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The Robertson Panel was a committee commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1952 in response to widespread reports of unidentified flying objects, especially in the Washington, D.C. area. The panel was briefed on U.S. military activities and intelligence; hence the report was originally classified Secret.

Later declassified, the Robertson Panel's report concluded that UFOs were not a direct threat to national security, but could pose an indirect threat by overwhelming standard military communications due to public interest in the subject. Most UFO reports, they concluded, could be explained as misidentification of mundane aerial objects, and the remaining minority could, in all likelihood, be similarly explained with further study.

The Robertson Panel concluded that a public relations campaign should be undertaken in order to "debunk" UFOs, and reduce public interest in the subject, and that civilian UFO groups should be monitored. There is evidence this was carried out more than two decades after the Panel's conclusion; see "publicity and responses" below.

Critics[1] (including a few panel members) would later lament the Robertson Panel's role in making UFOs a somewhat disreputable field of study.


In 1952, a wave of UFO reports in the United States centered around Washington DC. So many civilians contacted various government agencies regarding UFO's that daily governmental duties were impacted; the New York Times reported on August 1, 1952, "regular intelligence work has been affected." Various newspapers, such as the Baltimore Sun, Washington Star, Denver Post, and Los Angeles Times, reported on July 31 that Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt S. Vandenberg thought that the recent spate of UFO sightings and reports had generated "mass hysteria". [1] There was a general concern among the military that the hysteria and confusion generated by UFO reports could be utilized by the United States' enemies, primarily the Soviet Union.

Documents indicate that the CIA became involved at the request of the National Security Council after President Truman personally expressed concern over UFOs at a July 28, 1952, NSC meeting. [2] (However, there was no formal NSC meeting on that date). The CIA's study was largely conducted by the CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI). The CIA thought the question so pressing that they authorized an ad hoc committee in late 1952.

The Robertson Panel first met formally on January 14, 1953 under the direction of Howard Percy Robertson. He was a physicist, a CIA employee, and the director of the Defense Department Weapons Evaluation Group. He was instructed by OSI to assemble a group of prominent scientists to review the Air Force's UFO files.

In preparation for this, Robertson first personally reviewed Air Force files and procedures. The Air Force had recently commissioned the Battelle Memorial Institute to scientifically study all of the UFO reports collected by Project Sign, Project Grudge and Project Blue Book. Robertson hoped to draw on their statistical results, but Battelle insisted that they needed much more time to conduct a proper study. (For more, see below).

Other panel members were respected scientists and military personnel who had worked on other classified military projects or studies. All were then skeptical of UFO reports, though to varying degrees. Apart from Robertson, the panel included:

  • Luis Alvarez,[3], physicist, radar expert (and later, a Nobel Prize recipient);
  • Frederick C. Durant, missile expert;
  • Samuel Abraham Goudsmit, Brookhaven National Laboratories nuclear physicist
  • Thornton Page, astrophysicist, radar expert, deputy director of Johns Hopkins Operations Research Office;
  • Lloyd Berkner, physicist, and J. Allen Hynek, astronomer, were associate panel members.

Most of what is known about the actual proceedings of the meetings comes from sketchy minutes kept by Durant, later submitted as a memo to the NSC. It is the only declassified document to date that details the panel's discussions. In addition, various participants would later comment on what transpired from their perspective. Ed Ruppelt, then head of Project Blue Book, first revealed the existence of the secret panel in his 1956 insider book, but without revealing names of panel members.

Formal meetings[]

The Panel had four consecutive days of formal meetings. In total, they met for only 12 hours. Only 23 cases out of 2,331 Air Force UFO cases on record (or about 1%) were reviewed. Although Ruppelt wrote that the Panel studied their best cases, Hynek would opine that the panel in fact seemed to have neither the time nor the desire to study the more puzzling ones. For example, the radar experts on the panel ( Alvarez and Page) seemed to show little interest in reports of radar UFO cases, which they dismissed as "anxiety over fast radar tracks" by the Air Defense Command.[4]

Of the Panel members, Ruppelt would write in his private papers that Goudsmit was exceptionally hostile to the subject: "Goudsmit was probably the most violent anti-saucer man at the panel meeting. Everything was a big joke to him which brought down the wrath of the other panel members on numerous occasions." Goudsmit even stated later that reporters of UFOs were as dangerous to society as drug addicts.

Alvarez was also extremely skeptical but more professional in his conduct. Page at the time was likewise hostile, later recalling that he made a statement during the meeting that UFOs were "nonsense", bringing about a reprimand from Robertson, despite their good friendship. Ruppelt, however, felt that Page was more open-minded, and although he obviously did not know much about UFOs, he tended to line up with Hynek against Alvarez and Goudsmit in their adamancy that UFOs could not exist.

In contrast, Robertson, Berkner, and Durant seemed to have a personal interest in the subject. It was noted, for example, in a CIA memo that although Berkner was not keen to participate, he "felt strongly that the saucer problem should be thoroughly investigated from a scientific point of view."[5] Another CIA memo produced after the completion of the panel's work indicates that Durant, despite the panel's negative conclusions, thought that materials on flying saucers should continue to be maintained by a major division of OSI, such as Physics and Electronics.[6]

The first day, the panel viewed two amateur motion pictures of UFOs: the Mariana UFO Incident footage and 1952 Utah UFO Film (the latter was taken by Navy Chief Petty Officer Delbert C. Newhouse, who had extensive experience with aerial photography). Two Navy photograph and film analysts (Lieutenants R.S. Neasham and Harry Woo) then reported their conclusions: based on more than 1,000 man hours of detailed analysis, the two films depicted objects that were not any known aircraft, creature or weather phenomena. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt then began a summary of Air Force efforts regarding UFO studies.

The second day, Ruppelt finished his presentation. Hynek then discussed the Battelle study, and the panel discussed with Air Force personnel the problems inherent in monitoring UFO sightings.

The third day, Air Force Major Dewey J. Fournet spoke to the panel. For over a year he had coordinated UFO affairs for the Pentagon. Fournett supported the extraterrestrial hypothesis as the best explanation for some puzzling UFO reports. For the remainder of the third day, the panel discussed their conclusions, and Robertson agreed to draft a preliminary report.

The fourth and final day, the panel rewrote and finalized their report.

Conclusions and the Robertson Panel Report[]

The Robertson Panel's official report concluded that 90 percent of UFO sightings could be readily identified with meteorological, astronomical, or natural phenomena, and that the remaining 10 percent of UFO reports could, in all likelihood, be similarly explained with detailed study. It was suggested that witnesses had misidentified bright stars and planets, meteors, auroras, mirages, atmospheric temperature inversions, and lenticular clouds; other sightings were judged as likely misinterpretation of conventional aircraft, weather balloons, birds, searchlights, kites, and other phenomena.

None of the Panel's members was formally trained in motion picture or photographic analysis, and only one had any experience with photography (astronomic still photography and not motion picture film[7]). Nonetheless, after screening the films only a few times, they dismissed the idea that either the 1950 Montana UFO Film or the 1952 Utah UFO Film showed "genuine" UFOs. The Panel's members instead argued that the "UFOs" in the Montana film were actually the reflections of two jet fighters alleged to be in the area at the time and that those in the Utah film were actually seagulls flying near the Great Salt Lake. However, the Panel's conclusions contradicted U.S. Air Force photo analysts who had earlier specifically ruled out birds as an explanation for the Utah film and had thought that jets were a highly unlikely, but remotely plausible, explanation for the Montana film (Clark, 1998). The Panel's conclusions also seemingly ignored eyewitness testimony in both film cases that the objects, while closer to the camera operators, were clearly-defined metallic flying saucers, not the rather indistinct lights seen on the films.

Furthermore, the Panel suggested the Air Force should begin a "debunking" effort to reduce "public gullibility" and demystify UFO reports, partly via a public relations campaign, using psychiatrists, astronomers and assorted celebrities to significantly reduce public interest in UFOs. It was also recommended that the mass media be used for the debunking, including influential media giants like the Walt Disney Corporation. The primary reasoning for this recommendation lay in the belief that the Soviets might try to "mask" an actual invasion of the USA by causing a wave of false "UFO" reports to swamp the Pentagon and other military agencies, thus temporarily blinding the US government to the impending Communist invasion.

Their formal recommendation stated "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."[8]

Also recommended was government monitoring of civilian groups studying or researching UFOs "because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking... the apparent irresponsibility and possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind." Two UFO groups in particular were singled out: APRO and Civilian Saucer Investigations (CSI).

The recommendations of the Robertson Panel were implemented by a series of special military regulations. Joint-Army-Navy-Air Force Publication 147 (JANAP 146) of December 1953 made reprinting of any UFO sighting to the public a crime under the Espionage Act, with fines of up to ten thousand dollars and imprisonment ranging from one to ten years. This act was considered binding on all who knew of the act's existence, including commercial airline pilots. A 1954 revision of Air Force Regulation 200-2 (AFR 200-2) made all sighting reports submitted to the air force classified material and prohibited the release of any information about UFO sightings unless the sighting was able to be positively identified. In February 1958 a revision of AFR 200-2 allowed the military to give the FBI the names of people who were "illegally or deceptively bringing the subject [of UFOs] to public attention". Because of the Robertson Panel the Air Force's Project Blue Book's procedures of investigating UFOs also changed, attempting to find a quick explanation and then file them away. Project Blue Book was a successor of Project Grudge.

In 1956 retired Marine Major Donald Keyhoe founded the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), a UFO investigations organization. By 1969 Keyhoe turned his focus on the CIA as the source of the UFO cover up. NICAP's board, headed by Colonel Jospeph Bryan III, forced Keyhoe to retire as NICAP chief. Bryan was actually a former covert CIA agent who had served the agency as founder and head of its psychological warfare division. Under Bryan's leadership, the NICAP disbanded its local and state affiliate groups, and by 1973 it had been completely closed.[9]

Publicity and responses[]

Ruppelt's 1956 book The Report On unidentified Flying Objects contained the first publicly-released information about the Robertson Panel, with a summary of their proceedings and conclusions. Ruppelt's book did not include the names of the Panel members, nor any institutional or governmental affiliations.

In 1958, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), a civilian UFO research group, requested that the Air Force release the panel's report. The Air Force released three summary paragraphs and the names of the panel's members. In 1966 a nearly full-length version of the report was printed in the science column of the Saturday Review.[10]

Panel member Thornton Page would later change some of his more stridently skeptical conclusions regarding the Panel's report, and regarding UFOs in general. In his 1969 critique of the Condon Report, Page would lament the "excessive levity" he brought to the Panel's proceeding, detailing how he later thought the UFO subject deserved serious scrutiny.[11]

Hynek's opinions changed in later years as well, so much that he became, to many,[10] the scientifically respectable voice of Ufology. He would lament that the Robertson Panel had "made the subject of UFOs scientifically unrespectable, and for nearly 20 years not enough attention was paid to the subject to acquire the kind of data needed even to decide the nature of the UFO phenomenon."

Effects of the Robertson Panel report[]

According to Swords,[12] the Robertson Panel's report had an "enormous" impact throughout the U.S. Government: the CIA abandoned a "major high level [UFO] investigation" planned in conjunction with the National Security Council; UFO research projects by personnel in The Pentagon were quashed; and Project Blue Book's hopes to establish a scientific advisory board were dashed. Blue Book was also downgraded in status and stripped of most responsibility for investigating serious, well-attested UFO cases, which were instead secretly turned over to a newly-formed division of the Air Defense Command. Directives were also issued not to discuss the unexplainable cases with the public and to reduce the percentage of "unknowns"

Though the CIA's official history suggests that the Robertson Panel's conclusions were never carried out,Template:Fact there is evidence that contradicts this. Perhaps the most unambiguous evidence for the Robertson Panel's covert impact on news media reporting about UFOs is a personal letter by Dr. Thornton Page, discovered in the Smithsonian archives by biochemist Michael D. Swords. The 1966 letter, addressed to former Robertson Panel Secretary Frederick C. Durant, confides that Page "helped organize the CBS TV show around the Robertson Panel conclusions." Page was no doubtTemplate:Who referring to the CBS Reports TV broadcast of the same year, "UFOs: Friend, Foe, or Fantasy?" narrated by Walter Cronkite. (Incidentally, this program was criticized for inaccurate and misleading presentations.[10]) Page's letter indicates that the Robertson Panel was still putting a negative spin on UFO news at least 13 years after the panel met.

Furthermore, according to Swords,[13] there is ample evidence to prove that CSI was pressured to disband by the U.S. Government. FBI documents indicate that noted engineer Walther Riedel was pressured to resign from CSI, and not long afterwards, the group disbanded; in response, Robertson wrote to Marshall Chadwell, stating "[t]hat ought to fix the Forteans."[14] (Robertson was referring to the devotees of American writer Charles Fort (1874-1932), whose books argued in favor of the reality of extraterrestrial on Earth.) APRO was active through the late 1980s. There has also been speculation that UFO group NICAP was infiltrated by CIA operatives.

Even later, Randles and Hough note that there was a "CIA memo from 1976" which "tells how the agency is still having to 'keep in touch with reporting channels' in ufology (in other words, to spy on UFO groups." (Randles and Hough, 103)

Some scholars investigators have suggested that the Robertson Panel's true objective was to justify a CIA domestic propaganda-and-surveillance campaign, rather than to investigate UFOs. For example, journalist Howard Blum writes[15] that it is difficult to accept any argument that the Robertson Panel was ever intended as a serious scientific analysis: Blum argues that the Panel's perfunctory rejection of the U.S. Navy's detailed examination of the UFO films is all but impossible to justify on scientific grounds. Similarly, Swords[12] has argued that the Panel seems to have been designed as an elaborate theater exercise instead of a serious attempt to get to the bottom of the UFO issue. Although the Panel put on a show of evaluating some UFO evidence, its scientific analysis was cursory and its conclusions mostly likely pre-ordained. Also, the Panel only looked only at evidence in the public domain, not higher-quality classified military evidence. Psychologist David R. Saunders, a member of the University of Colorado's UFO study (the Condon Committee), had earlier expressed similar conclusions. Given that Robertson had worked as a high-level scientific-intelligence officer during World War II, he would have been familiar with the use of such tactics to hide a sensitive national-security problem from scrutiny by outsiders.

It is a widely-held conclusion amongst UFO investigators that the Robertson Panel's conclusions and recommendations had a great influence on official United States policy regarding UFOs for many decades.[16]

Contrast with Battelle Memorial Institute study results[]

When the Battelle Memorial Institute finally finished their massive review of Air Force UFO cases in 1954 (called "Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14"), their results were markedly different from those of the Robertson Panel. Whereas the Robertson Panel spent only twelve hours reviewing a limited number of cases, the Battelle Institute had four full-time scientific analysts working for over two years analyzing 3201 reports. Classifying a case as "unknown" required agreement among all four analysts, whereas a "known" or conventional classification required agreement by only two analysts. Still they concluded 22% of the cases remained unsolvable. The percentage climbed to 35% when considering only the best cases and fell to 18% for the worst cases. Not only are the percentages of unknowns much higher than those for the Robertson Panel, but the higher percentages for the better cases are directly opposite one conclusion of the panel that their remaining 10% of unknowns would disappear if further investigated and more information was available. Furthermore, the Battelle study had already thrown out cases they deemed to have insufficient information to make a determination (9% of all cases). Thus, the fact that a case was classified as "unknown" had nothing to do with lack of information or investigation.

The study also looked at six characteristics of the sightings: duration, speed, number, brightness, color, and shape. For all characteristics, the knowns and unknowns differed at a highly statistically significant level, further indicating that the knowns and unknowns were distinctly different classes of phenomena.

Despite this, the summary section of the final report declared it was "highly improbable that any of the reports of unidentified aerial objects... represent observations of technological developments outside the range of present-day knowledge." A number of researchers have noted that the conclusions of the analysts were usually at odds with their own statistical results, displayed in 240 charts, tables, graphs and maps. Possibly the analysts simply had trouble accepting their own results. Others conjecture this was another result of the Robertson Panel, the conclusions being written to satisfy the new political climate within Project Blue Book following the panel.

(For more statistical results of the Battelle study see Identified Flying Objects.)

Notes and references[]

  1. see Clark 1998; Blum 1990
  2. Hall & Connors, 209
  3. Alvarez and Robertson had both studied WWII-era "foo fighter" reports; see Swords, Michael D. "Ufology: What Have We Learned?" Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol 20, No 4, pp. 545-589, 2006
  4. Hall & Connors, 210-212
  5. Hall & Connors, 210-211
  6. Hall & Connors, 224
  7. see Clark, 2005
  9. Template:Cite bookp. 17
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 see Clark, 1998
  11. Dr. Thornton Page's Review of the Condon Report
  12. 12.0 12.1 Swords, 2000
  13. Swords, Michael D., "UFOs, the Military and the Early Cold War" in UFOs & Abductions: Challenging the Borders of Knowledge, David M. Jacobs, editor, University Press of Kansas, 2000, ISBN 0-7006-1032-4
  14. quoted in Swords, 2000
  15. see Blum, Howard, Out There: The Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials, Simon and Schuster, 1990
  16. see Clark, 1998, Blum, 1990, Swords 2000
  • Jerome Clark, The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial, ISBN 1-57859-029-9
  • Richard Dolan, UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Cover-up 1941-1973, 2002, ISBN 1-57174-317-0
  • Michael D. Hall and Wendy A. Connors, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt: Summer of the Saucers--1952, 2000, Rose Press International, ISBN 0-9705055-0-7
  • Terry Hansen, The Missing Times: News media complicity in the UFO cover-up, 2000, ISBN 0-7388-3612-5
  • Jenny Randles and Peter Houghe; The Complete Book of UFOs: An Investigation into Alien Contact and Encounters; Sterling Publishing Co, Inc, 1994; ISBN 0-8069-8132-6
  • Edward J. Ruppelt, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956, Chapter 16 online
  • David R. Saunders and R. Roger Harkins, UFOs? Yes! Where the Condon Committee Went Wrong, New York: Signet, 1968, p. 105.
  • Michael Swords, 'Dr. Robertson Requests the Honor of Your Attendance,' International UFO Reporter, July / August 1995, pp. 16–20.

External links[]


fi:Robertsonin paneeli fr:Jury Robertson zh:羅伯森調查小組