Amid reports of flying saucers swarming the nation's capital, the intelligence agency realized it needed a P.R. strategy.
In January 1953, the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency had a thorny situation on its hands. Reports of UFO sightings were mushrooming around the country. Press accounts were fanning public fascination—and concern. So the CIA convened a group of scientists to investigate whether these unknown phenomena in the sky represented a national security threat.
But there was something else.
At a time when growing Cold War anxiety about the Soviets ranged from psychological warfare to wholesale nuclear annihilation, the U.S. government worried about the prospect of a growing national hysteria. In the previous year, UFOs had begun to figure prominently in the public conversation. In April 1952, the popular magazine LIFE published a story titled “Have We Visitors from Space?” that promised to offer “scientific evidence that there is a real case for interplanetary saucers.” In July that year, newspaper headlines around the country blared reports of flying saucers swarming Washington, D.C. Between March and June that year, the number of UFO sightings officially reported to the U.S. Air Force jumped from 23 to 148. Given all the attention UFOs were getting, the CIA decided it needed a “national policy” for “what should be told the public regarding the phenomenon, in order to minimize risk of panic,” according to government documents.
The Robertson report: The real enemy is hysteria
To this end, the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence collaborated with Howard Percy Robertson, a professor of mathematical physics at the California Institute of Technology, to gather a panel of nonmilitary scientists. The Robertson panel met for a few days in January 1953 to review Air Force records about UFO sightings going back to 1947.
Project Blue Book, which had started in 1952, was the latest iteration of the Air Force’s UFO investigative teams. After interviewing project members Captain Edward J. Ruppelt and astronomer J. Allen Hynek, the panel concluded that many sightings Blue Book had tracked were, in fact, explainable. For example, after reviewing film taken of a UFO sighting near Great Falls, Montana on August 15, 1950, the panel concluded what the film actually showed was sunlight reflecting off the surface of two Air Force interceptor jets.
The panel did actually see a potential threat related to this phenomena—but it wasn’t saucers and little green men.
“It was the public itself,” says John Greenewald, Jr., founder of The Black Vault, an online archive of government documents. There was a concern “that the general public, with their panic and hysteria, could overwhelm the resources of the U.S. government” in a time of crisis.
The CIA also seems to have feared foreign interference, says Nick Pope, who worked for the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s UFO program from 1991 to 1994—specifically, that “the Soviets would find a way to use the huge level of public interest in UFOs to somehow manipulate, to cause panic; which then could be used to undermine national cohesiveness.” The Robertson report—which the CIA didn’t release publicly until 1975—hints at this, suggesting “mass hysteria” over UFOs could lead to “greater vulnerability to possible enemy psychological warfare.”
Teaching the public to be less ‘gullible’
To address these potential vulnerabilities, the panel suggested education programs to debunk UFO sightings and teach the public how to identify certain phenomena. Scientists on the panel suggested teaching people with articles, TV shows and movies—even proposing that the Walt Disney corporation could help produce them. “Such a program should tend to reduce the current gullibility of the public and…their susceptibility to clever hostile propaganda,” the report noted.
Did the government actually implement such programs? Leslie Kean, author of UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, points to one likely example: a television special put on by Walter Cronkite in 1966…called “UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy?”
“We have a record that one of the people on the Robertson panel wrote a letter to another person who was on the Robertson panel,” says Kean, “and said…that he, quote, ‘helped organize the CBS TV show around the Robertson panel conclusions.’” Just as the panel had suggested, the program focused on debunking UFO sightings.
The Condon report: Were its findings a foregone conclusion?
Between 1966 and 1968, the government called for another, lengthier scientific inquiry into Project Blue Book led by physicist Edward U. Condon. Though the CIA had some involvement with the Condon Committee, it was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado, and its report was immediately available to the public. Like the Robertson panel, it concluded UFOs posed no threat to the U.S., and that most sightings could be easily explained. In addition, it suggested that the Air Force end Project Blue Book’s investigations into UFOs—which it did in 1969.
Many people who study UFO sightings have suggested that the government never really allowed the Robertson panel, the Condon Committee or even Project Blue Book to review the most sensitive UFO sightings, incidents that may have contained classified information. One of the main pieces of evidence for this is a 1969 memo signed by Brigadier General Carroll H. Bolender suggesting the Air Force hadn’t shared all UFO sightings with Project Blue Book and would continue to investigate sightings that could present a national security threat after the project ended. (Today, the Navy tracks sightings of “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAPs.).
Critics have also suggested that the real goal of the Robertson panel, the Condon Committee and/or Project Blue Book was never to identify what was really going on with UFO sightings, but simply to assuage public concern about them.
If true, this would not necessarily mean the government had information about extraterrestrials it wanted to conceal. In some cases, the government may have been trying to cover up its own activities. Since Project Blue Book’s end, the CIA has admitted that more than half of the UFO reports the government received in the late 1950s and into the ‘60s were related to secret U-2 and OXCART spy flights by the U.S. government.
Because the government didn’t want the public to know about these clandestine flights, members of Project Blue Book would often “explain away such sightings by linking them to natural phenomena such as ice crystals and temperature inversions,” writes Gerald K. Haines, a historian for the CIA’s National Reconnaissance Office. In 2014, the CIA smugly tweeted about the ruse: “Remember reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ‘50s? That was us.”