(W)Archives: Get. A. Grip.

May 9, 2014

Flight MH370 is in two places.  First and tragically, it is probably somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.  Second, it is now firmly ensconced in the conspiracy theory and urban legend pantheon alongside the man on the grassy knoll, the living Elvis, the cruise missile that hit the Pentagon on 9/11, and innumerable aliens and UFOs.

It is obvious that many people to want to believe that things are not as they seem.  As someone who spends a good bit of time at the Freedom of Information Act online reading rooms of various government agencies, I am struck by the fact that one of their common features is a section providing links to declassified or otherwise released documents on UFOs.  The Defense Department, NSA, FBI, and CIA all have such pages.  There is a similar page at the National Archives’ website. Though the Energy Department and State Department have no such pages, a search through their FOIA archives shows that they have processed many documents about aliens.

This week’s (W)Archives document is a 1997 article published in the CIA’s in-house journal Studies in Intelligence.  It examines some of the costs of the non-falsifiable belief that some many people have in UFOs.  In it, the author, CIA historian Gerald Haines, noted that “it was much like the John F. Kennedy assassination issue. No matter how much material the Agency released and no matter how dull and prosaic the information, people continued to believe in a [sic] Agency coverup and conspiracy.”  The article revealed that in the early 1950s the CIA had some interest in investigating UFO reports but quickly determined that there was no real phenomenon there.  When in 1953 the residual mission of following UFO reports was transferred to the Agency’s Physics and Electronics Division, its chief complained vociferously that this would be a waste of his organization’s resources.  Having lost that fight, he repeatedly tried to divest his group of the mission.

During the 1970s and 1980s much of the work that the CIA did on UFOs was focused on the possibility that Soviet intelligence was using UFO groups to gather information on U.S. weapons development, stealth, and on the U.S. Government’s knowledge of Soviet technology programs.  This was far from a ridiculous possibility.  For instance, the CIA knew that a large number of UFO reports could be correlated to classified U-2 and A-12 Oxcart reconnaissance missions.  A 1993 memo from John Brennan, today’s Director of the CIA, even shows that “Agency officials purposely kept files on UFOs to a minimum to avoid creating records that might mislead the public if released.”

All of this may sound funny, but it’s actually tragic.  For historians and people interested in open government all the official effort that goes into chasing ephemeral rabbits down non-existent rabbit holes comes at a high cost.  Agencies have only limited resources to process Freedom of Information Act requests and every hour spent processing worthless UFO-related documents (or documents pertaining to other non-events), is an hour spent not processing documents about government activities conducted in our name and with our tax dollars: the struggle against Al Qaeda, expensive weapons procurements, domestic surveillance, law enforcement activities, or American diplomatic and military operations.  We get the quality of government we deserve.


Photo credit: Mark Roy