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SCIENCE & SOCIETY
UFO theorists gain support abroad, but repression at home
Study by French officials, routine unexplained sightings, US military
safety aspects combine to boost believers
By Leslie Kean, 5/21/2000
Last month's release of the first detailed satellite images
of Area 51, the top-secret US Air Force test site in
Nevada, prompted a Web site meltdown as people from
across the nation logged on in search of clues about
unidentified flying objects.
''The interest has been really phenomenal,'' said David
Mountain, marketing director for Aerial Images Inc., which posted the high-resolution
photographs of Area 51 on the Internet.
But those hoping to see signs that captured UFOs are
stored at the site (as some aficionados have suggested)
were destined to be disappointed. Most of Area 51's
operations occur underground, making photos meaningless.
Anyone looking for fresh information on UFOs would
have better luck trying a new, but less publicized, source:
a study by the French military, just translated into an
approved English edition.
High-level officials - including retired generals from the
French Institute of Higher Studies for National Defense,
a government-financed strategic planning agency - recently
took a giant step in openly challenging skepticism about
In a report based on a three-year study, they concluded
that ''numerous manifestations observed by reliable
witnesses could be the work of craft of extraterrestrial
origin'' and that, in fact, the best explanation is ''the
extraterrestrial hypothesis.'' Although not categorically
proven, ''strong presumptions exist in its favor and if it
is correct, it is loaded with significant consequences.''
The French group reached that conclusion after examining
nearly 500 international aeronautical sightings and radar/
visual cases, and previously undisclosed pilots' reports.
They drew on data from official sources, government
authorities, and the air forces of other countries. The
findings are contained in a 90-page report titled ''UFOs
and Defense: What Should We Prepare For?''
''The number of sightings, which are completely
unexplained despite the abundance and quality of data
from them, is growing throughout the world,'' the team
The authors note that about 5 percent of sightings on which
there is solid documentation cannot be easily attributed to
earthly sources, such as secret military exercises. This 5
percent seem ''to be completely unknown flying machines
with exceptional performances that are guided by a natural
or artificial intelligence,'' they say. Science has developed
plausible models for travel from another solar system and
for technology that could be used to propel the vehicles,
the report points out.
It assures readers that UFOs have demonstrated no hostile
acts, ''although intimidation maneuvers have been
Given the widespread skepticism about UFOs, many will
quickly dismiss the generals' ''extraterrestrial hypothesis.''
But it is less easy to do so once the authors' credentials are
considered. The study's originators are four-star General
Bernard Norlain, former commander of the French Tactical Air Force and military counselor
to the prime minister; General Denis Letty, an air force fighter pilot; and Andre Lebeau,
former head of the National Center for Space Studies, the French equivalent of NASA.
They formed a 12-member ''Committee for In-depth
Studies,'' abbreviated as COMETA, which authored the
report. Other contributors included a three-star admiral,
the national chief of police, and the head of a government
agency studying the subject, as well as scientists and
Not only does the group stand by its findings, it is urging
international action. The writers recommend that France
establish ''sectorial cooperation agreements with interested European and foreign
countries'' on the matter of UFOs. They suggest that the European Union undertake
diplomatic action with the United States ''exerting useful pressure to clarify this
crucial issue which must fall within the scope of political and strategic alliances.''
Why might the United States be interested - albeit,
privately - in a subject often met with ridicule, or
considered the domain of the irrational?
For one thing, declassified US government documents
show that unexplained objects with extraordinary technical
capabilities pose challenges to military activity around the
globe. For example, US fighter jets have attempted to
pursue UFOs, according to North American Aerospace
Defense Command logs and Air Force documents. Iranian
and Peruvian air force planes attempted to shoot down
unidentified craft in 1976 and 1980. Belgium F-16s
armed with missiles pursued a UFO in 1990.
Further, the French report says that there have been ''visits
bove secret installations and missile bases'' and ''military
aircraft shadowed'' in the United States.
Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut who was the sixth
man to walk on the moon, is one of many supporters of
international cooperation on UFOs. Of the French report,
he says, ''It's significant that individuals of some standing
in the government, military, and intelligence community
in France came forth with this.''
Mitchell, who holds a doctorate from MIT in aeronautics
and astronautics, is convinced ''at a confidence level
above 90 percent, that there is reality to all of this.'' He
says, ''People have been digging through the files and
investigating for years now. The files are quite convincing.
The only thing that's lacking is the official stamp.''
Mitchell joins five-star Admiral Lord Hill-Norton, the
former head of the British Ministry of Defense, in calling
for congressional fact-finding hearings into the UFO
Although Congress seems disinclined to pursue the matter,
the public's interest in UFOs is undiminished. A ballot
initiative underway in Missouri, certified by the secretary
of state in March, urges Congress to convene hearings.
The initiative states that ''the Federal Government's
handling of the UFO issue has contributed to the public
cynicism toward, and general mistrust of, government.''
US Naval Reserve Commander Willard H. Miller has
long been communicating this same concern to high level
federal officials. With over 30 years in Navy and joint
interagency operations with the Defense Department,
Miller has participated in a series of previously
undisclosed briefings for Pentagon brass about military
policy regarding UFOs.
Like many, Miller says he worries that the military's lack
of preparation for encounters with unexplained craft could
provoke dangerous confrontation when, and if, such an
encounter occurs; ''precipitous military decisions,'' he
warns, ''may lead to unnecessary confusion, misapplication of forces, or possible
And he says he is not alone in his concerns. ''There are
those in high places in the government who share a
growing interest in this subject,'' Miller reports.
If the US military is concerned about UFOs, it is not
saying so publicly. Indeed, the French report chastises the
United States for what it calls an ''impressive repressive
arsenal'' on the subject, including a policy of
disinformation and military regulations prohibiting public
disclosure of UFO sightings.
Air Force Regulation 200-2, ''Unidentified Flying Objects
Reporting,'' for example, prohibits the release to the public
and the media of any data about ''those objects which are
not explainable.'' An even more restrictive procedure is
outlined in the Joint Army Navy Air Force Publication
146, which threatens to prosecute anyone under its
jurisdiction - including pilots, civilian agencies, merchant
marine captains, and even some fishing vessels - for
disclosing reports of sightings relevant to US security.
Although researchers have been able to obtain some
information through the Freedom of Information Act, many
UFO documents remain classified.
In earlier decades, issues that remain pertinent today were
openly discussed. In 1960, for example, US Representative Leonard G. Wolf of Iowa entered
an ''urgent warning'' from R.E. Hillenkoetter, a former CIA director and Navy vice
admiral, into the Congressional Record that ''certain dangers are linked with unidentified
flying objects.'' Wolf cited General L.M. Chassin, NATO coordinator of Allied Air Service,
warning that ''If we persist in refusing to recognize the existence of the UFOs, we will
end up, one fine day, by mistaking them for the guided missiles of an enemy - and the
worst will be upon us.''
These concerns were taken seriously enough to be
incorporated into the 1971 US-Soviet ''Agreement on
Measures to Reduce the Outbreak of Nuclear War.''
The French report may open the door for nations to be
more forthcoming once again. Chile, for example, is
openly addressing its own concerns about air safety and
UFOs. The now retired chief of the Chilean Air Force has
formed a committee with civil aviation specialists to study
recent near-collisions of UFOs and civilian airliners.
As the international conversation about UFOs unfolds,
sightings continue, as they have for decades. Perhaps the
most notable recent USsighting took place in March 1997.
Hundreds of people across Arizona reported seeing huge
triangular objects, hovering silently in the night sky - a
sighting that, as the state's US Senator John McCain noted
recently, has ''never been fully explained.'' As recently as
Jan. 5, four policemen at different locations in St. Claire
County, Illinois, witnessed a huge, brightly lighted,
triangular craft flying and hovering at 1,000 feet. One
officer reported witnessing extreme rapid motion by the
craft that cannot be explained in conventional terms.
Nearby Scott Air Force base and the Federal Aviation
Administration purport to know nothing.
The Defense Department maintains it can find no
information acknowledging the existence of the triangular
objects. In response to a suit by curious Arizonans, it
provided details of its search to US District Court Judge
Stephen M. McNamee of Phoenix. On March 30,
McNamee concluded that ''a reasonable search was
conducted'' even though no information was obtained,
and he dismissed the case.
There is one government agency in the country that has
taken steps to prepare for a UFO encounter. The Fire
Officer's Guide to Disaster Control, second edition - used
by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and taught
at the seven universities offering degrees in fire science -
warns of ''UFO hazards,'' such as electrical fields that
cause blackouts, force fields, and physiological effects.
''Do not stand under a UFO that is hovering at low
altitudes,'' the book warns. ''Do not touch or attempt to
touch a UFO that has landed.''
The text leaves little room for skepticism. John E. Mack,
professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and a
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, stopped being skeptical a
long time ago.
''No culture from the beginning of time, no culture from
anywhere on the planet, has ever voided the idea of all
other intelligent life other than ourselves,'' he told a UFO
conference at the New York Hall of Science two weeks
ago. ''That's arrogance.''
Leslie Kean is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco
Bay area.This story ran on page E3 of the Boston Globe
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
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