If you’ve ever watched The X-Files or other sci-fi shows like it, you may think that investigating unexplained phenomena is one of the FBI’s investigative responsibilities—right along with terrorism, espionage, white-collar crime, etc.
In fact, the FBI was only occasionally involved in investigating the possibility of UFOs and extraterrestrials over the years. The first Bureau investigations we are aware of began in the summer of 1947—the time of the now well-known incident in Roswell, New Mexico. A rash of reports of flying objects—some shaped like “flapjacks,” saucers, discs, and even a large circular saw blade that supposedly hit a lightning rod on top of a church—started to surface and make headlines across the nation.
Concerned citizens reported many of these strange sightings to the FBI. That wasn't surprising, given that the Bureau had investigated airline crashes such as the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 and aerial dangers like the balloon bombs launched by Japan toward the U.S. Pacific Northwest near the end of World War II. The FBI’s lead role in protecting the homeland during the war was also well known, and the Bureau remained front and center in ensuring national security as the Cold War began to unfold.
In late July 1947, a woman in Illinois reported to the FBI office in Springfield that she found the flying disc pictured above in her front yard. The Springfield special agent in charge informed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that "the alleged flying disc was obtained and it is apparently the concoction of some of the juveniles in the area. It is an old wooden platter, which has assembled on it a silver plate, a spark plug, a timer, and some old brass tubing. ... No doubt this was someone's idea of a prank."
Initially, it was not clear how UFO sightings should be handled. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover recognized that the Air Force—then part of the U.S. Army—clearly had the lead in such issues, but he did want his agents to investigate any “discs” recovered for their potential impact on FBI responsibilities.
The Army did want the FBI’s help—at least at first. On July 30, 1947, the Bureau issued this notice to all of its offices:
(B) Flying Discs – The Bureau, at the request of the Army Air Forces Intelligence, has agreed to cooperate in the investigation of flying discs….You should investigate each instance which is brought to your attention of a sighting of a flying disc in order to ascertain whether or not it is a bona fide sighting, an imaginary one or a prank.
Three years later, that policy changed. A July 1950 FBI statement said that “the jurisdiction and responsibility for investigating flying saucers have been assumed by the United States Air Force. Information received in this matter is immediately turned over to the Air Force, and the FBI does not attempt to investigate these reports or evaluate the information furnished.”
From this point, the FBI’s cases on UFOs dropped off dramatically. Neither the public nor the Air Force sought our expertise as they had during the first few years of the Cold War.
There were a few exceptions. In 1977, for example, the Air Force informed us of the end of their “Project Blue Book” investigation of UFO reports. And in 1988, we were asked to look into the release of what appeared to be a 1952 classified document concerning a UFO-related top secret government group called “Majestic 12”—we determined that the document was a fake.
To learn more, see the investigations of “Unusual Phenomena” in our Freedom of Information Act Reading Room.
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