As the Cold War heated up mid-century, fear of Soviet advances and a rapidly growing interest in space and its possibilities had Americans looking up at the sky with both wonder and fear. Of all responsibilities of the CIA, perhaps none creates a more notorious fanfare than the agency’s role in tracking and researching Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO’s). In an apparent attempt to quell popular theories of alien encounters, the CIA has released a great deal of information and transcripts regarding many twentieth century “UFO” sightings. The agency even pokes a bit of fun at their role in fueling a cult following of the unknown in the sky, addressing the mystery still surrounding some cases.
A 1949 response regarding “Flying Saucers” is characteristic of the CIA’s stance. Released in 1978, the document outlines a few explanations for the sender’s concerns. The main explanation offered for any flying disks in the sky was free-ranging weather balloons. Possibly the most infamous counter the United State government has employed regarding UFO sightings, meteorological sounding balloons are indeed a convenient if not conclusive answer to most unexplained objects. The response goes on to offer a sort of condescending reassurance that American airspace is well under control, even going as far to address the psychological probability that an observer will draw conclusions to that which they do not know.
To many, that is a fair point—most casual observers cannot identify what they see far into the night sky. But they have faith the United States government (i.e. the CIA) can monitor what’s above us. Audio tapes released by both the United States Air Force and the CIA, however, do not always convince Americans of the government’s omniscience. Multiple live accounts of unidentified aircraft leave pilots asking the same questions as tourists watching the night sky in the Nevada desert.
Of course, some of these questions can be attributed to a known lack of communication and correspondence between the United States military and the CIA. In Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, the two institutions’ differences, specifically the loose reins with which the CIA can run as opposed to the military, have not always resulted in great unanimity between them.
Attacking the ‘Saucer Problem’
The CIA has also released a 1952 memo outlining the agency’s “attack” plan on the “saucer problem.” Though brief, the memorandum recommended that the agreed program be informally forwarded to the DOI, Secretary of Defense, and even the National Security Council to allow for swift action. The plan does not officially address what the “saucer problem” could be (Russian, extraterrestrial, ect.), but does indicate a level of urgency.
Among the released documents are short accounts of unidentified objects in foreign countries. The popular phenomenon ultimately piqued the interest of the CIA, just as it did with the rest of the country. The unclassified documents thus far do not provide a definite answer for the “flying saucer problem,” but do confirm the CIA’s deep interest, even as the agency publicly tried to downplay each case.
A full collection of released documents can be found here, via cia.gov.