Now you see 'em, now you don't
How the U.S. government moved UFOs off the front page

Terry Hansen

Beginning in the late 1940s, thousands of reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) spilled onto the front pages of newspapers across the United States, much to the alarm of federal government officials who could provide no clear explanation as to what was taking place. In December 1952, H. Marshall Chadwell, assistant director of scientific intelligence, sent a memo to the CIA director warning that “unexplained objects at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major U.S. defense installations are of such nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles.” An early intelligence estimate concluded UFOs were from outer space, but this alarming conclusion was quickly squelched by Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg who ordered all copies of the estimate burned.

Many early UFO reports came from commercial airline pilots with extensive World War II flight experience. Some of these reports found their way into newspapers across the country, creating a sensation bordering on hysteria. In 1953, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) panel met to discuss what could be done about the situation. The panel’s chairman was Dr. H.P. Robertson, a top U.S. scientific-intelligence expert. After a brief discussion of some of the more heavily publicized cases, the “Robertson Panel,” as it has come to be called, recommended what was effectively a domestic propaganda campaign of “training and debunking.” The CIA, through its various media assets, intended to strip UFOs of the prominence they had achieved by casting doubt on the credibility of witnesses.

Meanwhile, the government took measures to silence airline pilots. Under a document called JANAP 146, UFO reports were classified as vital intelligence data which pilots were required to report to military officials. Once such reports had been filed, it became illegal for pilots to talk about their UFO sightings with news reporters. To make certain the pilots kept quiet, the Air Force pressured airline companies to keep their employees silent. Hundreds of pilots protested this censorship but, in the end, decided it was better to keep their lucrative jobs than their civil liberties.

The U.S. government also worked quietly behind the scenes to discredit ground-based UFO witnesses. In 1966, during a period of especially intense UFO activity across the nation, CBS TV joined the CIA’s battle for public mind share. As part of its “CBS Reports” documentary series, the prestigious TV network broadcast UFOs: Friend, Foe or Fantasy?, narrated by Walter Cronkite. The famous newsman told the American public that all UFO sightings, though they appeared mysterious at first, in fact had prosaic explanations. In short, CBS claimed, there was nothing to worry about. Most of the CBS program’s content was blatantly false and misleading, mainly because it had been supplied with help from a member of the CIA’s Robertson Panel, Dr. Thornton Page. (Page later confided his role in the CBS production to a CIA associate in personal correspondence discovered by sociologist Michael Swords in the Smithsonian Institution’s archives. Cronkite, via CBS, has declined to comment.)

What CBS also didn’t tell the public, perhaps with good reason, was that UFOs were a far more serious matter than the U.S. government wanted Americans to know. In fact, they were a vital national-security problem. About the time CBS was telling the public that UFOs were nothing more than a popular delusion, some of these “delusions” were hovering over Minuteman nuclear missile sites in Montana and elsewhere. On March 16, 1967, glowing disk-shaped objects evidently disabled some 20 nuclear missiles near Great Falls, according to former Air Force missile officers. (Although sworn to secrecy at the time, the officers have since gone public. Their testimony is supported by Air Force documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.)

Similar events played out again in 1975 when UFOs revisited the area around Great Falls, often hovering over Minuteman missile sites, a fact openly acknowledged by an Air Force spokesman at the time. The sensational story was widely reported by Montana newspapers but ignored by national news organizations, even though the sightings continued for several months.

How many other leading news organizations have cooperated with the covert CIA debunking program is unknown. Although the CIA admits planning such a program, it has given few details. Many leading news organizations maintained close working relationships with the CIA during this period, however, especially the New York Times. So perhaps it is not surprising that a content analysis of New York Times UFO news coverage shows Times coverage became progressively more slanted against UFO reality in the years following the Robertson Panel’s recommendations.

One newspaper that was always eager to cover UFOs was the National Enquirer. The Enquirer had been founded in the early 1950s by Gene Pope, a 25-year-old former CIA psychological warfare division employee with the modern equivalent of $1.6 million burning a hole in his pocket. This raises the obvious question about the true reason for the often-ludicrous headlines UFO stories received in the Enquirer’s pages. The CIA wanted to debunk UFOs and the Enquirer’s coverage certainly contributed substantially to this goal. Was this coincidence or design? Answering this question definitively is hard because government records about Pope remain classified.

By 1975, after decades of government spin control, the elite U.S. news media had pretty much agreed to stop chasing the UFO story. The Air Force had declared UFOs unimportant and physicist Edward Condon, a former weapons scientist, then at the University of Colorado, had said UFOs were total nonsense (over the objections of his research staff, some of whom quit in protest over his biased stance).

Today, UFOs are commonly the stuff of popular culture but almost never treated as a topic of serious news, at least among the elite news organizations. Even the so-called alternative news media steer clear of the topic.

Dr. Robertson could hardly have dreamed it would all work out so well.

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