Anyone who knows their UFO history will know of The Robertson Panel—a group of leading scientists assembled by US government physicist Howard Percy Robertson under the guidance of the CIA for the purpose of reviewing the US Air Force’s UFO files. In 1953 the panel concluded that UFOs did not pose a direct threat to national security, but suggested nonetheless that the USAF begin a “debunking” campaign employing the talents of psychiatrists, astronomers, and celebrities with the goal of demystifying UFO reports. Their formal recommendation was that: “The national security agencies take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired.”
The panel further stated that its debunking goals should “be accomplished by mass media such as television [and] motion pictures…” The extent to which the Robertson Panel’s recommendations were implemented is not entirely clear. However, even as late as 1966 the panel wielded a demonstrable influence over media representations of UFOs in the CBS TV broadcast of UFOs: Friend, Foe, or Fantasy?—an anti-UFO documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite. In a personal letter addressed to former Robertson Panel Secretary, Frederick C. Durant, panel member Dr. Thornton Page confided to having “helped organize the documentary around the Robertson Panel conclusions,” even though this was thirteen years after the panel had disbanded and despite the fact that he was personally sympathetic to the existence of flying saucers.
Also notable is the 1956 docudrama Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers. Neatly in line with the recommendations of the Robertson Panel, USAF to drew up contingency plans to counteract the anticipated fallout from the movie upon its release. The director of the USAF’s official UFO investigations unit Project Blue Book, Captain George T. Gregory, was tasked with monitoring not only the movie’s production process, but its public and critical reception. Believing the docudrama would stir up a “storm of public controversy,” the USAF set about preparing a special case file that would debunk every saucer sighting examined and even went so far as to have three of its Blue Book officers provide “technical assistance” to the filmmakers in an effort to control content.
The mentality of the CIA-Robertson Panel was reflected in other productions during the 1950s. On 22 January 1958, the popular CBS television show Armstrong Circle Theatre presented an entire program dedicated to the subject of Unidentified Flying Objects, titled, “UFO: Enigma of the Skies.” Among the high-profile experts invited to speak on the show was retired US Navy Major Donald Keyhoe, Director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP). Keyhoe was notable for his outspoken views on government secrecy surrounding the UFO phenomenon. Arguing against UFO reality on the program were astronomer and vehement UFO skeptic, Donald Menzel, and Air Force representative, Col. Spencer Whedon of the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC). Their task should have been an easy one as the show’s content had been scripted in advance by CBS in conjunction with the US Air Force (USAF), and all guests, especially Keyhoe, had been instructed to read their pre-approved material from a teleprompter.
When it came time for Keyhoe to speak, in frustration, he veered from his script and stated to the nation: “And now I’m going to reveal something that has never been disclosed before…” 1 The rest of his announcement went unheard by television viewers. Unbeknownst to Keyhoe, his microphone had been cut by the station. He continued:
“For the last six months, we have been working with a congressional committee investigating official secrecy about UFOs. If all the evidence we have given this committee is made public in open hearings, it will absolutely prove that the UFOs are real machines under intelligent control.”
After the show, CBS was inundated with calls and letters from viewers demanding to know why Keyhoe’s audio had been cut. “Call it what you like,” wrote one viewer, “but it appeared to be a very shocking display of censorship; and certainly offensive to the intelligence of the American public…” Nine days later CBS admitted it had been subject to official censorship. In a letter to a disgruntled viewer dated 31 January 1958, CBS director of editing, Herbert A. Carlborg, stated:
“This program had been carefully cleared for security reasons. Therefore, it was the responsibility of this network to ensure performance in accordance with predetermined security standards. Any indication that there would be a deviation might lead to statements that neither this network nor the individuals on the program were authorized to release.”
Yet another case in this vein relates to a UFO-themed episode of the Steve Canyon TV show (1958–1959). Backed by Chesterfield Cigarettes and produced at Universal Studios with the full cooperation of the USAF, the NBC show chronicled the live-action exploits of Milton Caniff’s famous comic strip character. The episode to which the USAF took objection, “Project UFO,” saw Colonel Steve Canyon investigate a spate of flying saucer sightings reported to a local Air Force base. According to aviation historian, James H. Farmer, “This was an episode that the Air Force did not really want to be aired,” because the UFO subject was “a hot potato.”
By the time the USAF had finished with the script, it was, according to Farmer, “pretty tame… compared to the earlier renditions.” In the episode as aired, the UFO sightings are attributed to a combination of hoax-induced hysteria and, in support of the USAF’s original Roswell cover story, misidentifications of weather balloons. Producer, John Ellis, of the Milton Caniff Estate (which owns Steve Canyon) told me, “Every single page got re-written, and re-written, and re-written…” David Haft, the show’s producer, was more to the point in his recollection of the USAF’s reaction when he submitted the first script draft for official approval, “Oh, oh, oh, oh! No, no, no, no!” Haft also noted that the USAF had difficulty in deciding what was acceptable for broadcast.
In one of the earliest drafts of “Project UFO,” Steve Canyon speaks to his Commanding Officer, Colonel Jamison, in defense of a civilian UFO witness, “Why call him a jerk?” asks Canyon, “Seems to me like he acted like a pretty solid, clearheaded citizen…” This dialogue was removed. Elsewhere in the draft, Canyon appears to be enthusiastic about flying saucers. At one point, when a fresh UFO report comes into the base from the local town, Canyon “Jumps to [his] feet, rushes to [the] door,” and cries “This I gotta see!” before making “a hurried exit.” In the final scene as originally written, Canyon is actually seen opening a book on flying saucers, “and sits there quietly reading…” This scene failed to make it into the final draft, and, in the version as aired, Canyon’s excitement about UFOs is replaced with skepticism or plain indifference. An entire plot strand concerning the recovery and scientific analysis of what is initially suspected to be flying saucer debris (shades of Roswell) was also predictably removed. The draft included dialogue like, “That thing [flying saucer] dropped a small metal ball enclosing an electrical apparatus so intricate, so ingenious, nobody yet has been able to figure out its purpose,” and, “the metal wouldn’t respond to any of the standard tests.”
Despite the rewrites, the USAF insisted that the episode not be aired at all. “It got stuck on a shelf,” Ellis explains in his Steve Canyon DVD commentary, “it was finished… but they held on until near the end of the series to air it.” Indeed, it was only through a last act of defiance on the part of the show’s producers toward the end of its run in 1959 that the episode was screened at all.
This is all just the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to the history of government and military attempts to manage popular perceptions of UFOs. To document all such examples—from past to present—would require writing a book, which precisely is what I did. But the cases presented in this article at least provide a historical snapshot of just how seriously the powers that be have responded to what, for most audiences, would surely be considered harmless entertainment.
As the years have progressed, the activities of the CIA and military in Hollywood have evolved from debunking and demystifying to more subtle strategies of perception management. Heavy-handed censorship no longer plays well in liberal Hollywood, nor does it serve the evolving interests of the national security state in relation to UFOs.
In certain cases throughout the Cold War, the Robertson Panel’s recommendations may have been followed to the letter–using media to “debunk and demystify” UFOs. But CIA and military would soon have recognized this approach as illogical and unsustainable. It is impossible to disprove the existence of a phenomenon through media channels if the phenomenon persists in publicly and spectacularly manifesting itself–as has continued to happen in the United States and around the world. However, it is possible to manage how the public perceives the phenomenon. As such, as the Cold War thawed, the national security state began making concerted efforts to manage popular perceptions of UFOs by inserting itself into the production process of big and small screen entertainment products at every available opportunity, bringing their plots in line with their own mythologized, self-serving UFO narrative–a narrative that emphasises the potential threat of otherworldly visitors, justifying historical secrecy surrounding the subject while promoting the the the heroism and might of the American defense apparatus. In other words, officialdom’s attitude towards Hollywood eventually became “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and exert what influence you can from within.”
Of course, none of this should come as any real surprise. Governmental structures have long recognized the power of the media—especially entertainment media—to subtly mould our perceptions of the world around us. In his book, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, Professor Colin McGinn notes that “In the movie-watching experience we enter an altered state of consciousness, enthralling and irresistible.” And this, of course, makes cinema the perfect tool for perception management. When watching a film, says McGinn [or equally a TV show], “The critical faculties are reduced, the mind entering a state of dreamlike susceptibility and suggestibility—this is fertile ground for persuasion of one kind or another.”
More recently, a former head of the CIA’s Entertainment Liaison Office, Paul Barry, remarked to propaganda studies expert Professor Tricia Jenkins: “You cannot underestimate Hollywood’s influence… most Americans are content to accept Hollywood’s message… very few ever conduct any research to determine the truth.”
Today, the interlocking of Hollywood and the national security state is as tight as ever, as famed ex-CIA operative Robert Baer (whose life inspired the 2005 George Clooney thriller, Syriana) told me:
“All these people that run studios, they go to Washington, they hang around with senators, they hang around with CIA directors, and everybody’s onboard.”
A sweeping statement, to be sure, and perhaps not intended to be taken literally, but it is now a matter of historical record that the US national security apparatus has gone to great lengths over the years to ensure that all those individuals it requires to be “onboard,” are. After all, film and televisual media are far too potent to be left unexploited, too powerful to be left unchecked.