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George H.W. Bush: Trailblazing Keeper of America’s Classified Secrets

With the passing of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, many Americans have spent time over the weekend remembering the life and achievements of one of the most influential American leaders of the modern era.

His was a name that conveyed a regal nature even at an early age: while serving in World War II (Bush enlisted just after high school, and became the youngest fighter pilot enlisted with the U.S. Navy at just 19 years old), his shipmates opted to call him by his full, six-syllable name, rather than bestow a nickname as was generally the custom among servicemen. This had been partly due to the fact that Bush was royalty, essentially, having come from a family of renown and privilege (something his shipmates were well aware of), but refused to act like it. One of his Navy pals, Richard Cramer, wrote about it years later, remembering in 1992 that, “Bush was a good Joe, no stickler for rank. That was the point about [his] nickname: it was like calling a bald guy Curly.”

It was a trend that continued throughout his life; Bush was well known for spending holidays in Washington so that his security guards could spend time with their families, and was regarded as having such a penchant for Chinese food that he would snatch up White House staff members and steal away with them to the suburbs for an afternoon lunch break. Michael Duffy, writing for TIME, noted that, “[Bush] dragged Cabinet members up to Camp David for the weekend, whether they wanted to go or not. Asked in the final days of his transition what surprised him most about the spacious White House residence, Bush, who loved to throw spontaneous dinners, replied, “I can have 40 people up there.” He was also a prolific writer of letters, like many presidents, although a striking number of them had been courteous thank-you notes he penned to friends, colleagues, and constituents.

Bush Senior (or “Poppy” as he was often called, a nod to his role as the Elder Bush) was a decent guy, in other words. Apart from the demanding world of statecraft, he was a person who enjoyed the simpler things in life, and the relationships he shared with friends and family.

There were, of course, other sides to George H.W. Bush too. As former CIA director prior to his tenure as Vice President under Ronald Reagan, Bush had once been tasked with managing many of the country’s greatest secrets. In years that followed, it was evident that keeping America’s secrets had been something Bush had undertaken with great earnest. In one famous instance, during the first televised debate between then-Vice President Bush and Michael Dukakis at Wake Forest University, Bush commented on a special CIA briefing that both he and Dukakis had received in relation to Manuel Noriega, then de facto ruler of Panama, who had long-held ties to U.S. intelligence agencies.

“The other day my opponent was given a briefing by the CIA,” Bush said. “I asked for and received the same briefing. I am very careful in public life about dealing with classified information.” Before proceeding, Bush assured his audience that, “what I’m about to say is unclassified” (the entire segment can be seen here, beginning at approximately 10:40 into the video).

Perhaps there is no better indication of Bush’s dedication to official secrecy than a circumstance that occurred during his own tenure as Director of Central Intelligence when  Jimmy Carter asked Bush about UFOs. While campaigning in 1976, Carter had reportedly expressed to reporters that if he were elected President, he promised to “make every piece of information this country has about UFO sightings available to the public, and the scientists,” noting that he was “convinced that UFOs exist because I’ve seen one.”

Carter had been referring to a famous incident that occurred in 1969, when he was leaving a restaurant on his way to give a talk at a Lion’s Club meeting in Leary, Georgia, when a bright object in the sky was brought to his attention. He and several onlookers observed the object for several minutes, and Carter later filed a report on the sighting with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP).

Despite his convictions about releasing UFO information to the public after his own sighting, Carter had far less to say about the subject after he was elected President. “After winning the presidency,” a History.com article notes, “Carter backed away from this pledge, saying that the release of some information might have ‘defense implications’ and pose a threat to national security.”

Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter.

There may be more to this story than just Carter’s concerns about the “defense implications” of national security as it relates to UFOs. A number of sources over the years have stated that Carter appealed to the CIA for further information on UFOs, which resulted in Carter asking George H.W. Bush about the subject. Bush reportedly responded by saying that Carter “had no need to know” for that information.

This story, while likely to be true in many respects, bears obvious sensational qualities which have led to further considerations about the importance of UFO information our government may hold. Perhaps the most obvious implication is that if Bush had not revealed this information to Carter, and that if the President of the United States didn’t have a “need to know” for the CIA’s information about UFOs, then who does? 

To get to the bottom of this requires a bit of background knowledge of Bush’s term as DCI, as well as how long he served in that position after Carter was elected, and at what time briefings were given to Carter by Bush. An article appearing at CIA.gov titled, “Bush as Director of Central Intelligence“, although not addressing the UFO subject directly, does raise some considerations about the circumstances pertaining to how and when Carter might have asked Bush about the subject in question. According to the article, in June 1976, “Governor Jimmy Carter took the unprecedented step of asking for CIA briefings even before he was officially nominated as his party’s candidate for President.” On July 5th, Bush met with Carter for the first time in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to discuss “ground rules” for such briefings, and following Carter’s official nomination, Bush again met with Carter, presiding over “more detailed briefings.” According to the agency’s website, “The CIA’s briefings for Carter were aimed at helping him understand the workings of the IC, as well as to process the classified information he was being given. Briefers appealed to his business instincts by discussing the finances of the Agency and using economic metaphors to explain key points.”

Bush reportedly had some difficulty reaching Carter’s home, where the briefings were undertaken, due to the fact that the plane he used for such official transportation could not be landed on the dirt airfield closest to Plains, Georgia, where Carter lived. Bush reportedly flew into Fort Benning instead, taking a helicopter from there to Carter’s home. “Carter was inquisitive and eager to learn about intelligence activities,” the CIA article states, “and the DCI (Bush) brought eight other officers with him to every briefing to ensure every question asked could be answered.”

It is unclear whether UFOs had been among the subjects Bush and his eight officers were asked about at this time. However, there are good reasons to think that might have been the case, in light of Bush’s tenure as DCI and the incoming Carter administration. As the CIA.gov article states, Carter’s choice in receiving briefings from DCI Bush before the election “placed Carter on more equal footing with Ford when discussing foreign affairs during the presidential debates.” Because of this, Carter reportedly considered keeping Bush on staff as DCI for a time if he were to win the election.

“However, by Election Day, Carter had decided against it,” the article notes. It would seem that the men were of like-mind on the issue: Bush in turn called the President-elect three days after the election, and offered his resignation.

Since Bush didn’t serve as DCI for an extended period of time after Carter’s election, it does stand to reason that some of Carter’s questions about the UFO subject might have occurred during the briefs that George H.W. Bush provided prior to the election. If that were indeed the case, we could further ascertain that one plausible reason Carter might not have had “a need to know” for this had been that he was not yet President when he requested this information.

Although this would appear to shed some light on the famous story behind George H. W. Bush’s denial of UFO information to Carter, it should be noted that there would have been additional opportunities for Bush to brief Carter even after the election. “A final briefing between the two occurred on November 19th,” the CIA.gov article notes, “when Bush described more than ten sensitive programs being run by the CIA and even mentioned staying on as Director.” According to the CIA account of this briefing, “Carter was notably quiet” during this meeting, and by January 10, 1977–Inauguration Day–Bush’s resignation had been sent and accepted by Carter.

Interestingly, Carter felt that the decision to release Bush from duties as DCI helped shape the future for his own future presidency. “If I had agreed to [let Bush remain DCI, he] never would have become President,” Carter said in 1993. “His career would have gone off on a whole different track.”

So what, precisely, did Bush know about the UFO subject? Well, as we have already seen, Bush was very careful about how he dealt with classified information, especially when the public was involved. However, there was an interesting exchange that occurred on March 7, 1988, between then-Vice President Bush and a UFO researcher named Charles Huffer. The incident in question occurred at a campaign stop in Rogers, Arkansas, where Huffer had been waiting for the Republican presidential hopeful outside a building where a press conference was to be held. Huffer, armed with a tape recorder, was able to obtain a few vague statements from Bush on the UFO subject, as transcribed by researcher Grant Cameron:

“Mr. Bush, Mr. President,” asked Mr. Huffer (in the excitement of the moment Mr. Huffer called him President). “Will you tell the people the truth about UFOs?”

 

“Yeah,” replied Bush. Then realizing what he has just said Bush added, “If we can find it, what it is. We are really interested.”

 

“You’ll have it, you’ll have it.” said Huffer. “It’s in there. (I meant it would be in his briefing when he became president) Declassify it and tell us, ok?”

 

“OK,” said Bush, ” alright, yes.”

Cameron notes that “Bush then entered the building where he met with the local Arkansas press,” while Huffer apparently waited outside. As Bush later emerged from the building, Huffer approached him again, reminding the Vice President that he was, “going to hold [him] to that promise.”

“Alright,” replied Bush.

 

“OK,” said Huffer, “you’re going to get it.” (I meant the UFO information)

 

“Why don’t you send me some information about it? ” asked Bush.

 

“Naw,” said Huffer, “you’re a CIA man. You know all that stuff.”

 

“I know some,” replied Bush. “I know a fair amount.”

So, at least in Bush’s own words to Huffer at the time, he knew “a fair amount” about UFOs, however much that might have been.

Apart from the incidents related here, which indicate Bush’s responses to things others had asked him about the UFO subject, Bush actually seemed to have little to say on the matter. Cameron also comments on this, noting that, “The UFO incidents in the Bush Presidency were few and far between,” citing Bush’s single term in the White House as one likely reason for this. Cameron, having made inquiries to the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Center about any UFO-related material in the former President’s collections, also notes that, “In a letter from the Bush library they informed this author that there was only one UFO document in the entire Presidential collection.”

Cameron speculates on the possible reasons for the lack of UFO-related data in the Bush collections:

“Does [this] mean that the UFO phenomena went away during the Bush years, or that Bush was able to deflect all UFO paperwork to other agencies such as the Air Force, NASA, or highly classified black-budget programs set up to specifically deal with the UFO situation away from the probing eyes of the public?”

In fairness, there could be more mundane reasons too; namely, that Bush simply hadn’t maintained the same level of interest in the subject as his predecessors, which included Gerald Ford (more on Ford’s UFO-related interests can be found here, courtesy of the Ford Library Museum), Jimmy Carter, and even Ronald Reagan (who had his own sighting of an unidentified flying object while serving as Governor of California several years earlier). There is, of course, much more that could be said of UFO interests held by administrations prior to, and even after Bush, but they are beyond the scope of the present discussion.

Speculations about the UFO subject in relation to government secrecy are fairly commonplace in UFO circles, especially when any U.S. President may be involved. However, George Herbert Walker Bush presents us with a particularly unique case, mainly due to the facts concerning his background in U.S. intelligence. Often, it is what a person doesn’t say that generates the most hype, and with Bush, the distance he kept from open discussion of UFOs no doubt contributed to conspiracies that would emerge later on, which included everything from his possible membership with the shadowy MJ-12 organization, to his presence in Dallas around the time of the Kennedy assassination. Tangible ties to either of these remain few and far between, but that certainly hasn’t kept hopeful online sleuths from looking, or in many cases, speculating even in the absence of such evidence.

As Bush famously said on the campaign trail in 1988 during his first debate with Dukakis, “I am very careful in public life about dealing with classified information.” Whatever role UFOs may play in terms of national security to the United States, if George H.W. Bush had any knowledge of such things, they remained secrets he carried with him until the end of his life.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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