Lecture 7: The Shifting to the Debunking Mode and the Robertson Panel Agenda

The previous lecture in the US Government and UFOs course:

Lecture #6 on Project Grudge

The last lecture ended with the time period of Captain Edward J. Ruppelt assuming leadership of Project Grudge in September 1951 and instituting a strong game plan to address UFO events in a serious and open-minded manner.

In March 1952 this project was further upgraded and renamed formally as the Aerial Phenomena Group with “Project Blue Book” its newly assigned codename.

The last lecture ended with an itemization of the actions instituted by Captain Ruppelt throughout the last months of 1951.

After the project got its new branding and status in March 1952, Ruppelt further moved fast with the following actions:

~~gave (along with ATIC staff) a briefing on March 19th to the leaders of the Air Defense Command (ADC). He requested they send the scope-camera film of UFOs tracjed by radar.
~~sought ideas on March 26th from a group of scientists known as The Beacon Hill group at Cambridge Research Laboratory, which already advised the Air Force on technical matters. In the Blue Book Status Report #5, published as a classified document on March 31st a few days afterward, their ideas were noted: “Several excellent suggestions were offered. One was to employ sound detection apparatus in the locations where concentrations of sightings have been reported…In the future, cameras, professionally termed ‘patrol cameras’ will be developed that can detect such objects.” (In 1968, the UFO organization NICAP published “United States Air Force Projects Grudge and Bluebook Repirts 1-12; Status Repirts and Special Reports).
~~received the suggestion from a physicist on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, named Joseph Kaplan, that a special diffraction grid to enable a spectrum analysis of detected UFOs be added to the patrol cameras. This way a comparison can be made with the signature of known objects, thus allowing either recognition of known craft or a real mystery.

Kaplan was one of the scientists who had been already examining puzzling reports of green fireballs and various types of unidentified craft observed intruding into the space surrounding sensitive government facilities. As UFO historian Robert Hastings notes from the now declassified records: “during the late-1940s and early 1950s, someone seemed to be intent on conducting repeated, unauthorized overflights of the United States government’s top secret atomic weapons sites. Reliable eyewitness accounts indicated that the aerial craft involved in these incursions were revolutionary in design–usually disc-shaped, but sometimes reported as spherical, cigar-shaped, or diamond-shaped–and vastly superior in performance to any known jet aircraft or rocket.” [Pg 41, UFOs and Nukes, 2017, Robert Hastings].

Captain Ruppelt would report in 1956 in his post-Air Force career book, The Report on Unidentified Fkying Objects”: “UFOs were seen more frequently around areas vital to the defense of the United States. The Los Alamos-Albuquerque area, Oak Ridge, and White Sands Proving Grounds rated high”. [Pg 155 of his book]

During this early open-minded and ambitious phase of Project Blue Book , Captain Ruppelt demonstrated an approach to press article preparation completely opposite of that shown by Project Grudge staff in eagerly colloborating with debunking press accounts. He informed Look magazine, for its July 1952 article The Hunt For The Flying Saucers, that many sighting reports were coming from many atomic-weapons sites from all over the country (with a concentration in the southwest).

In line with Captain Ruppelt’s ambitious plans to get to the bottom of things, the Air Force on April 5th sent out a directive to the intelligence officers of all bases that instructed them to report UFO sightings immediately and that Project Blue Book staff could directly respind and contact them, bypassing the chain of command (which Ruppelt would note in his 1956 book was unheard of(. The intelligence officers were also instructed to send copues to the director of Air Force intelligence and senior AF command.

The events over the summer months of 1952, when a massive wave of reports flooded in from civilian and military quarters, would essentially upend this open and mature approach to the mystery.

For a recap of the dramatic UFO events in July 1952 in the Washington DC area, see lecture 4:


UFO historian Brad Sparks notes how these events, overwhelming intelligence communication channels, were regarded: “During July of 1952 so many UFO sightings were reported to the Air Force that, according to the New York Times (August 1), ‘regular intelligence work had been affected’. Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt S. Vandenberg fretted that though UFOs did not exist, nonetheless the subject had sparked ‘mass hysteria’ (Baltimore Sun, July 31).”

[Brad Sparks, pg 1012, vol 2, Robertson Panel article, The UFO Encyclopedia]

The banner headlines of course didnt escape the notice of President Harry Truman. Vacationing in Missouri, he phoned his CIA Director, General Walter Bedell Smith, and ordered a CIA investigation into the Air Force’s work addressing UFOs.

To examine this next phase of a somewhat complicated history, up through the Robertson Panel findings early in 1953, we can first look at an official CIA paper by Gerald K Haines posted at http://www.cia.gov that covers what happened next in his article “CIA’s Role in the Study of UFOs”:

Although it had monitored UFO reports for at least three years, CIA reacted to the new rash of sightings by forming a special study group within the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) and the Office of Current Intelligence (OCI) to review the situation. (14) Edward Tauss, acting chief of OSI’s Weapons and Equipment Division, reported for the group that most UFO sightings could be easily explained. Nevertheless, he recommended that the Agency continue monitoring the problem, in coordination with ATIC. He also urged that CIA conceal its interest from the media and the public, “in view of their probable alarmist tendencies” to accept such interest as confirming the existence of UFOs. (15)

Upon receiving the report, Deputy Director for Intelligence (DDI) Robert Amory, Jr. assigned responsibility for the UFO investigations to OSI’s Physics and Electronics Division, with A. Ray Gordon as the officer in charge. (16) Each branch in the division was to contribute to the investigation, and Gordon was to coordinate closely with ATIC. Amory, who asked the group to focus on the national security implications of UFOs, was relaying DCI Walter Bedell Smith’s concerns. (17) Smith wanted to know whether or not the Air Force investigation of flying saucers was sufficiently objective and how much more money and manpower would be necessary to determine the cause of the small percentage of unexplained flying saucers. Smith believed “there was only one chance in 10,000 that the phenomenon posed a threat to the security of the country, but even that chance could not be taken.” According to Smith, it was CIA’s responsibility by statute to coordinate the intelligence effort required to solve the problem. Smith also wanted to know what use could be made of the UFO phenomenon in connection with US psychological warfare efforts. (18)

Led by Gordon, the CIA Study Group met with Air Force officials at Wright-Patterson and reviewed their data and findings. The Air Force claimed that 90 percent of the reported sightings were easily accounted for. The other 10 percent were characterized as “a number of incredible reports from credible observers.” The Air Force rejected the theories that the sightings involved US or Soviet secret weapons development or that they involved “men from Mars”; there was no evidence to support these concepts. The Air Force briefers sought to explain these UFO reports as the misinterpretation of known objects or little understood natural phenomena. (19) Air Force and CIA officials agreed that outside knowledge of Agency interest in UFOs would make the problem more serious. (20) This concealment of CIA interest contributed greatly to later charges of a CIA conspiracy and coverup.

The CIA Study Group also searched the Soviet press for UFO reports, but found none, causing the group to conclude that the absence of reports had to have been the result of deliberate Soviet Government policy. The group also envisioned the USSR’s possible use of UFOs as a psychological warfare tool. In addition, they worried that, if the US air warning system should be deliberately overloaded by UFO sightings, the Soviets might gain a surprise advantage in any nuclear attack. (21)

Because of the tense Cold War situation and increased Soviet capabilities, the CIA Study Group saw serious national security concerns in the flying saucer situation. The group believed that the Soviets could use UFO reports to touch off mass hysteria and panic in the United States. The group also believed that the Soviets might use UFO sightings to overload the US air warning system so that it could not distinguish real targets from phantom UFOs. H. Marshall Chadwell, Assistant Director of OSI, added that he considered the problem of such importance “that it should be brought to the attention of the National Security Council, in order that a communitywide coordinated effort towards it solution may be initiated.” (22)

Chadwell briefed DCI Smith on the subject of UFOs in December 1952. He urged action because he was convinced that “something was going on that must have immediate attention” and that “sightings of unexplained objects at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major US defense installations are of such nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles.” He drafted a memorandum from the DCI to the National Security Council (NSC) and a proposed NSC Directive establishing the investigation of UFOs as a priority project throughout the intelligence and the defense research and development community. (23) Chadwell also urged Smith to establish an external research project of top-level scientists to study the problem of UFOs. (24) After this briefing, Smith directed DDI Amory to prepare a NSC Intelligence Directive (NSCID) for submission to the NSC on the need to continue the investigation of UFOs and to coordinate such investigations with the Air Force. (25)

The Robertson Panel, 1952-53

On 4 December 1952, the Intelligence Advisory Committee (IAC) took up the issue of UFOs. (26) Amory, as acting chairman, presented DCI Smith’s request to the committee that it informally discuss the subject of UFOs. Chadwell then briefly reviewed the situation and the active program of the ATIC relating to UFOs. The committee agreed that the DCI should “enlist the services of selected scientists to review and appraise the available evidence in the light of pertinent scientific theories” and draft an NSCID on the subject. (27) Maj. Gen. John A. Samford, Director of Air Force Intelligence, offered full cooperation. (28)

At the same time, Chadwell looked into British efforts in this area. He learned the British also were active in studying the UFO phenomena. An eminent British scientist, R. V. Jones, headed a standing committee created in June 1951 on flying saucers. Jones’ and his committee’s conclusions on UFOs were similar to those of Agency officials: the sightings were not enemy aircraft but misrepresentations of natural phenomena. The British noted, however, that during a recent air show RAF pilots and senior military officials had observed a “perfect flying saucer.” Given the press response, according to the officer, Jones was having a most difficult time trying to correct public opinion regarding UFOs. The public was convinced they were real. (29)

In January 1953, Chadwell and H. P. Robertson, a noted physicist from the California Institute of Technology, put together a distinguished panel of nonmilitary scientists to study the UFO issue. It included Robertson as chairman; Samuel A. Goudsmit, a nuclear physicist from the Brookhaven National Laboratories; Luis Alvarez, a high-energy physicist; Thornton Page, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Operations Research Office and an expert on radar and electronics; and Lloyd Berkner, a director of the Brookhaven National Laboratories and a specialist in geophysics. (30)

The charge to the panel was to review the available evidence on UFOs and to consider the possible dangers of the phenomena to US national security. The panel met from 14 to 17 January 1953. It reviewed Air Force data on UFO case histories and, after spending 12 hours studying the phenomena, declared that reasonable explanations could be suggested for most, if not all, sightings. For example, after reviewing motion-picture film taken of a UFO sighting near Tremonton, Utah, on 2 July 1952 and one near Great Falls, Montana, on 15 August 1950, the panel concluded that the images on the Tremonton film were caused by sunlight reflecting off seagulls and that the images at Great Falls were sunlight reflecting off the surface of two Air Force interceptors. (31)

The panel concluded unanimously that there was no evidence of a direct threat to national security in the UFO sightings. Nor could the panel find any evidence that the objects sighted might be extraterrestrials. It did find that continued emphasis on UFO reporting might threaten “the orderly functioning” of the government by clogging the channels of communication with irrelevant reports and by inducing “hysterical mass behavior” harmful to constituted authority. The panel also worried that potential enemies contemplating an attack on the United States might exploit the UFO phenomena and use them to disrupt US air defenses. (32)

To meet these problems, the panel recommended that the National Security Council debunk UFO reports and institute a policy of public education to reassure the public of the lack of evidence behind UFOs. It suggested using the mass media, advertising, business clubs, schools, and even the Disney corporation to get the message across. Reporting at the height of McCarthyism, the panel also recommended that such private UFO groups as the Civilian Flying Saucer Investigators in Los Angeles and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization in Wisconsin be monitored for subversive activities. (33)

The Robertson panel’s conclusions were strikingly similar to those of the earlier Air Force project reports on SIGN and GRUDGE and to those of the CIA’s own OSI Study Group. All investigative groups found that UFO reports indicated no direct threat to national security and no evidence of visits by extraterrestrials.

Following the Robertson panel findings, the Agency abandoned efforts to draft an NSCID on UFOs. (34) The Scientific Advisory Panel on UFOs (the Robertson panel) submitted its report to the IAC, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, and the Chairman of the National Security Resources Board. CIA officials said no further consideration of the subject appeared warranted, although they continued to monitor sightings in the interest of national security. Philip Strong and Fred Durant from OSI also briefed the Office of National Estimates on the findings. (35) CIA officials wanted knowledge of any Agency interest in the subject of flying saucers carefully restricted, noting not only that the Robertson panel report was classified but also that any mention of CIA sponsorship of the panel was forbidden. This attitude would later cause the Agency major problems relating to its credibility. (36)

 Here are the footnotes for the above segment written by Haines:


(14) See Ralph L. Clark, Acting Assistant Director, OSI, memorandum to DDI Robert Amory, Jr., 29 July 1952. OSI and OCI were in the Directorate of Intelligence. Established in 1948, OSI served as the CIA’s focal point for the analysis of foreign scientific and technological developments. In 1980, OSI was merged into the Office of Science and Weapons Research. The Office of Current Intelligence (OCI), established on 15 January 1951 was to provide all-source current intelligence to the President and the National Security Council.

(15) Tauss, memorandum for Deputy Assistant Director, SI (Philip Strong), 1 August 1952.

(16) On 2 January 1952, DCI Walter Bedell Smith created a Deputy Directorate for Intelligence (DDI) composed of six overt CIA organizations–OSI, OCI, Office of Collection and Dissemination, Office National Estimates, Office of Research and Reports, and the Office of Intelligence Coordination–to produce intelligence analysis for US policymakers.

(17) See Minutes of Branch Chief’s Meeting, 11 August 1952.

(18) Smith expressed his opinions at a meeting in the DCI Conference Room attended by his top officers. See Deputy Chief, Requirements Staff, FI, memorandum for Deputy Director, Plans, “Flying Saucers,” 20 August 1952, Directorate of Operations Records, Information Management Staff, Job 86-00538R, Box 1.

(19) See CIA memorandum, unsigned, “Flying Saucers,” 11 August 1952.

(20) See CIA, memorandum, unsigned, “Flying Saucers,” 14 August 1952.

(21) See CIA, memorandum, unsigned, “Flying Saucers,” 19 August 1952.

(22) See Chadwell, memorandum for Smith, 17 September 1952 and 24 September 1952, “Flying Saucers.” See also Chadwell, memorandum for DCI Smith, 2 October 1952 and Klass, UFOs, pp. 23-26.

(23) Chadwell, memorandum for DCI with attachments, 2 December 1952. See also Klass, UFOs, pp. 26-27 and Chadwell, memorandum, 25 November 1952.

(24) See Chadwell, memorandum, 25 November 1952 and Chadwell, memorandum, “Approval in Principle – External Research Project Concerned with Unidentified Flying Objects,” no date. See also Philip G. Strong, OSI, memorandum for the record, “Meeting with Dr. Julius A. Stratton, Executive Vice President and Provost, MIT and Dr. Max Millikan, Director of CENIS.” Strong believed that in order to undertake such a review they would need the full backing and support of DCI Smith.

(25) See Chadwell, memorandum for DCI, “”Unidentified Flying Objects,” 2 December 1952. See also Chadwell, memorandum for Amory, DDI, “Approval in Principle – External Research Project Concerned with Unidentified Flying Objects,” no date.

(26) The IAC was created in 1947 to serve as a coordinating body in establishing intelligence requirements. Chaired by the DCI, the IAC included representatives from the Department of State, the Army, the Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the FBI, and the AEC.

(27) See Klass, UFOs, p. 27.

(28) See Richard D. Drain, Acting Secretary, IAC, “Minutes of Meeting held in Director’s Conference Room, Administration Building, CIA,” 4 December 1952.

(29) See Chadwell, memorandum for the record, “British Activity in the Field of UFOs,” 18 December 1952.

(30) See Chadwell, memorandum for DCI, “Consultants for Advisory Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects,” 9 January 1953; Curtis Peebles, Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994). pp. 73-90; and Jacobs, The UFO Controversy, pp. 91-92.

(31) See Fred C. Durant III, Report on the Robertson Panel Meeting, January 1953. Durant, on contract with OSI and a past president of the American Rocket Society, attended the Robertson panel meetings and wrote a summary of the proceedings.

(32) See Report of the Scientific Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects (the Robertson Report), 17 January 1953 and the Durant report on the panel discussions.

(33) See Robertson Report and Durant Report. See also Good, Above Top Secret, pp. 337-38, Jacobs, The UFO Controversy, p. 95, and Klass, UFO’s, pp. 28-29.

(34) See Reber, memorandum to IAC, 18 February 1953.

(35) See Chadwell, memorandum for DDI, “Unidentified Flying Objects,” 10 February 1953; Chadwell, letter to Robertson, 28 January 1953; and Reber, memorandum for IAC, “Unidentified Flying Objects,” 18 February 1953. On briefing the ONE, see Durant, memorandum for the record, “Briefing of ONE Board on Unidentified Flying Objects,” 30 January 1953 and CIA Summary disseminated to the field, “Unidentified Flying Objects,” 6 February 1953.

(36) See Chadwell, letter to Julius A. Stratton, Provost MIT, 27 January 1953.”

Uncovering this past history has continued in years beyond 1997 when the Haines history was published as part of a CIA publication “Studies in Intelligence Semiannual Unclassified Edition.”

For example, the director of OSI, the scientist H. Marshall Chadwell and his deputy Ralph Clark would reveal, when interviewed in later years by historian Brad Sparks, that they ” had concluded, for a brief time (in 1952-53), that UFOs were extraterrestrial in nature, until as Chadwell put it, the scientific panel ‘overturned’ that conclusion.”

What the Haines history also doesn’t include above is how Captain Ruppelt was blocked by his Air Force bosses from giving any clarifying input to the OSI meetings in December and in the January Robertson Panel meetings, how his presentation was limited and misleadibg. After the December meetings, Truman was briefed on December 19th without straight Air Force input and the scientists thus not having the best cases to examine.

Brad Sparks reports in The UFO Encyclopedia, vol 2, pgs 1013-1014:

“On December 4, Chadwell had spoken to a meeting of the Intelligence Advisory Committee (IAC), the board of directors of U.S. Intelligence. Under Air Force Director of Intelligence Major General John A. Sanford’s guidance at the IAC meeting, it was agreed that the CIA should ‘enlist the services of selected scientists to review and appraise the available evidence in light of pertinent scientific theories,’ but to do so ‘immediately’ (IAC Minutes, December 4, 1952, fiest released to Sparks by the CIA in 1975.) This resulted in a rush to judgement which prevented the CIA from being fully and properly able to critique the Air Force UFO effort. In the rush, as the Air Force expected, the Air Force had given it only identified flying object (IFO) and hoax cases such as the Florida Scoutmaster case , not its Unknowns.

In fact, secret CIA OSI Operations staff member and rocket scientist Frederick C. Durant III discovered on December 9, 1952, in a phone call to Project Blue Book chief Captain Edward Ruppelt that he (Ruppelt) was being prevented by his boss from visiting the CIA (‘blocking his trip’) to deliver internal Blue Book investigative reports on the alleged [my note: they hid that Ruppelt and team had SOLVED these cases!!] three top UFO Unknowns that his boss, ATIC Col. Donald L. Bower and Air Force Intelligence Major Dewey Fournet had briefed Durant on at the CIA on November 25….[and] the Air Force knew they were IFOs or hoaxes, withheld that fact [my note: until later in January, when Robertson Panel met], and tried to prevent Ruppelt from delivering reports showing the already known or suspected explanations. The Air Force wanted the CIA to think these were Best Unknowns with no hint of explanation until the explanations were to be sprung as a surprise at the Robertson Panel like a booby trap. (And the CIA never figured it out it was all a trick, even with some advance knowledge.)”

Sparks further reported that while the Air Force submitted IFO and hoax cases to the scientific panel, it had “withheld the special file of about 100 best UFO Unknowns that Ruppelt kept. Ruppelt had revealed to the press to the press the existance of his special file collection of best Unknowns, along with his map of nearly 50 of them, but this was overlooked by the CIA, and neither the Air Force nor Ruppelt ever drew the the CIA attention to this file. (See LOOK magazine, July 1 1952, Moskin)…”

Ruppelt had urged a big increase in Blue Book staff and operations but that didnt pan out, not only because of the new debunking agenda but due to economizing moves by the incoming Eisenhower administration.

Jerome Clark reports on the history right after the Robertson Panel meetings (vol 2 The UFO Encyclopedia, pg 918):

“From then on Ruppelt’s ambitions for a more sophisticated, better financed were to be frustrated. The various plans to put observers and instruments in place were abandoned, and Blue Book’s staff were reduced. In February 1953 Ruppelt suggested that an Air Defense Command unit, the 4602nd Air Intelligence Service Squadron (AISS), conduct Blue Book’s field investigation; by the end of the year it had taken on the task.”

Ruppelt would retire in August 1953.

This new milieu included new Air Force standards for dealing with UFO reports with the issuing in February 1953 to air base officers of Regulation 200-2 requiring secrecy for cases except for when they are solved.

Jerry Clark, pg 918, vol 2 The UFO Encyclopedia: “….To critics of the Air Force such as Donald E. Keyhoe, this was evidence of a UFO coverup; to those who knew of the CIA panel, however, this was simply a response to its recommendation to discourage popular interest and speculation.”

Key references for lecture identified throughout lecture.