Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery.
– Bertrand Russell
In the summer of 1997, during the hoopla of the 50th anniversary of the Roswell crash, everyone with an opinion about UFOs came out of the woodwork. True believers trekked to their Mecca to gain a mystical awareness of their alien brothers, spend some money, and have a good time. Roswell merchants heard the ching-ching of cash hitting the cup. Television cameras abounded and talking heads smiled at the extravaganza, poked some fun at it all, and pretended sonorously to wonder whether all this alien stuff could be for real.
The Roswell media event was actually the centerpiece of a several-month-long crescendo of UFO news that spread across America in 1997. Some of this news was rather serious, some of it shocking, like the March tragedy of Heaven’s Gate, a mass suicide that reinforced the public perception of UFO believers as crazy. In April, a Pentagon spokesman told the press that the military had “long ago” stopped tracking UFOs. Of the 12,618 UFO sightings reported to the Air Force from 1947 to 1969, he said, none offered any evidence of aliens or even exotic technology. Even the officially “unidentified” UFO reports were obviously not due to aliens, whatever else they might have been. The Associated Press covered without additional comment. That spring also saw the release of Colonel Philip Corso’s controversial Day After Roswell, which claimed that Roswell-captured alien technology was funneled to the American defense industry. Corso was an embarrassment because of his connections to U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, who obligingly wrote a foreword praising his long-time military liaison. A media storm followed, and Thurmond quickly claimed ignorance of Corso’s thesis, retracted his foreword, and disclaimed any knowledge of UFOs.
Several debunking works also appeared, such as those by Kal K. Korff and Karl Pflock. Pflock is yet another in a long list of CIA men who are “into” UFOs, while Korff is suspected by many to be connected with the Agency. Both of their books supported the establishment line that UFOs were nonsense, and I wrote at length about Korff’s piece elsewhere.  But the establishment itself got into the mix in 1997: the Air Force and CIA each sponsored debunking pieces about UFOs. It was these two arguments that received the lion’s share of mainstream media attention.
The Air Force, you may recall, released its infamous dummy drop explanation. Back in the mid- and late-1950s, they had dropped dummies from parachutes not far from Roswell, and claimed that the passage of time confused people’s memories into thinking these were alien bodies from 1947. Yes, it sounds stupid to me, too, but tell it to the Air Force. Anyway, this explanation was just an addendum to its earlier explanation of Roswell: Project Mogul, a secret balloon project the purpose of which was to learn when the Soviets would detonate an atomic bomb. The evolution of the Air Force’s explanation of the Roswell controversy is an intriguing and tortured road. But our subject is the other official statement about UFOs from that year.
This was the study by Gerald K. Haines, the official historian of the CIA.  I was already somewhat familiar with his work: back in my graduate student days, while toiling away in the stacks, I encountered several of his articles on U.S. foreign relations. Haines was establishment all the way. Indeed, his pedigree included more than the CIA. It also included the National Reconnaissance Office, perhaps the most secretive organization in the entire American government. Among other things, the NRO monitors all spy satellites. We can reasonably infer that, if UFOs were real and alien, the NRO would know (whether they would tell us is another matter). So here was Gerald Haines, coming down from the mountain to talk about … UFOs!
Of course, the reader should be reminded that Haines’ article itself was merely the declassified version of the piece he wrote for those with a “need to know.” Good luck getting the classified version – perhaps in the distant future our leaders will grace us with the full version following a Freedom of Information Act request.
In the version we were allowed to read, Haines made two basic points. The first was that, although the CIA was concerned about UFOs until the early 1950s, it has since “paid only limited and peripheral attention to the phenomena.” Second, Haines stated that from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s, “more than half” of alleged UFO sightings in the United States were actually of classified and/or experimental aircraft such as the U-2 or SR-71 spy planes. People saw such unfamiliar aircraft and assumed that they were even more unfamiliar. The CIA was interested in all this, since citizens were seeing their aircraft. The Air Force’s Project Blue Book knew all about this, too, and attempted to hide it with explanations that discerning people could tell were absurd. While Blue Book’s motives were understandable and even laudable, the result was a loss of public credibility in its ability and integrity.
These were important statements. They appeared to set the record straight by making a certain admission – that the CIA and Air Force had misled the public about UFOs. The conspiracy theorists seemed to be right – at least a little bit. But the actual explanation to the UFO mystery, wrote Haines, was much more mundane than the fantasy of alien visitation. That is, UFOs did exist – they were simply classified, and often experimental, aircraft.
It is sad but true that the great masses of this world are led around by a ring in their collective nose. Perhaps there is solace knowing that it has always been this way, perhaps not. Haines’ article received immediate, widespread, and uncritical media coverage. One can assume there was more than just luck in his ability to get immediate nationwide attention at just the right time regarding a matter of topical public interest. Certainly there were many worthies out there toiling away in obscurity, who would have loved to get that kind of publicity. But then again, they don’t have teams of experts working the media. The Associated Press and Reuters, for example, covered Haines’ story without critical commentary, as did most mainstream publications. The effect was quite profound. By the end of the summer of 1997, Haines’ explanation of the UFO phenomenon had essentially become the standard one. So let us review in more detail what he actually said.
Considering the gravity of Haines’ argument and the success of its message, it is startling to see so many glaring mistakes. Indeed, errors and sloppy statements litter his article like debris from a crashed object. Moreover, Haines’ selection (and omission) of certain facts demonstrate that this was not a work of history, per se, but a propaganda piece with the intention to persuade by deception and obfuscation.
Even when Haines was right, he was wrong. Twenty seconds into his article, we read that the “first report of a ‘flying saucer’ over the United States came on 24 June 1947.” Only the semantics here are true: this was the first UFO sighting in which the phrase ‘flying saucer’ was used. This is not mere nitpicking. Haines used this lawyerly word-play to imply that official interest in unexplained aerial objects did not begin until mid-1947 – which is untrue. He generously hinted as much in a footnote, but glossed over this fact entirely in the text of the article. That is, within the United States, over European skies, and over the world’s oceans, military personnel and civilians had already observed such extraordinary objects. During the Second World War, they were called “foo fighters.” In 1946, over Europe, they were called “ghost rockets.” America had experienced well-documented UFO sightings throughout the first half of 1947, as well as sporadic events in 1946 and earlier. Moreover, these events appeared to elicit interest within the American national security establishment. The U.S. Eighth Army studied the foo fighters during the war, and its commander (General James Doolittle) personally traveled to Europe in 1946 to discuss the ghost rockets with Swedish military authorities. The Office of Strategic Services also conducted studies on the foo fighters. The OSS, of course, was the predecessor of Haines’ employer, the CIA. Not a word of any of this from Mr. Haines.
Haines performed nothing less than a hatchet job on the Air Force’s Project Sign, which studied UFOs through the first half of 1948. He wrote that Air Force General Nathan Twining established the project in 1948 (wrong – Twining’s famous letter was in 1947) and that it was “initially named Project Saucer” (wrong – “Sign” was the classified name for the project, “Saucer” the public name).
But the serious problem was Haines’ treatment of Sign itself. “At first fearful,” he wrote, “that the objects might be Soviet secret weapons, the Air Force soon concluded that UFOs were real but easily explained and not extraordinary.” What is extraordinary here is that Haines possessed the moxie to make such a statement. Astronomer and Air Force consultant J. Allen Hynek, who was associated with Project Sign, made statements that directly contradict Haines. Project Sign had ruled the Soviets out almost from the start, Hynek claimed. Instead, the divisions within Sign were between those who believed the objects were extraterrestrial and those who thought they were nonsense. Captain Edward Ruppelt, who directed the Air Force’s Project Blue Book in the early 1950s, concurred with Hynek. Donald Keyhoe, author of many UFO books and well-plugged in to the government’s UFO crowd, also agreed that Air Force investigators were taking seriously the possibility of alien intelligence behind the UFO phenomenon.
Haines also ignored the great summer crisis of 1948, when qualified personnel on both sides of the Atlantic reported identical cigar-shaped UFOs (with two decks of windows) moving with exceptional maneuverability and speed. This prompted the Sign team to prepare an “Estimate of the Situation” that landed on the desk of Air Force Commander Hoyt Vandenberg. The Estimate concluded that UFOs were most likely the result of alien spaceships – a conclusion which Vandenberg rejected.
At the same time, President Harry Truman began to receive UFO briefings from his Air Force liaison, Colonel Robert B. Landry. This, at least, is what Landry said in an interview many years later. Although Landry downplayed the importance of these briefings, he did acknowledge they were given quarterly from 1948 until the end of Truman’s presidency. That’s more than four years and, by my reckoning, eighteen briefings. All for a subject of supposedly little interest in official circles. Incidentally, Landry also stated that he coordinated his briefings with the CIA.
Let us be clear: regardless of the reality behind the UFO phenomenon – whether it represented an alien intelligence or human psychosis – the summer crisis of 1948 had many people in the American military and intelligence community thinking about this problem, and considering all solutions, including the extraterrestrial one. In a few brushstrokes, however, Gerald Haines painted a rough sketch implying exactly the opposite of what the historical record actually tells us. The extraterrestrial possibility was never considered, according to Haines. But the historical record (and the many military UFO reports from the 1940s) clearly shows that it was.
The best Haines could do was restate the worn-out Air Force public relations statement from those years that “almost all sightings” were caused either by mass hysteria, hoaxes, or misidentification of known objects. It takes either a great deal of gumption to write this, or the confidence that no one will bother to refute it.
And so it goes. Haines wrote in deadpan fashion that Project Grudge (the successor to Project Sign) also “found no evidence in UFO sightings of advanced foreign weapons design or development.” Using Grudge as an authority is amusing. The project rated “minimum effort,” according to Ruppelt, and its files had been “chucked into an old storage case” when he took them over in 1951. Moreover, even though the skimpy effort at Grudge found nothing unusual about UFOs, there were many first-rate UFO reports at that time, often subject to extreme secrecy. Many of these reports came to light only after being pried out of the possession of the military – many years later – through Freedom of Information Act requests. It is impossible to ignore such incredible misrepresentation of the public record, and to do so in such a confident and cavalier manner. After all, these facts have been available for many years. Haines simply ignored them.
When he came to describe the massive buildup of UFO sightings in 1952, even Haines conceded that they caught the attention of the CIA and the White House. Of course, this would be hard to deny, considering that UFOs were seen visually and tracked over the Capitol for two weekends in a row. The experienced Air Traffic controllers who tracked these objects on radar were convinced the objects were solid, metallic objects. Yet, Haines blandly repeated the Air Force whitewash that explained such radar returns were caused by “temperature inversions.” He declined to account for the simultaneous visuals, or any of the intense controversy surrounding that explanation. Indeed, Haines ignored the extreme interest by CIA officers in a major wave of UFO sightings in North Africa during the summer of 1952.
For Haines, the extent of CIA concern at this time was that the Soviets might somehow exploit the American obsession about flying saucers or, more seriously, launch an attack when America’s radar facilities were jammed with “phantom” (whatever that means) UFOs. Haines begged the question of what precisely the UFO targets were, except to dismiss them as “misinterpretation of known objects or little understood natural phenomena.” As a result of this concern, wrote Haines, the CIA organized the secret Robertson Panel in order to make a policy decision about UFOs. Even though Haines referred to the panel members as “distinguished … nonmilitary scientists,” all of them in fact were deeply involved in classified scientific research. The problems of the Robertson Panel were serious and abundant – many writers have discussed them at length – and Haines ignored them all. He acknowledged only that the CIA’s policy of hiding its sponsorship of the Panel damaged its credibility later, causing UFO “buffs” to suspect even greater interest and involvement by the CIA in the matter of UFOs.
Haines mentioned very few UFO reports at all in his study. It is a common frustration when reading debunking articles that most ignore the actual reports. One of the few that Haines referred to was the 1955 sighting of two flying saucers by U.S. Senator Richard Russell, while Russell was accompanied by two aides aboard a Soviet train. Intelligence officials interviewed Russell upon his return. The classified report was not available until a 1985 FOIA request. This is what it said:
“there were two lights toward the inside of the disc, which remained stationery as the outer surface went around. . . . The lights sat near the top of the disc. . . . The aircraft was circular. The aircraft was round, resembled a flying saucer.”
Needless to say, Haines ignored such messy facts. Instead, he supported the theory that the objects “probably were normal jet aircraft in a steep climb.”
Incredibly, all of this nonsense was mere prologue to the main thesis of Haines’ article. This is that “over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States.” Thus, people who thought they saw a flying saucer most probably saw a spy plane flying at 80,000 feet.
This statement is so outlandish, so improbable, and yet so widely accepted now within mainstream culture, that we need to examine it closely. And yet the explanation is so vague, so threadbare, that we have nothing to grab onto. We learn only that Blue Book was aware of the U-2 flights and did its best to conceal this fact from the public, thus adding fuel to conspiracy theories. And that’s it. We do not know, for example, which sightings, or how many sightings, were actually U-2 or SR-71 aircraft. Did Haines really mean to imply that “more than half” of all UFO sightings in the United States from 1955 until 1969 were actually spy planes? Did he realize how many sightings there were during that period? In 1965 alone, Blue Book received more than a thousand reports. Moreover, by all estimates, Blue Book was receiving a small fraction of actual sightings, maybe one-tenth, maybe less. Civilian organizations such as NICAP and APRO were also receiving thousands of reports that never went to Blue Book. Just how many U-2 or SR-71 flights took place over American skies in the 1950s and 1960s? Did these planes account for the Great Wave of 1965 and 1966, when the matter of UFOs became such a national issue that it was discussed on the floor of Congress by such men as Gerald Ford? And of course, let us not forget that UFO sightings had been international since the beginning of the phenomenon. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960, major UFO sightings – and large waves of sightings – were reported in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and in the oceans, many of which involved military and intelligence personnel. Did American spy planes cause these, too?
The argument is patently ludicrous. And yet it is the accepted truth of official culture.
Such a selective historical treatment of history carried Haines to a predictable conclusion: the diehard issue of UFOs will “probably not go away soon, no matter what the Agency does or says.” The wide-eyed, gullible masses will believe what they want to believe.
How did Gerald Haines think he could get away with such terrible historical writing? For this piece is not merely inadequate. As an academic work, it is far beyond repair, a hopeless shipwreck. On any other topic of American history, such bad writing could never have escaped unscathed (and probably would have been fact-checked by an editor who would have forbade release lest the writer stain his reputation). But no one in American academia has any knowledge of UFOs, save a few marginalized souls in the wilderness. Many hold strong prejudices about the subject, and none would ever bother to investigate what Haines actually claimed. Result: a slam dunk.
Obviously, Haines was not writing to his fellow professional historians. This is an important point, because most professional historians write for their colleagues, especially those pieces that appear in scholarly journals. Indeed, most amateur historians would be mystified by the arcane writing of professional historical journals. The publisher of Haines’ article, the regal Studies in Intelligence, is typical in this regard (of course it is atypical, too – as the house publication of the CIA). But, this time, Haines was not writing to that crowd.
Perhaps he was writing to professional UFO researchers? This would seem to be a reasonable conclusion, would it not? But it is precisely among UFO researchers where all the weaknesses of his argument are recognized. Shortly after Haines’ article appeared, a number of researchers, including Don Ecker and Bruce Macabbee, challenged it. Besides, it seems unlikely that Haines would have addressed himself to a group that he insulted throughout his article.
If not professional historians, and if not UFO researchers, then who? Judging by the response to Haines’ article, the answer is clear: the mainstream media. It was there – within such organizations as AP and Reuters – that Haines received immediate and positive attention. It was those organizations that gave his article immediate and international distribution.
Ultimately, the target of Haines’ message was you.
Former CIA Director Allen Dulles used to say that if you want to keep a secret, then pretend to share it. Gerald Haines, the official historian of the CIA, has pretended to share a secret. He has admitted to the world that, yes, the CIA really was interested in UFOs for a while, even while denying this at the time. The Agency was merely tracking the public’s sightings of its aircraft. “Ah,” exclaims the public, “we were right!”
This kind of thing happens frequently in our world. The point of such media announcements is not to persuade those with any specific knowledge. A much lower threshold of persuasion usually does the job: sow enough doubt in the public mind about a particular topic so that effective action is prevented.
A notable example of this type of activity occurred just a year before Haines’ article, when journalist Gary Webb published the scoop of a lifetime: an investigation of the relationship between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras, and the importation of crack cocaine. The contras, Webb argued, were making money as the middlemen in the drug trade. Since they were coordinated by CIA, the Agency had to know, and assent. Webb had done his homework, but the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times ripped him viciously. Within a year, he was out of work.
Analysts of the CIA have long known that the Agency has connections to the world of narcotics trafficking. Webb’s thesis in particular has been supported by much evidence from other researchers. But the issue is so explosive that it needs to be disabled, even if it cannot be disproved. In savaging Webb, did the mainstream press do the CIA’s work? All we can say with certainty is that the CIA has tried to manipulate the media since its inception, and admitted in the 1970s that it had working (e.g. paid) relationships with over 400 American journalists. Indeed, a recent study by Frances Stoner Saunders, The Cultural Cold War, lays out the amazing infiltration by the CIA within every niche of the cultural sphere during the Cold War years. Lest one think such activities are an artifact of those bad old days, the CIA admitted again in the 1990s that it continued to maintain “relationships” with undisclosed American journalists for reasons of national security.
Such relationships couldn’t have anything to do with the savaging of Gary Webb, could they? And so it goes in our surreal little world. America’s government fights narcotraffickers, and that’s that.
A great deal of serious persuasion (to say nothing of distraction) must take place to get ordinary citizens to consent to a society as top-heavy as our own. Quite simply, people need to be managed, and human history provides endless variations on this theme. But the public is not so easy to drive as, say, a car. One cannot simply insert the key and go. The more correct analogy would be with a horse: an animal with a will that needs to be broken and then directed. One must be a good trainer and rider to do this. At times the animal may get the better of you, at times you need to make important concessions to keep it happy and ultimately malleable. But a good rider can usually do the job.
In what capacity was Gerald K. Haines acting when he wrote this article? Professional historian, or horseman of the public will? Was he writing standard history, or using his office in order to manipulate public discourse about UFOs? The question is more than a theoretical exercise. In an organization such as the Central Intelligence Agency, what can be the function of its official historian? Surely, like other large institutions, the CIA needs a historian to impose order over its mountain of documents. But of course the CIA is not like most other large institutions. It is a very special kind, responsible for carrying out the covert foreign (and despite supposed legal strictures, domestic) policy of America’s national security planners. Such an organization does not play by the same rules as the rest of us.
People can debate Haines’ motivations without a provable conclusion. The effect of his article is less cloudy. With an official explanation for CIA interest in UFOs now in the ring, the CIA appears to have come clean on a longstanding issue. His article planted the idea within the public/media consciousness that UFOs were (and are) nothing more than misidentifications of highly classified, experimental, aircraft.
Official history serves a very important function: when successfully written, it defines the terms of discussion, the parameters of what is permissible. So far, Haines’ history has done its job.
- Richard M. Dolan. UFOs and the National Security State: An Unclassified History. Volume One: 1941 to 1973. (Keyhole Publishing, 2000), pp. 62-65.
- Gerald K. Haines. “A Die Hard Issue: CIA’s Study of UFOs, 1947-90.” Studies in Intelligence. (Vol. 01, No. 1, 1997). For web link, see