In an online article from The Week magazine, they examine the effect UFO research has had on government transparency. Interest in government sponsored UFO investigations has caused government agencies to make special concessions, and according to the article, some lawsuits initiated by UFO investigators have become landmark cases for governing what the government needs to release and how.
Kel McClanahan, an attorney specializing in national security and privacy law, told The Week, “Every major military agency receives an enormous amount of requests about UFOs.” He says they get a flood of requests every time the news reports a UFO sighting.
In particular they note the work of John Greenewald, the owner of the website TheBlackVault.com, who has amassed over 700,000 pages of government documents through Freedom of Information Act Requests (FOIA).
The Week examines three cases in particular that have had a lasting effect on government transparency. The first is the case of Ground Saucer Watch versus the CIA. The Week refers to this as one case which Ground Saucer Watch lost. However, an article on the CIA’s website on their involvement in UFO research written by Gerald Haines, a historian for the National Reconnaissance Office, shows it was in fact two cases. The first of which was very successful (see clarification by Kel McClanahan in the comments below).
According to Haines, in 1975, William Spalding, the head of Ground Saucer Watch, requested all files related to the Robertson panel. The Robertson panel was a group brought together by the CIA in 1953 to review the Air Force’s UFO investigation. Upon receiving the files, Spaulding replied to the CIA accusing them of a cover-up. The CIA’s Information and Privacy Coordinator, Gene Wilson, replied “At no time prior to the formation of the Robertson Panel and subsequent to the issuance of the panel’s report has CIA engaged in the study of the UFO phenomena.” Haines wrote, “Wilson was ill informed.”
That is because Spaulding sued the CIA, unconvinced by Wilson’s response, and he won. The CIA was forced to conduct an extensive search for UFO files, and sure enough, they found 355 more documents, totalling around 900 pages. Most of these files were subsequently released to the public. 100 pages were withheld, “on national security grounds and to protect sources and methods.”
Ground Saucer Watch filed another lawsuit (see clarification by Kel McClanahan in the comments below) to get the remaining files, but according to the CIA, this lawsuit was dismissed in 1980. McClanahan told The Week that Ground Saucer Watch versus the CIA has since been cited in many other decisions. It helped set the parameters for what the government is expected to search for. It also prompted the CIA to put their UFO files on their website.
The second case is from 2007 when Leslie Kean sued NASA for information on a mysterious object that fell into the forest in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania in the 1960s. In this case the court ruled in Kean’s favor, agreeing that NASA had not adequately searched for the documents. NASA was ordered to conduct a more extensive search. Ultimately, NASA said they lost the files.
The final case The Week refers to is the Citizens Against UFO Secrecy versus the Department of Defense. McClanahan says this case is significant because of why the Citizens Against UFO Secrecy lost. They produced witnesses to testify that the DOD knew more than they were sharing, but the judge determined, “speculation that documents exist is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.” The Week notes, “So even if Benghazi conspiracy theorists produced dozens of eyewitnesses to support a certain allegation, it makes no difference if the government doesn’t have any documentation of it.”
The Week makes the case that whether or not you think there is anything to the UFO debate, UFO research has had an effect on the government’s handling of FOIA. McClanahan asks, “What other advocacy group can say that they’re getting the government to proactively disclose everything there is to know about a subject?”
You write, “The Week refers to this as one case which Ground Saucer Watch lost. However, an article on the CIA’s website on their involvement in UFO research written by Gerald Haines, a historian for the National Reconnaissance Office, shows it was in fact two cases. The first of which was very successful.” That’s not entirely accurate. There are two cases, but they are really the same case. In 1978, the case Ground Saucer Watch v. CIA, No. 78-859, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. As of the time the case was filed, CIA had not turned over any records. During the case, CIA agreed to do another, more thorough search, and it located hundreds of pages of records. Then, after processing those records, it asked the court to find that it had satisfied its obligation. GSW opposed, saying the search was still inadequate. CIA won.
Then, GSW appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. That’s the “second case.” And the D.C. Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
Was the first case a success? It depends on the definition. If you mean, was it a success because it resulted in the CIA releasing lots of records it had not released before the case was filed, then yes, it was a success. But legally speaking, GSW lost both times–once before the district court and once before the circuit court–that it asked a judge to rule that CIA had still not satisfied FOIA after the search was done.
Don’t get me wrong, in the big picture I consider Ground Saucer Watch a good thing. Had it not been filed, we wouldn’t have gotten the precedent that said that the CIA, or any other agency, needed to do what it did after the case was filed in order to convince a court that it had prevailed. That’s why I praised it to Ms. Liebelson. But you also need to understand that she did not misstate the facts when she said that this was one case where the plaintiff lost. That too is accurate. In fact, the entire reason that this case is a good example of case law is that it demonstrated how far an agency has to go in order to beat a requester, allowing future requesters to point at it in their cases and say, “Granted, the CIA won that case, but they only won because they did the extensive search they did. The agency I’m facing today hasn’t done that, so they shouldn’t win.”
Kel, thank you for your clarification. I was going off of what Haines had written in his paper on the CIA website. He called the ruling in 1980 a new case. However, he did not get into the details of the case like you have here. So I see your point in that they lost the appeal. In that sense legally it was a loss.
For UFO researchers it was a major win. It disproved Wilson’s statement and uncovered a large amount of files. Haines downplays the significance of these files, but they actually confirmed the role the CIA played in the Robertson panel and the extent of UFO investigation the CIA participated in leading up to the panel.
Thanks for taking the time to make this clarification for us.
Do you still publish ufo magazine?