The adventures of special agents Mulder and Scully in the TV series “The X Files” achieved phenomenal success worldwide with its episodes full of aliens and dark government conspiracies. Although the series is obviously fiction, there are probably many viewers who believe by now that the famous Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is involved in some kind of UFO research.
Back in 1993, when the show was gaining popularity in North America, I was contacted by the Sci-Fi Channel (a national cable TV network devoted to science-fiction). Their news program “Inside Space” was looking for real, authentic FBI documents on UFOs for a segment on “The X Files” and they were somehow referred to me. Yes, I said, I have a bundle of UFO documents from the FBI released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I added the great majority were generated in the early stages of the modern UFO era–1947 to mid-1950’s. A few documents were shown in the program, where I explained that the FBI normally does not investigate UFOs and other paranormal events unless there is a perception of a crime.
The FBI was created in the 1920’s by J. Edgar Hoover to fight criminal acts like kidnapping and bank robbery across inter-state lines; in time Hoover amassed immense power (he served under seven presidents until his death in 1972) adding counter-espionage and terrorism to its duties. For a brief period between July 30 and October 1 of 1947, the Bureau assisted the Army Air Force (later USAF) officially in their incipient investigation of UFO sightings, then known as flying saucers or flying discs. (The USAF coined the acronym UFO around 1950.)
The modern UFO era began over 50 years ago on a sunny afternoon on June 24, 1947. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot and businessman from Boise, Idaho, was flying a single-engine Callair airplane on the Cascade Mountains in Washington, searching for a crashed military transport plane around Mount Rainier. He observed a formation of nine silvery objects crossing the sky between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams at high speed. He described some of the objects as “flat like a pie pan and so shiny they reflected the sun like a mirror.” Arnold’s most memorable phrase was his remark to a journalist in Pendleton, Oregon. “They flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water,” said Arnold. The journalist called it a “flying saucer” and the word was soon all over the news headlines.
Kenneth Arnold (1915-1985) was a prominent citizen with a solid reputation in his community, as was soon discovered by agent Frank Brown of the Counter-Intelligence Corps. Arnold entered politics later in his career, running for Lt. Governor of Idaho for the Republican party in 1962. Arnold became also associated with science-fiction publisher Ray Palmer, writing with him the classic book, The Coming of the Saucers. In 1948, Palmer launched a new paranormal magazine called Fate with a cover story by Arnold himself. Although Palmer died many years ago and the magazine changed ownership, Fate still exists and for some years I was its UFO columnist and Consulting Editor.
The Arnold case was followed by a wave of sightings across North America and afterwards in other countries too. They included the now famous Roswell affair in New Mexico in early July, which was quickly and successfully debunked as a weather balloon; a few photographs; a number of hoaxes but also many sightings by pilots, military officers and professionals. The air force was overwhelmed and on July 9, 1947, General George Schulgen asked an FBI official for help. Assistant Director Ladd was opposed to the idea, but he was over-ruled by Hoover, who in a July 15 memo scribbled by hand, “I would do it [help the air force] but before agreeing to it we must insist upon full access to discs recovered. For instance in the La. case the Army grabbed it and would not let us have it for cursory examination.”
Is this “blue gem”–as Hoover’s handwritten notes in FBI memos were later called–proof of the Roswell crash? Some ufologists have made the point, but others disagree. The word ‘La.’, where the Army supposedly “grabbed” a disc, makes no sense in the New Mexico context. However, La. is an abbreviation of Louisiana and, on July 7, a 16-inch aluminum disc with smoke coming out of it was found in Shreveport, La. It was a crude hoax but it was taken by the army. In any case Hoover was not a man to cross, so Gen. Schulgen assured the FBI in a new meeting that he would give instructions to field commanders “that all cooperation be furnished to the FBI and that all discs recovered be made available for examination by the FBI agents.”
Hoover gave the green light and an investigation authorization was published July 30 on the Bureau Bulletin Nº 42: “You should investigate each instance which is brought to your attention of a sighting of a flying disc in order to ascertain whether or not is a bona fide sighting, an imaginary one or a prank… The Bureau should be notified by teletype of all reported sightings and the results of your inquiries…” The FBI thus entered the UFO arena and began collecting all kinds of reports.
The first batch of declassified FBI files–over 500 pages of documents–was obtained under the FOIA in 1977 by Dr. Bruce Maccabee. According to him, 40% are duplication of poor cases from air force files with many hoaxes, but “roughly 40% are teletype reports and transcripts concerning reasonably to very good UFO reports,” wrote Maccabee. The remaining 20% are FBI internal memoranda towards the UFO investigation, which shed additional light on the air force’s policies and attitudes. Dr. Maccabee has updated his earlier work in his book “The UFO/FBI Connection” (llewellyn Publishing).
An interesting memo from this period shows the discovery by the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) in Portland, Oregon, of a witness who saw a formation in the Cascade Mts. on the afternoon of June 24, 1947–exactly the same date of Arnold’s sighting! The Sept. 17, 1947 memo to Director Hoover is titled, “SUBJECT: REPORTS OF FLYING DISCS – SECURITY MATTER – X.” The X Files! Yet we must clarify the ‘X’ here is not related to alien activities, as in the fictional TV series, but to sensitive counter-intelligence. This was the beginning of the Cold War and Hoover was famous for his aversion of communist infiltration. The FBI saw “reds” everywhere and the Bureau amassed files on prominent writers, artists, jazz musicians, scientists like Einstein, pacifists, etc. So it’s not surprising many UFO memos are under the heading of “security matter-X,” “internal security” and “sabotage.”
Back to the Portland memo, the SAC located a prospector who was that afternoon at a spot 5,000 feet above sea level in the Cascades. “He noticed a reflection, looked up, and saw a disc proceeding in a southeasterly direction,” wrote the FBI agent, adding the prospector observed one disc with telescope and later noticed five more. “He said the object was about thirty feet in diameter and appeared to have a tail. It made no noise.” The prospector was also carrying a combination compass and watch. “He noted particularly,” added the agent, “that immediately before the sighted disc the compass acted very peculiar, the hand waving from one side to the other, but that this condition corrected itself immediately after the disc passed out of sight.” The SAC finally added the “informant appeared to be a very reliable individual.”
The era of Air Force-FBI harmony, however, collapsed when the Bureau discovered a letter from Col. R. H. Smith of the Air Defense Command. It stated in part that, “the services of the FBI were enlisted in order to relieve the numbered Air Force of the task of tracking down all the many instances which turned out to be ash can covers, toilet seats and what not.” In other words, the military would go after the good cases and the Bureau was stuck with the garbage.
Director Hoover was not amused and he immediately pulled the plug. He wrote a letter to Major General George McDonald at the Pentagon on Sept. 27th, quoting the “toilet seat” paragraph from Col. Smith. “In view of the apparent understanding by the Air Force,” wrote Hoover, “I cannot permit the personnel and time of this organization to be dissipated in this manner. I am advising the Field Divisions… to discontinue all investigative activity regarding the reported sightings of flying discs.” The new instructions were duly published in the Bureau Bulletin Nº 57 of Oct. 1, 1947.
Another reason the FBI was losing interest is that they didn’t find evidence of communist subversion in the saucers. A memo by Assistant Director Ladd noted: “The results of the investigation conducted by the Bureau Field Offices in this matter have failed to reveal any indications of subversive individuals being involved in any of the reported sightings.” Few UFO documents were collected by the Bureau in 1948 but by 1949 the situation began to change. Although the FBI was never again officially involved, as in the brief July-Oct. 1947 period, it continued to monitor certain UFO sightings and personalities (some contactees and researchers) until the mid-1960’s.
Many of these cases fell under the Bureau’s “Protection of Vital Installations” mandate to ward off potential spies and saboteurs. When UFOs were reported at top secret facilities like the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico or the Oak Ridge nuclear complex in Tennessee, the Bureau conducted background checks on witnesses to determine the danger of subversion or propaganda. None was found, but the authorities seemed worried. Beginning in 1948 and continuing until 1952, a sky phenomenon known as “green fireballs” was reported throughout the American southwest.
Not just anywhere, but by scientists, security guards and technical personnel at sensitive facilities like Los Alamos, White Sands and Sandia Base in New Mexico, and Fort Bliss in Texas. The subject was so highly considered that a total of 18 pages are devoted to it in the proceedings of the “top secret” Conference of “The Scientific Advisory Board to the Chief of Staff, USAF,” held at the Pentagon on Nov. 3, 1949. The prominent astrophysicist Dr. Theodore von Karman, founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was the Chairman, and Prof. Joseph Kaplan the scientist who briefed on the “green fireballs.” A Conference of scientists attended by Dr. Edward Teller, among others, was also held in Los Alamos in Feb. 1949. Eventually, the Cambridge Research Laboratory set up for the USAF Project Twinkle, a system of tracking cameras to record the fireballs. Twinkle, however, was a failure and the phenomenon was never properly explained.
In 1950, the Bureau was busy again with a UFO flap at the Oak Ridge atomic plant in Tennessee. A Bureau log shows a total of 16 unidentified radar targets and visual observations by Atomic Energy Commission security patrols and other witnesses at Oak Ridge. Fighter aircraft were scrambled, witness depositions taken and scientific experts consulted, but in the end no “adequate explanation” was found. Similar incidents occurred also in 1950 at the Hanford AEC Plant in Washington state, and the Savannah River plant in South Carolina in 1952. UFOs were seen but no evidence of subversion was found.
The Bureau also kept dossiers on some UFO personalities, again looking for a subversive angle. I have memos on the Hollywood society columnist and left-wing politician Frank Scully, author of the first UFO book, Behind the Flying Saucers, published in 1950; and on the noted ufologist and author Major Donald Keyhoe, founder of the now-defunct but once influential UFO group NICAP. A 1958 FBI memo indicated “Keyhoe has been known to the Bureau since 1935” (Keyhoe was an aviation writer who became interested in UFOs in 1949) and that Hoover had ordered in 1951 that, “we should not get involved with him.”
One of the early UFO figures which preoccupied the Bureau in the 1950’s was the famous contactee George Adamski. I have over 50 pages of declassified FBI memos on Adamski. They mostly deal with meetings and complaints that started on March 17, 1953, when FBI and USAF agents visited Adamski at his house in Palomar Gardens, California. He was given a statement to sign, which he did, saying that neither the USAF nor the FBI “have approved material used in my speeches.” However, Adamski turned the tables later, using that meeting and waiving the document as proof of US Government interest in his contacts with the “space brothers.” This bothered the Bureau greatly, so in December 1953 Adamski was visited again by two FBI agents and one agent from the USAF Office of Special Investigations (OSI).
According to a Telex from the FBI office in San Diego, “Adamski was emphatically admonished that he was immediately to cease and desist in referring to the FBI or OSI as having given him approval to speak on flying saucers… Adamski was advised legal action would be taken against him if he persisted in inferring or making these statements.” Yet other documents from 1956 show that Adamski continued to make similar statements. Another reason the Bureau kept an eye on Adamski and other contactees was their anti-nuclear philosophy which, they claimed, was given by the “space brothers.” Opposition to nuclear weapons was considered back then potentially subversive, so when a small UFO group sponsored lectures by Adamski in Detroit in 1954, the local SAC opened a file marked, “Detroit Flying Saucer Club, Espionage – X.” Hoover was not impressed and ordered the SAC to stop obtaining “from captioned club or its members, material concerning flying saucers.”
We could go on citing more scattered UFO documents from the 1960’s and beyond, although there are very few. The Bureau was losing interest in the subject, public attitudes about the Cold War were changing and, finally, UFO watching or research was and is not a crime.
FBI UFO Files in Cyberspace
You can now download and read documents released by the FBI Records: The Vault. Inspired no doubt by the TV show, the Bureau has posted its real files under the general category of “Unexplained Phenomenon” divided in the sub-categories “Animal Mutilation,” “Majestic 12,” “Project Blue Book,” “Roswell,” “Guy Hottel,” “NICAP,” “Extra-Sensory Perception,” and “UFO.” The Roswell file contains only one page, the famous July 8, 1947 FBI telex from Dallas referring to an object resembling a “weather balloon with a radar reflector” being flown to Wright Field, Ohio.
The infamous, Roswell-related “Majestic 12” or MJ-12 documents (22 pages) fare even worse. The capsule description notes “this file relates to an FBI inquiry into the possible unauthorized disclosure of classified information when a document marked ‘Top Secret’ was made public. This investigation was closed after it was learned that the document was completely bogus.” The UFO sub-category, on the other hand, is huge (1600 pages), consisting of all the historical stuff discussed in this column. Check the documents by yourself. You’ll need Adobe Acrobat Reader (also freely available on the net) to download the documents.