The CIA Is Having 'X-Files' Fun with UFOs

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People with laptops are silhouetted in front of a screen projected with binary code and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) emblem. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

One night about 20 years ago I went out for a dog walk with a neighbor, who happened to be a veteran pilot for United Airlines. We got to talking about UFOs for some reason–maybe it was the brilliant night sky, maybe one of those periodic reports about government "cover-ups" of alien visitors. And he, a very serious guy, told me he had seen something he could not explain during one of his regular flights from Chicago to Honolulu.

"Three orange...somethings," I remember him saying. They hovered about a mile off his starboard bow, as in a combat flight formation, and then made a series of abrupt, perpendicular turns before returning to their cruising spots. He radioed ground control about the strange objects, he told me. The response came back that no other aircraft were showing on the radar. Eventually, he said, the unidentified flying objects zipped away at hypersonic speed.

The pilot was clearly troubled about the incident, and not by just what he saw. He said other pilots had quietly shared their own, similar UFO experiences with him and what happened to others who made official reports: They were grounded as mentally unfit to fly. He decided to keep his mouth shut. We walked on in silence.

My memory of that conversation came floating back last week when the CIA released a batch of UFO reports timed for the revival of X-Files on Fox TV. "Take a Peek Into Our 'X-Files,'" the spy agency tweeted, "5 docs for Mulder and 5 for Scully." Appended to the tweet was a hashtag, "TheTruthIsOutThere."

"Below you will find five documents we think 'X-Files' character Agent Fox Mulder would love to use to try and persuade others of the existence of extraterrestrial activity," the agency said on its official website. "We also pulled five documents we think his skeptical partner, Agent Dana Scully, could use to prove there is a scientific explanation for UFO sightings."

As it turned out, the "release" was a kind of covert op itself. The documents, drawn from hundreds, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s, had been declassified in 1978 but were repurposed on January 24 in a somewhat clever p.r. stunt. The agency pulled a similar stunt in 2014, when it released documents saying scores of domestic UFO sightings in the 1950s could be traced to its tests of top secret reconnaissance aircraft, like the U-2.

"Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the '50s? It was us," it said.

The new documents include reports from 1952 of an object shaped like a "huge frying pan" with a nearly 50-foot diameter flying over then-East Germany; "a smoke-trailing object" cruising over Barcelona; and a craft "emitting a pale green light" over the Tunisian city of Sousse. "Two fiery disks" were spotted flying over a uranium mine in the Congo.

Also included in the release were agency memoranda discussing the phenomenon. One followed a 1952 meeting between a CIA official and the provost of MIT, Dr. Julius A. Stratton, who urged the spy agency to double down on its UFO investigation. "He is very personally interested and fully aware of the potential danger and implications of the situation," the official reported. In an August 1952 meeting of CIA branch chiefs, an agency official announced that "a project is to be started in the P & E [processing and exploitation] division on 'flying saucers.'"

Ultimately, however, the CIA's interest in UFOs waned. The documents originally released in 1978 "produced no smoking gun and revealed only a low level agency interest in the UFO phenomena," an internal agency study years later revealed. Nevertheless, "the press treated the release in a sensational manner," it said. Stansfield Turner, CIA director in the Jimmy Carter administration, was "so upset" by one particular story, in The New York Times, that he demanded a subordinate to get to the bottom of it. The answer came back that there was "no organized agency effort to do research in connection with UFO phenomena."

But stories alleging a deep CIA interest–and coverup—of UFO sightings, real and imagined, have nevertheless appeared regularly through the years.

"It was much like the John F. Kennedy assassination issue," the in-house study said. "No matter how much material he agency released and no matter how dull and prosaic the information, people continue to believe it in an agency cover-up and conspiracy."

Then again, the CIA is still sitting on thousands of pages of documents related to the 1963 assassination. The National Archives plans "a massive release" of government documents related to it in October 2017, an Archives official announced last April.

Oh, sure. What else are they hiding?