Are UFOs a mirage, conjured up by the Air Force to obscure classified flight projects? In part, argues Mark Pilkington, a British journalist and filmmaker who writes about society's oddities. In Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs, he makes a persuasive case that much UFO-logy canon was started or encouraged by the government trying to conceal Cold War military projects. He recently chatted with U.S. News about the origins and effects of UFO mythology around the world. Excerpts:
How has the UFO story been shaped by the government?
These ideas do generate themselves to some extent, but there is evidence that they were specifically shaped in some instances. I don't think this is some long-running grand conspiracy, I just think that the UFO story has been deployed and used at times when it was convenient. Just about everything that is popularly believed about UFOs has been exploited, shaped, and, at times, generated by people working for the U.S. Air Force and the intelligence community. The idea that UFOs crashed on U.S. soil, that the U.S. government was harboring and hiding UFO technology, that it was denying its citizens the right to know that aliens have come here and visited—all these things have been deliberately seeded into the culture.
Why would the government "seed" these ideas?
UFO stories are used as a cover story for the flight-testing of experimental and clandestine aircraft. If you look at the places where UFO sightings are frequent, they are also the places where the military tests its experimental aircraft. For the first few years that UFOs circulated in popular culture after World War II, the public didn't talk about UFOs as being alien. Rather, they were talked about as advanced U.S. or Russian aircraft.
How long has this been going on?
Much of it dates to the first flights of the U2 spy plane back in the 1950s. The CIA's in-house journal had a story about 10 years ago that said that one of the functions of Project Blue Book [the official Air Force investigation into UFOs] was to monitor how visible the U2 was to people on the ground. Someone would see what they thought was a UFO and then the Air Force would send someone around to talk with them. Of course, the Air Force would have a schedule of the U2 flights and be able to tell if what the person saw was indeed a U2. By talking to all these supposed UFO witnesses, the CIA could assess how visible the U2 was.
Were the Soviets a target for this?
There are other, more subtle motivations from the U.S. side. One is the idea of a super weapon. If unfriendly nations believe that you harbor alien technology that you have integrated into your own weapons systems and aircraft, then they have good reason to be afraid.
What happened in 1952 over Washington, D.C.?
The first incident took place early one morning in July. It was reported extensively in the newspapers that a number of unknown objects appeared on radar screens around Washington. Now, it looks very plausible to me that the Washington incident was a demonstration of a technology from the Defense Department, known as Project Palladium, which allowed the operator to project radar blips onto other radar screens. Later on, the technology became very sophisticated to the point where you could change the shape of the blip and its speed and so forth. We go on in the book at length about the evidence that suggests that the Washington radar incident was a planned operation.
Do UFO fanatics know it may be they're duped?
Certainly. I'm not the first person to tell them this. UFO lore has transcended to what has become a religious matter for many of those involved. We talk to a man called Bill Moore, who in the 1980s was one of the most respected people in the UFO community. He was co-opted by Air Force intelligence to act as a mole passing information to the Air Force about what people were researching and to pass disinformation back into the UFO community. When he came clean about all this at a UFO convention in 1989, people ran out crying into the hallways. But what happened to the larger UFO lore? Nothing.