Somewhere in my files, I have a handout from a long-ago planetarium program I went to as a kid. It’s a form to fill out when you spot an unidentified flying object.

I also have a 1956 book on my shelf titled, “They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers,” about how prominent UFO researchers were being silenced by mysterious men in black suits. I once attended a UFO convention in Connecticut, where visitors were greeted by a menacing plastic statue of a towering, gray-skinned extraterrestrial.

The UFO expert who invited me to the conference said he didn’t like to call them aliens. He preferred the term “visitors.”

My fascination with UFOs has vaporized since then. But a certain slice of the public remains deeply interested in the idea that space creatures could be flying the skies above us and occasionally snatching people for invasive experiments.

Government secrecy plays a big role in propagating wild theories of alien landings and coverups. When the government goes to great lengths to hide what it’s doing, people fill in the blanks with alien monsters.

Earlier this month, Politico and the New York Times simultaneously reported that the Pentagon ran a secret, $20 million program to investigate “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Pilots were seeing strange aircraft doing seemingly impossible maneuvers. A big campaign donor who’s also a believer in extraterrestrial visits persuaded then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to launch the program in 2009 with an obscure appropriation.

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program was led by a career intelligence officer. The program petered out in 2012, and its leader resigned in frustration, in part over the program’s excessive secrecy.

The Pentagon did not acknowledge the program until this month, after reporters had already confirmed its existence.

Then there’s Area 51. That’s the CIA’s supersecret testing range on a 3 million-acre military reserve in the Nevada desert. Many UFO buffs believe the remains of outer space visitors may have ultimately been taken to Area 51 after their spacecraft crashed near Roswell, N.M., in 1947. Why else would the government try so hard to keep human visitors away?

Over the years, Area 51 popped up in the news as the training ground for the troops who took part in President Jimmy Carter’s bungled effort to rescue the Iran hostages in 1980. In 1997, the U.S. Air Force tried to debunk the “Roswell Incident” with a 232-page report that said it was an experimental balloon, not a flying saucer, that crashed. Any supposed alien bodies were actually “anthropomorphic test dummies.” As for Area 51, though, the Air Force brass said they couldn’t talk about it.

It took a Freedom of Information Act request from the National Security Archive, a research organization based at George Washington University, to persuade the CIA to acknowledge the existence of Area 51.

That happened in 2013.

Now the CIA has a web page devoted to Area 51. It’s where the agency developed the U-2 spy plane, and its description makes no reference whatever to extraterrestrials. It does playfully allude to the mystique created by its penchant for secrecy: “Have you ever wanted to see Area 51 with your own eyes?” it says, and links to a YouTube video made in 1960 for families of workers detailed to Area 51.

Can we trust that the CIA isn’t hiding something else in Area 51? Perhaps gray-skinned aliens pickled in a vat?

I’m not throwing away my UFO form just yet.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.