The CIA and the Actual X-Files

In the early 1990s, Fox was a broadcast network barely removed from its first fledgling years. In contrast to more mainstream comedies and dramas on the Big Three networks, offbeat shows like The Simpsons and In Living Color were Fox's primetime bread and butter. Fox became a bonafide contender in 1993, thanks to a deal with the NFL and the sci-fi drama The X-Files.

Some of my best childhood TV memories were of The X-Files' first season. Although it wasn't a solid ratings hit until the following year, my family managed to find it. And every week, we gathered to watch suspenseful tales of sci-fi, horror and the paranormal. At some point along the way, after the first film was released, I stopped watching.

A few weeks ago, I resumed. From the beginning. If you haven't watched The X-Files in years, now is a great time to start. The show is available in its entirety on Netflix, and thanks to a recent rescan, it's in HD, beautifully restored and color-corrected. I'm also really enjoying actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani's podcast The X-Files Fileswhich offers great commentary on major episodes and interviews with some of the show's key creative forces. All of this is in preparation to watch the new revival on Fox, which brought back David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

But I'm not here to talk about any of that. I want to talk about the actual X-Files.

Declassified photos taken in Sheffield, England. March 4, 1962.

In 1978, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified a trove of documents related to Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). Many of them were no doubt known to the writers of The X-Files, who chose to make extraterrestrial-related governmental conspiracy the backbone of their classic series. These documents are now available online here, provided directly on the CIA's official website.

This report from 1952 details the sworn, eyewitness testimony of a German man named Oscar Linke. He described an incident near Hasselbach, Germany, which was in the Soviet-controlled portion of the country following World War II. After his motorcycle blew a tire, Linke was walking towards the town when he spotted two men "in some shiny metallic clothing." As he approached them, he saw a large object lying on the ground that looked like a "huge frying pan."

"There were two rows of holes on its periphery, about thirty centimeters in circumference," Linke testified under oath. "The space between the two rows was about 0.45 meters. On top of this metal object was a black conical tower about three meters high." He went on to describe how the object began to spin, rising from the ground.

My first reaction is to cast Linke as a kook eager for his fifteen minutes of fame. But Linke was the former mayor of Gleimershausen, and his testimony was detached and detailed. I don't think Linke actually saw an extraterrestrial vessel, but it's possible he saw something that was a closely held secret of the Soviets. Perhaps some technology crafted in a wartime German laboratory that never saw combat.

Taken over Minneapolis, Minnesota. October 20, 1960.

"Over Badalona, about 10 kilometers away, the object stopped trailing smoke," reads another declassified document. "It disappeared for a few seconds, and reappeared, again emitting smoke, several kilometers farther away."

That testimony was offered by Valentin Garcia in May of 1952. It was one of seven contained in this document, all pointing to some activity over Spain and Northern Africa. The dates were May 22, June 4, June 11 and June 16. The locations were near Barcelona, Tunesia, Morocco and Casablanca.

The majority of my exposure to events believed to be extraterrestrial involves American sites: Roswell, Los Angeles, Mississippi and Arizona. Though these international incidents occurred a half-world away, they describe sightings that are eerily familiar. True believers would say the similarities support the existence of alien life. After all, how could a hoax that spans the globe be so well executed that it fools the CIA?

Earlier that same year on March 29, flying saucers were reportedly seen over uranium mines in the Belgian Congo. "Both discs hovered in one spot and then took off in a unique zigzag flight to the northeast," one declassified document states, sourcing a Commander Pierre. "A penetrating hissing and buzzing sound was audible to the onlookers below."

Commander Pierre of the small Elisabethville airfield pursued the discs in a fighter plane, coming close enough to describe them and estimate their size and rate of speed. "The inner core remained absolutely still, and a knob coming out from the center and several small openings could plainly be seen. The outer rim was completely veiled in fire and must have had an enormous speed of rotation," the report states. It also includes hand-drawn schematics of the discs' estimated dimensions, which you can check out here on the CIA's website.

                    Another fictional story set in Casablanca.

These are but a handful of official documents kept classified for over two decades. There's a massive treasure trove of alien and UFO-related documents dumped into the public domain thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA hosts these documents online here at cia.gov. The question is: why do they exist at all? True believers would say that they are evidence of the truth. That truth, of course, being that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth. I agree that they are evidence of the truth, but not the truth that Mulder wants to believe.

I'm open to the possibility that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe and will remain so for the rest of my life. But immediately following that concession to the Lone Gunmen of the world is a recognition of the extraordinarily low probability that first, extraterrestrial life exists, and second, it has travelled across the universe to visit Earth. The range of possible planetary configurations necessary to permit life is, quite literally, astronomically low. Take that in. Astronomically low. We use that phrase figuratively everyday to describe events and outcomes that are unlikely. Here, I'm using it literally. The probability that aliens have visited earth is not only low, it is the benchmark of low probability, hovering just above actually impossible.

     Travis Walton's alleged abduction, as depicted in "Fire in the Sky"

That last paragraph may have read like I'm tapdancing around reality, but I think it's a coherent and clear position. It's also one shared by many in the scientific community, including cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who has mused many times on the matter. In a speech entitled "Life in the Universe" Hawking says: "What are the chances that we will encounter some alien form of life, as we explore the galaxy. If the argument about the time scale for the appearance of life on Earth is correct, there ought to be many other stars, whose planets have life on them. Some of these stellar systems could have formed 5 billion years before the Earth. So why is the galaxy not crawling with self designing mechanical or biological life forms? Why hasn't the Earth been visited, and even colonised. I discount suggestions that UFO's contain beings from outer space. I think any visits by aliens, would be much more obvious, and probably also, much more unpleasant."

Hawking goes on to state, "Maybe the probability of life spontaneously appearing is so low, that Earth is the only planet in the galaxy, or in the observable universe, in which it happened. Another possibility is that there was a reasonable probability of forming self-reproducing systems, like cells, but that most of these forms of life did not evolve intelligence."

With the acceptance that actual alien visitations are an exceedingly low probability, what truth then is contained within these declassified documents? I think the answer is much more terrestrial. In looking at these documents, we're inspecting trees and trying to guess what kind of forest they comprise. There's no need to look across the known universe into the unknown universe to find it. We need to look only at the post-war political climate.

Although the USSR and the USA were allied against Germany and the Axis powers during World War II, they were only united by common enemies. After the second world war ended, the Cold War began. Germany was divided into territories managed by the Americans, the Soviets, the British and the French. Berlin itself was divided into different zones. The documents I reference in this blog post are from that post-war era, where former allies were trying to decide if they would become enemies or remain mere rivals. That decision-making process lasted for decades.

The Central Intelligence Agency played an important role during the Cold War. In many ways, it was at the vanguard of the chilly conflict. In a war that was entirely fought through proxies and through information campaigns, misinformation was a powerful weapon. A cheap and effective way of creating just enough uncertainty in a rival to prevent, or at least postpone, action. If one were to, say, manufacture an extraordinary event where eyewitnesses observed a display of extremely advanced technology, and then arrange for that event to be covered in the local papers, it would most certainly end up on the radars of rivals. And if one of the eyewitnesses was the former mayor of Gleimershausen, it would have to be at least moderately credible. Enough to postpone action.

Another photo released by the CIA

Another photo released by the CIA

How would Soviet officials react to reports in newspapers about displays of advanced technologies? Their reaction would likely be very similar to ours. We read an incredible report and decide it is just that: incredible. They would assume that it is not a highly improbable event like a visit from extraterrestrials. They would assume it was a more probable event. Advanced technology their rivals kept as a closely held secret. They would assume it was the United States, testing stealth technology.

And if you were the United States, what would be the easiest way to push your rivals back into a defensive posture? Would it be to actually create advanced technology that would intimidate them? Or would it be to simply launch a misinformation campaign in the local papers? You could even create "classified" documents that bore the authentic stamp of the CIA, with the intention of leaking them to the Soviets. 

Mulder and Scully were right about one thing: the truth is out there. Whether I've landed on it or not, we can continue to debate as new information comes to light.

The X-Files revival is now airing on Fox. And catch up on the original series, now streaming on Netflix.