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CIA and Alients: is It The X-Files or Keystone Kops?

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

By now you'd have to be a shut-in living in the Seychelles not to have heard about the extraterrestrial craze sweeping the nation. There's no need for a recitation of recent movie hits and television shows. We've all participated in the UFO craze somehow. It's huge. It's amazing.

The real summer blockbuster, in my opinion, was not Contact, or Men in Black. Nor was it produced by Fox or MGM. Not this time. No, the spotlight belonged to the Men in Striped Pants: our very own Central Intelligence Agency.

This month, CIA revealed that all through the 1950s and '60s the government lied to the public about UFOs. CIA has also admitted that its attempts at deception had the unintended consequence of exciting public controversy instead of quashing it.

First, the facts. UFO sightings began at almost the exact same time as the Cold War: 1947. On June 24, 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine disk-shaped objects zipping past Mt. Rainier, Washington, at over 1,000 miles per hour. After Arnold's report, thousands of sightings flowed in from air facilities around the country. Imagining radical new Soviet aircraft designs, Air Force General Nathan Twining ordered an investigation. The result, Project Sign, concluded that all the sightings resulted from illusions, hoaxes, or misidentification of known objects. The project's report did not rule out extraterrestrial visitation, however, and recommended continued investigation.

And the investigations continued, with one difference. As the Air Force found and debunked each sighting, it would report the negative results to the public. Yet public belief in UFOs showed no signs of abating.Consequently, the new project, called Grudge, was terminated when the top brass discovered that government interest seemed to be generating "war hysteria."

The CIA took great interest in the Air Force's misguided efforts at placating the public. CIA officials worried that the growing hysteria might be an insidious Soviet effort to undermine America's war readiness. Or maybe they were trying to impair our early-warning capabilities. Who knew? Anyway, the CIA was sure of one thing: The public had to be kept in the dark about the CIA's involvement. If people knew of the agency's interest, it would only contribute to the hysteria.

The real cover-up was yet to come. CIA interest in UFOs died off almost completely until the mid-1950s, when UFO sighting began corresponding neatly with flights of U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. These planes, now mothballed and obsolete, were top secret at the time.

The Air Force reacted to the perceived threat to national security by making a spate of misleading and deceptive statements about the spy planes-turned-UFOs. The planes were called atmospheric phenomena, the planet Venus, sun reflected off seagulls. All this time, the Air Force knew full well that over half the sightings were in fact government aircraft.

The whole scheme was destined to fail, and fail it did. UFO buffs starting requesting the sensitive military reports, and the CIA stonewalled them. The UFO community could smell the cover-up, and it increased the pressure.

The CIA had a problem. They wanted to keep their papers secret, and they wanted to keep the public unaware of their interest in UFOs. But every step they took seemed to multiply their critics. So what did our professional spies do? They dressed up as Air Force officers, met with UFO enthusiasts, and told them that UFO evidence had been "forwarded to another agency of the government."

Since the CIA had already denied involvement, UFO buffs logically concluded that there was a third, super-secret UFO agency above CIA and the Air Force. Oops! Denial followed denial, until finally the agency had to admit that the whole escapade had been "handled poorly by both CIA and the Air Force, [and] turned into a major flap that added to the growing mystery surrounding UFOs."

Chastened, the CIA bowed out of the UFO business entirely. Presidents Carter and Reagan may have thought they'd seen UFOs, but nobody in the intelligence community paid them or anyone else heed. Blue Book, the longest-running investigation into UFO sightings, closed up shop in 1969, and there has been no real work done on the phenomenon since.

After 50 years of watching conspiracy theorists do their thing, most Americans are tenderly bemused by their almost mystical arguments. What I find amazing is to gaze back through the mists to the original events. In The X-Files, the actions of government officials are cloaked in mystery: The conspirators' motives are obscure yet demonic; the enemy weaves an intricate web of deceit. In the end, we never learn the truth.

And yet here lies the conspiracy, bare and open to see. The Air Force and CIA, far from being one step ahead, totally failed to grapple with the situation at hand. At first they thought they could stifle UFO rumors with truth, only to find the truth fanned the extraterrestrial flames. The tactics changed: The Air Force and CIA would lie - to protect then-important but now quaint secrets - and in so doing earned the distrust of many Americans not yet born. At every turn, the spymasters trained in cloak-and-dagger arts were outwitted by forces beyond their control. Suspicion allied with imagination.

I for one can't bring myself to pity them. Old CIA veterans must chuckle when they go to the movies with their grandchildren. "All this hype," they must think. "My colleagues and I helped bring it on."

They say espionage in the 21st century will be mainly economic. But just think of the economic advantage our government has given us by its accidental promotion of aliens. The Soviet Union totally suppressed reports of UFOs. They have only American films to entertain them. What's more, their secret agents are condemned not for imagined crimes of alien murder but for the acts they actually committed.