Out of the Blue: UFOs and the Freedom of Information Act

Cover of Project Blue Book, Special Report No. 14/tiles/non-collection/6/6-13-text-moss1-bluebookcover.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration The cover of Project Blue Book, Special Report No. 14, (Analysis of Unidentified Flying Objects), Project No. 10073, 5 May 1955, Air Technical Intelligence Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
The existence of UFOs may seem like the exclusive domain of science fiction, but as Representative John Moss of California laid the groundwork for legislation that eventually became the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966, he didn’t discriminate in his pursuit to open as much government information as possible to the public.

During the 1950s and 1960s, as the House held hearings and debated the scope of Moss’s legislation, the Special Government Information Subcommittee and the Foreign Operations and Government Subcommittee (FOGI) of the Committee on Government Operations, both of which were chaired by Moss, addressed a deceptively simple problem. Every year the federal government produced vast amounts of information. But of that mountain of data, the subcommittee needed to know what the government could (or should) release, as well as what federal officials should (or had) to restrict.

Sample Page from Project Blue Book/tiles/non-collection/6/6-13-text-moss2-bluebooksample.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration A sample page from Project Blue Book depicting an alleged UFO sighting.
The subcommittees fielded thousands of requests from the public, newspapers, and other Members of Congress on every imaginable topic, from Amelia Earhart to ballistic missiles to frozen foods. Of the organizations that contacted the FOGI Subcommittee, two stand out: Flying Saucers International and the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Surprising? Yes, but consider this: In the decade before FOIA became law, the United States and the Soviet Union spent an immense amount of money developing programs to send defense technology and eventually people into outer space. By mid-century, whatever existed beyond Earth’s atmosphere actually seemed within reach, and the idea—the very possibility—that “unidentified flying objects” were zooming around the galaxy captured the public imagination. Many people who believed in UFOs were also convinced the Air Force knew about them too, and that the military had kept their existence secret. Anxious Americans considered this a major problem: What if the Russians somehow got access to extraterrestrial technology and used it against the United States? And didn’t defense personnel need confirmation that UFOs existed and the training to distinguish them from planes and missiles so that accidental war with the Soviet Union might be prevented?

Sample Page from Project Blue Book/tiles/non-collection/6/6-13-text-moss3-bluebooksample.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration A sample page from Project Blue Book depicting an alleged UFO sighting.
Many of the public requests related to UFOs were about a specific report created by the Air Force titled, “Project Blue Book, Report No. 14 (Analysis of Reports of Unidentified Aerial Objects).” The report, written to determine “if ‘flying saucers’ represented technological developments not known to this country,” mainly provided explanations for why purported unidentified flying objects, were not, in fact, unidentified. The Air Force declassified the report in 1955, but many felt the cover up went deeper. One concerned citizen stated, “The government at Washington has evidence of the arrival of the space travelers to the earth, and it is serving no good purpose to refuse to confirm their arrival. The government’s confirmation would allay man’s fears concerning them and permit them to open their minds and hearts and welcome them, that we may profit by the new ideas they are bringing.”

UFOs were just one of hundreds of subjects Moss and his subcommittees investigated in all agencies and at all levels. But the Subcommittees never confirmed or denied the existence of UFOs; their purpose was to ensure that the public had the most information available to them.

Source: Records on flying saucers from the Special Subcommittee on Government Information, Committee on Government Operations, 86th Congress; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives, Washington, D.C.