That they worried about Russia’s manipulation of the saucer myth, however, is explicit in the Report. “The Panel noted that the general absence of Russian propaganda based on a subject with so many obvious possibilities for exploitation might indicate a possible Russian official policy.” Note the reasoning: it seems to say that because Russia demonstrated no interest in the saucer myth, it must therefore be fascinated by it. Obviously the commies were covering up.

In the face, or apparition, of Marxist manipulation of the UFO controversy, the Panel decided that “a broad education program must be undertaken” and “that it should have two major aims: training and ‘debunking’.”

“The training aim,” continues the Report, “would result in proper recognition of unusually illuminated objects (e.g., balloons, aircraft reflections) as well as natural phenomena (meteors, fireballs, mirages, noctilucent clouds)…This training should result in a marked reduction in reports caused by misidentification and resultant confusion.”

“The ‘debunking’ aim,” the Report went on, “would result in reduction in public interest in ‘flying saucers’ which today evokes a strong psychological response. This education could be accomplished by mass media such as television, motion pictures, and popular articles. Basis of such education would be actual case histories which had been puzzling at first but later explained…Such a program should tend to reduce the current gullibility of the public and consequently their susceptibility to clever hostile propaganda.”


Members of the Panel had various suggestions related to the planning of such an educational program. It was felt strongly that psychologists familiar with mass psychology should advise on the nature and extent of the program. In this connection, Dr. Hadley Cantril (Princeton University) was suggested. Cantril authored ‘Invasion from Mars’ (a study in the psychology of panic, written about the famous Orson Welles broadcasts in 1938), and has since performed advanced laboratory studies in the field of perception…Also, perhaps an advertising expert would be helpful. Arthur Godfrey was mentioned as possibly a valuable channel of communication reaching a mass audience of certain levels…The Jam Handy Co. which made World War II training films (motion picture and slide strips) was also suggested, as well as Walt Disney, Inc. animated cartoons. Dr. Hynek suggested that amateur astronomers in the U.S. might be a potential source of enthusiastic talent ‘to spread the gospel.’ It was believed that business clubs, high schools, colleges, and television stations would all be pleased to cooperate in the showing of documentary type motion pictures if prepared in an interesting manner.

You can see the scenario: CIA officers and flag-crazed astronomers huddle in secret to fathom the insidious meaning of Russian disinterest in flying saucers. In front of them are movie screens over which play the images of UFOs hovering in Utah — and, for the purposes of comparison, films of seagulls flapping through the air. In another room, Allen Dulles sits meditating on Korea’s place in the cosmos, waiting to hear if UFOs are imaginary or real (and, if real, to learn the ideology of their occupants). It’s ludicrous.

And yet, even setting aside the rape of scientific objectivity in the supposed best interests of national security, there’s something dangerous here as well.

That is, the manipulation of domestic “myths” by secret agencies of the federal government, agencies which consider the use of celebrities and mass-psychologists in a peacetime campaign for “right-thinking,” is the first step toward psychiatric facism. (It was precisely this kind of activity that led to the persecution of the Jews under the Axis, the evolution of occult pseudo-sciences in Nazi Germany, and the propagation of official myths about Aryan supremacy; they were politically useful ideas.)

It’s absurd, of course, to make a categorical comparison between the CIA’s planned “debunking” of flying saucers with the myth-manipulations of the Nazis. Even if the CIA plans were put into effect, their target was a seemingly innocuous one, and the ridiculing of “flying saucer nuts” relatively mild and harmless. Still, it is a dangerous policy and, as other reports indicate, it wouldn’t be the first time the CIA indulged in such manipulations (more of which later). The question is: were the recommendations of the CIA panelists put into effect? In the absence of a credible statement from the CIA, we can only judge by what happened. Prior to the panel’s being convened, judging by the open-mindedness of its expert witnesses, the subject was given serious study. Subsequently, however, the Air Force embarked on a campaign that precisely conformed to the recommendations of the CIA group. UFO-buffs have long argued that the Air Force was carrying out a policy of cover-up, but few guessed that the policy originated with the CIA.

The history of the Bluebook project from 1953 to its termination in 1969 is one of self-defeat and the waste of tax revenues. As Hynek points out in his book, The UFO Experience, not even the most basic steps were taken. “By and large,” he writes, “Bluebook data were poor in content, and even worse, they were maintained in virtually unusable form. With access to modern electronic data processing techniques, Bluebook maintained its data entirely unprocessed. Cases were filed by date alone, and not even a rudimentary cross-indexing was attempted. Had the data been put in a machine readable form, the computer could have been used to seek patterns in the reports, to compare the elements of one report with those of another…Since all the thousands of cases were recorded only chronologically, even so simple a matter as tabulating sightings from different geographical locations, from different types of witnesses, etc. was impossible…A proposal for elementary computerization of the data…was summarily turned down.” In addition, Bluebook tended not to “investigate” sightings until they achieved notoriety in the press; its staff was invariably too small, and its status inevitably low.

The Air Force, in other words, carried out an essential aspect of the CIA’s proposed dirty work: the pseudo-scientific “debunking” of the UFOs. That the debunking was unsuccessful is obvious from two polls taken by the Gallup organization. In 1947, 90% of the U.S. public had heard about UFOs; in 1966, 96% had heard of them. What’s more, a 1966 Gallup poll indicated that more than five million Americans had witnessed a UFO; in 1973, another Gallup poll showed that 15 million had seen one or more UFOs. Whatever it is they think they’ve seen, it is as Hynek says: “Through the years there [has] been a stubborn, unyielding residue of ‘incredible reports from credible people.'”

If we could be certain that this was the only instance in which the CIA set out to manipulate national myths, it could be dismissed as an aberration, a temporary crankishness on the part of the Agency. But there’s no way to be certain of that. The CIA’s early involvement in the practice, and its apparent success in bringing about the ridicule of witnesses and buffs, raises the possibility that other American “myths” have been similarly manipulated (perhaps with more success). To what extent, if any, have CIA scientists intervened in ESP researches, and toward what end? To what extent, if any, have “assassination buffs” been lampooned by campaigns hatched in the Directory of De- mythification?

It’s not just that the Agency violated its Charter against domestic operations at an early age. The 1953 meetings also raised the specter — concretely — of placing people under surveillance on the grounds that they held scientific or cultural views that differed from the Agency’s own. Quoting from the 1953 Report:

The Panel took cognizance of the existence of such groups as the ‘Civilian Flying Saucer Investigators’ (Los Angeles) and the ‘Aerial Phenomena Research Organization’ (Wisconsin). It was believed that such organizations should be watched because of their great influence on mass thinking if widespread sightings should occur. the apparent responsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind.

While some justification can be made for “watching” political groups and individuals deemed dangerous to society, there can be no innocent grounds for monitoring persons who hold minority views on astronomical phenomena.

Although there’s no way, short of subpoena, to determine if the CIA has exploited other “myths” at home, it is well-known that they’ve done so abroad. In the Philippines, for instance, an indigenous vampire myth flourishes. To capitalize on that myth, CIA counter-insurgency experts instructed Filipino troops under their command to fake vampirism following battle encounters with the Huks. When time permitted, the enemy dead were strung upside-down from the limbs of trees, and their jugulars pierced with small incisions. Found days later by their comrades, their bodies drained of blood and with what seemed to be “teeth-marks” on their necks, the dead were presumed to have fallen victim of immortal enemies (i.e., the “living dead”). This same tactic was, reportedly, tried in Vietnam, but it met with no success since the Vietnamese wouldn’t know a vampire from a Fig Newton. They merely thought Americans peculiarly savage for killing people in such a barbaric way.

What the Vietnamese did have, however, was a belief in hexes associated with “the evil eye.” To exploit that myth, some Special Forces troops were instructed to remove the eyes of dead enemy soldiers — to gouge them out, as it were — and place them on the backs of the enemy dead. This anomaly, when encountered by the Viet Cong or NVA, was expected to freak them out and, reportedly, it did. Even more bizarre, though, was the Americans’ way of “making do.” Soldiers disgusted at the prospect of disfiguring the dead, or simply pressed for time, resorted to tossing copies of the CBS “eye” logo on the backs of dead NVA and Viet Cong. While not quite so effective as the real thing, the practice was said to have had some impact.

This isn’t to say that the CIA gives an automatic go-ahead to every proposal for the exploitation of myth. Some proposals are so outlandish that even the Agency is flabbergasted by them. For instance, a witness before Sen. Frank Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence described a plan concocted by General Edward Lansdale for the overthrow of Fidel Castro. “I’ll give you one example of Lansdale’s perspicacity,” the witness said. “He had a wonderful plan for getting rid of Castro. The plan consisted of spreading the word that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and that Christ was against Castro, (who) was the Anti-Christ. And you would spread this word around Cuba, and then on whatever date it was, that there would be a manifestation of this thing. And at that time — this is absolutely true — and at that time just over the horizon there would be an American submarine which would surface off of Cuba and send up some starshells (flares). And this would be the manifestation of the Second Coming and Castro would be overthrown…Well, some wag called this operation — and somebody dubbed this — Elimination by Illumination.”

It’s entirely possible, of course, that we’ll never know what the CIA’s been up to all these years, at home or abroad. Indeed, even an understanding of exactly what happened with the UFO experience becomes increasingly unlikely. Currently, what UFOlogists regard as the coup de grace “of the longest cover-up” is taking place at Maxwell Air Force Base. It’s there that nearly 30 years of UFO sightings and research have been kept.

Throughout most of that time, interested researchers were given virtually free access to the available records. Now, however, those records are being given by the Air Force to the National Archives with the stipulation that the identities of witnesses and officials mentioned in the reports be deleted. Excising all proper names from the tens of thousands of pages accumulated over three decades is a monumental, time-consuming and expensive task that would seem to have no purpose but to diminish the historical and scientific value of the records. As John Taylor, an official at the National Archives, pointed out: “It’s just a waste of money. For years, anyone who wanted to look at those records, with all the names left in, just had to visit Maxwell Air Base. Now, all of a sudden, they want the names removed. It doesn’t make sense: it’s too late to protect anyone’s privacy. All they’re going to do is damage the historical record, and spend a small fortune doing it.”

A spokeswoman for Dr. Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies also deplored the removal of the names, but for somewhat different reasons. “The reports of sightings will still be valuable…What disturbs us so much more is the Air Force’s deleting the names of officials who were involved in the various projects, scientists who rendered opinions on sightings, and others who attended military and governmental meetings on the subject. Suddenly, all that’s going to be a blank. There’ll be no way to know who was responsible for what. It’s the last stage of the cover-up. It completes it.”

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