The Secret History of Majestic 12
These purported UFO documents changed the course of the culture of UFO belief.
by Brian Dunning
July 19, 2016
The Majestic 12 documents are the Holy Bible of UFO enthusiasts. These documents, which appear to be declassified official US government memos written in 1947, confirm everything believed by many in the UFO community: that the United States knows all about aliens visiting the Earth in their flying saucers. Many say the documents are a hoax; others say the hoax claimants are all a part of the coverup. But no matter what's true, Majestic 12 has had a major impact on the entire course of UFO belief in popular culture. Today we're going to see if we can learn where they came from.
In December of 1984, a manila envelope dropped through the mail slot in the front door of Jaime Shandera, a writer and UFO researcher. It contained a roll of 35mm film. The postmark on the envelope told him little; it was from Albuquerque, New Mexico, but there was no return address or indication of who might have sent it or what it was. Shandera called his partner in UFO research, author Bill Moore. They developed the film, and found that each frame was a photograph of a page of a document. Printed out, it formed what's become known as the Majestic 12 documents, usually abbreviated MJ-12.
The document purported to be a memo written in 1952 by the director of the CIA, advising President Eisenhower of the existence of a group of twelve scientists and military officials who were assembled in 1947 on the orders of President Truman to investigate the crash of the flying saucer in Roswell. The memo advised the President of the importance of the Majestic 12 group, and suggested that the project be continued.
Moore and Shandera decided to keep the documents secret, sharing them only with a select few UFO researchers, including Stanton Friedman, the original author of the Roswell mythology. Word began to leak out to the UFO community that some documents existed, but Moore, Shandera, and Friedman weren't sharing. In 1986, an anonymous source described the documents to British UFO author Jenny Randles, but she declined them. In 1987, the documents were received anonymously by another British UFO author, Timothy Good. He published them in his book Above Top Secret. Moore realized the time for secrecy was past, and he went public with them at a UFO conference in June of that year. Suddenly everyone knew about MJ-12, and even the mainstream media reported on them.
Skeptical UFO author Philip Klass sent a copy of the documents to the FBI, which immediately investigated their authenticity. In their report dated December 1988, the FBI stated:
The Office of Special Investigations, US Air Force, advised on November 30, 1988, that the document was fabricated. Copies of that document have been distributed to various parts of the United States. The document is completely bogus.
Of course, even if the document was authentic, its widespread public availability might well persuade the government to claim that it is bogus. How is one to know? A useful exercise might be to look at the wider context in which the document was delivered to UFO authors.
Detractors of this show often accuse me of being a disinformation agent, employed by the Powers That Be to discredit and hide certain truths: paranormal abilities are real, alternative medicine is more effective than real medicine, conspiracy theories are real; pretty much whatever strange belief is their particular sacred cow. Our initial reaction to such charges is usually to roll our eyes and smile, but in fact, the deliberate spread of disinformation is a very real thing. It usually comes from national security, and is common in wartime. Propaganda is a type of disinformation. We've talked about a number of disinformation campaigns on Skeptoid in the past. During WWII, British military intelligence wanted to hide the existence of their airborne radar system that allowed British heavy fighters to be so successful against German nighttime bombing raids, so they put out a disinformation campaign explaining their extraordinary success by saying their pilots ate carrots to give them better night vision. During the cold war, such disinformation campaigns became profoundly important, as we were in the nuclear age, and espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union was a matter of life and death. So let's have a look at how UFO-related disinformation influenced the UFO movement.
Correction: An earlier version of this referenced the British ground-based radar, which it turns out was never secret from the Germans, instead of the airborne radar, which was. - BD
The profile of the typical UFO enthusiast has long remained consistent. He is a typically a middle aged white male, politically conservative, suspicious of the government, and intensely patriotic. He believes that the government is hiding information about UFOs and aliens, that this is immoral, and that this secrecy represents a threat to our freedom and our security. Given this profile, it's no surprise that UFO believers have a long history of staking out US Air Force bases and other locations where they believe the government is collaborating with aliens. In many cases, they have their cameras and their binoculars and hope to collect proof of this collaboration, to blow the cover and make this information public. They believe it is their moral, patriotic obligation to do so.
During the early days of the cold war, the Air Force became concerned that such UFO groups might conceivably collect actual sensitive information about classified Air Force capabilities. It stood to reason that Soviet spies — who were no dummies — might reasonably attempt to infiltrate such groups. It was perfectly plausible that the UFO groups on stakeout formed a pipeline of classified information to Soviet spies. And so in an ironic twist, the UFO groups, who intended to support national security by revealing what they thought was an alien threat, actually became the national security threat themselves.
This was a realistic threat. UFO groups tended to focus on Air Force facilities in the American southwest, such as Kirtland AFB and Holloman AFB in New Mexico, and of course the National Classified Test Facility in Nevada, better known as Area 51. Area 51 has long been where new and experimental designs are test flown, most notably the A-12 and SR-71 spy planes and the F-117A stealth fighter. Once they were tested and became operational, stealth fighters went into service at Holloman AFB even though they may still be classified. Kirtland doesn't fly experimental designs, but they did develop and test bombers modified to carry nuclear weapons and a number of other airborne systems. Without a doubt, the Air Force didn't want any photographers with long lenses camped out around those bases.
How was the Air Force to deal with this potential leak? They could have arrested the UFO guys, but among the various types of fallout that would create was the fact that such arrests would certify to any Soviet spies that the information was indeed valuable. Another way to deal with it was with disinformation, to discredit the UFO groups by persuading them that their observations did indeed pertain to aliens, and not to actual Air Force capabilities. Soviet spies were much less likely to take interest in claims of flying saucers than they were in film of American F-117A aircraft. So the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) developed a new expertise: Feeding made-up disinformation about aliens and UFOs to the UFO enthusiasts, indicating that the United States did indeed have deep relationships with aliens. In some cases, this information — which was exactly what the UFO groups salivated for — was actually provided in exchange for information about the UFO groups' movements and what data they may have collected.
In 1989, it had been almost five years since Bill Moore had been the second person to see the Majestic 12 documents. It surprised everyone when, at a MUFON conference (Mutual UFO Network), he publicly announced that for years, since even before he'd seen MJ-12, he had been doing such deals with the Air Force. He had been providing all sorts of information about his UFO peers to the AFOSI in exchange for the material that went into his books about UFOs. He believed he'd been given MJ-12 as a reward for his years of hard work spying on his UFO colleagues. Moore was regarded as a traitor and was despised for his complicity, and subsequently left the UFO community.
One of the actions Moore revealed became infamous. It was the case of Paul Bennewitz, owner of Thunder Scientific headquartered in Albuquerque, which built sensitive instrumentation for clients including the Air Force. Eavesdropping on the Air Force became an obsession with Bennewitz. Convinced that aliens were living inside Archuleta Mesa near Dulce, New Mexico, north of Kirtland AFB, Bennewitz flew his small plane around and took countless photographs of things he believed were alien, dutifully providing them to the Air Force as he felt was his civic duty. One day in 1985 he photographed a crashed delta-wing aircraft and reported it to Bill Moore, who in turn handed the pictures over to AFOSI. This was in the middle of the years from 1981 to 1988 when the F-117A, a delta-winged craft, was operating out of Holloman but was still a closely guarded secret. It was a real leak the Air Force had to discredit. They confirmed Bennewitz's suspicion that aliens were involved, scattered more wreckage and even built things for him to photograph, and gave him all sorts of stories about the underground aliens. Moore claimed that part of his job had been to drive the already-delusional Bennewitz into a full psychological breakdown, which eventually happened. Bennewitz had to be hospitalized, and lived the rest of his life as a recluse.
This was the environment into which the Majestic 12 documents suddenly appeared. The language in the FBI report is a little vague: "(The AFOSI) advised... that the document was fabricated", it doesn't necessarily mean they fabricated it, but it's generally taken to mean that. Regardless, whoever created the documents sent them to at least three prominent UFO authors until one finally made them public. They were written to be trumpeted far and wide.
During his 1989 confession to the MUFON conference, Bill Moore said:
Disinformation is a strange and bizarre game. Those who play it are completely aware that an operation's success is dependent upon dropping false information upon a target or 'mark', in such a way that the person will accept it as truth and will repeat, and even defend it to others as if it were true... Once the information is believed, the work of counterintelligence is complete. They can simply withdraw in the confidence that the dirty work of spreading their poisonous seeds will be done by others.
And true to form, the MJ-12 documents are still promoted to this day by many of the UFO faithful. They were classic disinformation, false documents created to play a role in real national security. They were designed and written for specific marks who did with them exactly what they were meant to. They took advantage of well-meaning patriots who wanted enhanced national security, and who, by being easy to fool, ended up providing exactly that.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Secret History of Majestic 12." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
19 Jul 2016. Web.
17 Jul 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4528>
References & Further Reading
FBI. "Majestic 12." FBI Records: The Vault. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Jul. 2016. <https://vault.fbi.gov/Majestic%2012/>
Frazier, K. The Hundredth Monkey: And Other Paradigms of the Paranormal. Buffalo: Prometheus, 1991.
Klass, P. "New Evidence of MJ-12 Hoax." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jan. 1990, Volume 14, Number 2: 135-140.
Nickell, J., Fischer, J. "The Crashed Saucer Forgeries." International UFO Reporter. 1 Mar. 1990, Spring 1990: 4-12.
Peebles, C. Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of Flying Saucer Myth. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Pilkington, M. Mirage Men. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2010.
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