extraordinary story of the half-million-dollar "trick"
to make Americans believe the Condon committee was conducting
an objective investigation
STRANGE SERIES of incidents in the University of Colorado
Unidentified Flying Objects study has led to a near-mutiny
by several of the staff scientists, the dismissal of two
Ph.D's on the staff and the resignation of the project's
study, announced as a totally objective scientific investigation
of one of the most puzzling phenomena of modern times,
has already cost the taxpayer over half a million dollars.
The committee is scheduled to release its report by the
end of the year.
announcement by the Secretary of Defense in October 1966,
that the Air Force had selected Dr. Edward U. Condon and
the University of Colorado for the UFO research contract
was welcomed both by skeptical observers and those convinced
of the existence of flying saucers.
Donald Keyhoe and his National Investigations Committee
on Aerial Phenomena, who were among the severest critics
of the Air Force's study, publicly announced cautious
support and offered NICAP's nation-wide UFO reporting
system to the new research group.
then 64, a distinguished physicist, former president of
both the American Association for the Advancement of Science
and the American Physical Society, had grappled with and
subdued the House Un-American Activities Committee, and
served as director of the U.S. Government's National Bureau
of Standards from 1945 to 1951. His leadership appeared
to promise pure scientific objectivity in the study. Only
two details seemed to disturb some observers. Four out
of the first five investigators appointed were psychologists.
And Robert J. Low, project coordinator and key operations
man in the study, held a master's degree in business administration
(although his bachelor's degree was in electrical engineering).
Some critics felt that more physical scientists were needed.
Condon assured them that the staff would become more balanced,
and later, it was.
project staff received a minor jolt early in October of
1966, when the Denver Post published a story: CU AIDE
SLAPS UFO STUDY Low was quoted as saying that the
UFO project "comes pretty close to the criteria of
non-acceptability" as a university function.
the massive problems of getting the project started left
little time for debate over that statement. Briefings
were held in which Dr. J. Allen Hynek, chairman of the
Department of Astronomy of Northwestern University and
one of the few scientists in the country who had given
UFOs serious study, gave the staff the background information
he had acquired in his 20 years as scientific consultant
for the Air Force. Later, such authorities as Major Keyhoe
and Richard Hall, from NICAP, Maj. Hector Quintanilla,
of the Air Force UFO study, and Dr. James McDonald, physicist
at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics and professor
in the Department of Meteorology at the University of
Arizona, addressed the group. McDonald had carried out
an extensive investigation on his own.
After examining the hundreds of well-documented reports
of sightings by military and airline pilots, radar operators,
police, technical observers and articulate, rational laymen,
McDonald rejected as highly unlikely such conventional
explanations for UFOs as ball lightning (plasma), hallucinations,
hoaxes and misinterpretations of natural phenomena. He
concluded that "only abysmally limited scientific
competence has been brought to the study of UFOs within
Air Force circles in the past 15 years. Unfortunately,
during all this time, the scientific community and the
public were repeatedly assured that substantial scientific
talent was being used...."
the beginning, the relationship between Dr. McDonald and
Robert Low, the project coordinator, was abrasive. Low,
who speaks softly, smoothly and guardedly, contrasts sharply
with McDonald, who is intense and bluntly articulate.
relationship between the Colorado group and NICAP was
especially important. NICAP was large and well-organized,
and could supply information on UFO sightings on a nationwide
scale. NICAP hoped that the Colorado group would retain
its scientific objectivity by concentrating on the estimated
ten percent of "high credibility" cases, such
as those Dr. McDonald was investigating.
first major turbulence in the new project came early in
February, 1967. Condon, burdened by heavy responsibilities
in many public and educational projects, could not spend
much time in the project offices. Low assumed the responsibilities
for most of the decision-making. But on January, 25, Condon,
known for his breezy, anecdotal style, spoke before a
chapter of Sigma Xi, the honorary scientific fraternity.
The Elmira, N.Y., Star-Gazette reported:
flying objects are not the business of the Air Force,"...
Dr. Edward U. Condon said here Wednesday night.... Dr.
Condon left no doubt as to his personal sentiments on
the matter: "It is my inclination right now to
recommend that the Government get out of this business.
My attitude right now is that there's nothing to it."
With a smile, he added, "but I'm not supposed
to reach a conclusion for another year..."
story also quoted Condon as saying: "What we're
always reduced to is interviewing persons who claim they've
had some kind of experience....I don't know of any cases
where the phenomenon was still there after the person
reports it... and it seems odd, but these people always
seem to wait until they get home before they report what
knew of cases where "the phenomenon was still there
after the person reported it," and where the observer
didn't wait to get home before he reported it. He bristled.
He knew that Condon had not yet investigated any field
cases personally, nor had any members of the staff completed
any meaningful research. The project was only three months
old. "I have to admit," Keyhoe told David
Saunders, a key staff member, "that I'm shocked
by these statements. Is this a scientific investigation
or isn't it?"
wrote Keyboe that some of his remarks had been taken out
of context. NICAP then issued this statement: "Although
we retain some reservations about the impressions of Dr.
Condon's attitudes conveyed through some press accounts,
we find no reason to go along with the skeptics who interpret
the project merely as the latest gambit in an Air Force
propaganda campaign. Having met most of the scientists
involved, we are generally satisfied with their fair-mindedness
and their thorough plans..."
NICAP cooperation made it possible to establish an Early
Warning System, and staff investigators were now being
dispatched for field reports. Saunders gave particular
attention to field surveys, as well as to the development
of a master casebook and staff discussions of major cases.
Low was giving the staff members considerable leeway in
the approach they were taking. Condon, with his office
some distance away, did not appear frequently, and some
of the staff felt that it was often frustrating to try
to reach him. During this time, it seemed to some of the
staff that several potentially interesting cases were
turned down for investigation by Low for what were apparently
scientific investigator, Dr. Norman Levine, joined the
project and immediately became aware of the strained atmosphere
developing between Low and several members of the staff.
Condon himself was heard to say that he wished the project
could give the money back.
senior member of the staff who was asked to make a speech
before a teachers association began looking for specific
details on the origin of the project. He was told that
he might find some information in the open-files folder
under the heading AIR FORCE CONTRACT AND BACKGROUND. The
relaxed open-file system was part of a general overall
policy to keep the project out of the cloak-and-dagger
category. (In a later memo, Low said:
key point to keep in mind, it seems to me, is that our
own files are not secure, they are not confidential, they
can't be kept confidential, nor should they be....It is
inconsistent with the purposes of a university to keep
confidential any records of research activity....or any
other records for that matter.")
staff member found most of the material about the contract
rather dull going, but one memo, written by Low to university
officials on August 9, 1966, contained a few fresh details.
The memo, labeled "Some Thoughts on the UFO Project,"
had been written before the contract was signed. In it,
Our study would be conducted almost exclusively by non-believers
who, although they couldn't possibly prove a negative
result, could and probably would add an impressive body
of evidence that there is no reality to the observations.
The trick would be, I think, to describe the project so
that, to the public, it would appear a totally objective
study but, to the scientific community, would present
the image of a group of nonbelievers trying their best
to be objective, but having an almost zero expectation
of finding a saucer. One way to do this would be to stress
investigation, not of the physical phenomena, but rather
of the people who do the observing - the psychology and
sociology of persons and groups who report seeing UFO's.
If the emphasis were put here, rather than on examination
of the old question of the physical reality of the saucer,
I think the scientific community would quickly get the
message....I'm inclined to feel at this early stage that,
if we set up the thing right and take pains to get the
proper people involved and have success in presenting
the image we want to present to the scientific community,
we could carry the job off to our benefit...."
Levine read the memo, he was disturbed by the word "trick"
and the phrase about making the investigation "appear
a totally objective study" to the public. Others
on the staff had a similar reaction.
staff members were also disturbed by the news that Condon
had decided to attend the June Congress of "Ufologists"
in New York. This was a convention of far-out supporters
of undocumented and highly colorful UFO sightings.
September 18, Condon, Low and Saunders met for the first
time in many weeks. As a result of his reading of the
memo, Saunders was deeply concerned about the negative
approach to the UFO problem. It would be easy, he felt,
to concentrate on the nut-and-kook cases and persuasively
eliminate any serious consideration of the real problem.
meeting went on for three hours. Low did most of the talking.
Condon seemed tired. Low's position was that Saunders
was sticking his nose into something that was none of
his business. Condon's position was that he didn't understand
what Saunders was talking about.
was led to believe that if by chance the Extra Terrestrial
Intelligence (ETI) hypothesis was substantiated, the announcement
would be sent by Condon directly to the Air Force and
the President, and never be allowed to go to the public.
This troubled him, because Saunders had been given a clear
understanding that the report would go first to the National
Academy of Sciences, then to the public and Air Force
simultaneously. Saunders felt he could not let the problem
drop. Another meeting was agreed to.
this point, Keyhoe suddenly sent word that NICAP was going
to take a strong stand against the Condon committee and
no longer would supply material and reports. The reason,
Keyhoe said, was a new speech made by Condon at the Atomic
Spectroscopy Symposium at Gaithersburg, Md., on September
13, 1967. A report of the new Condon speech had already
reached Dr. McDonald in a letter from a colleague at the
University of Arizona, William S. Bickel, assistant professor
of physics on the campus.
Dr. Condon's speech was funny and entertaining,"
Bickel wrote. "But to me, it was also disappointing
and surprising. Dr. Condon emphasized mostly funny things.
He told of an offer made to him by a contactee, who, for
a sizable sum deposited in the right bank, would introduce
him to a UFO crew. ... He told how he tracked the case
down and concluded that it was very likely a hoax.....
My feelings about UFOs are similar to those of many people
- I don't know what they are, I believe people are seeing
real things, and I believe a scientific attack on the
problem will solve the mystery - whatever they are.....
The net effect of Dr. Condon's talk was zero, if not negative...."
reply to Bickel, McDonald wrote, "..... The crackpots
are so immediately recognizable that one need not waste
any time at all on them.... I fail to understand why a
scientific group should be given an address by any member
of the Colorado team on the topic of the crackpot fringe...."
came from Keyhoe that he was drafting a long letter to
the Colorado study group, and NICAP would reconsider its
cooperation only if the answers to a list of questions
September 27, the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Col.) published
this headline: UFO RESEARCH CHIEF AT CU DISENCHANTED.
Condon was quoted as saying: "I'm almost inclined
to think such studies ought to be discontinued unless
someone comes up with a new idea on how to approach the
problem.... The 21st century may die laughing when it
looks back on many things we have done. This [the UFO
study] may be one."
majority of the staff began exploring several proposals,
including the possibility of the entire staff resigning
en masse or issuing a press release or a minority report.
Another proposal was the establishment of an independent
scientific group to explore the rational sighting reports
and eliminate the crackpot-fringe static. There was general
agreement that an objective study of the UFO problem should
be made and that accurate and unbiased findings should
reach the National Academy of Sciences, the public and
the Air Force. A confrontation with Low and Condon was
arranged. Condon expressed regret that his statements
had appeared in the press. Several members of the staff
told of their concern that the content and form of the
final report would reflect what they now felt was Condon's
and Low's prejudice and would be unjustifiably negative.
Staff members speculated that Condon was tired as well
as disenchanted. He remained an enigma because the staff
saw so little of him.
an informal meeting in Denver on December 12, 1967, Saunders,
Levine, McDonald and Hynek agreed that a new organization
might be formed consisting only of professional-level
members, designed to assure the continuation of intelligent
UFO study regardless of whether the Condon report were
negative or positive. After Hynek left, McDonald first
became aware of Low's memo, and expressed his shock.
January 19, 1968, Low phoned McDonald at the University
of Arizona. McDonald reminded Low of the clearly negative
tone of Condon's public statements over a period of time,
including Condon's disturbing preoccupation with the crackpot
elements. He also brought up Condon's failure to investigate
personally significant field cases or to question any
of the working staff who had been making a serious UFO
study. McDonald stressed that he was not opposed to negative
findings. What bothered him was that negative findings
were already being clearly expressed by both Low and Condon.
Low hung up in anger. McDonald prepared a long letter
to Low to review his complaints. Low did not get around
to reading the letter until February 6. In it, McDonald
mentioned for the first time his concern about the memo,
quoting to Low the phrases about "the trick."
"I am rather puzzled by the viewpoints expressed
there," McDonald wrote, "but I gather
that they seem entirely straightforward to you, else this
part of the record would, presumably, not be available
for inspection in the open Project files...."
Mary Louise Armstrong, who had worked directly with Low
as his administrative assistant, was in the office as
Low finished reading the letter. Low exploded. He said
that whoever gave the memo to McDonald should be fired
immediately. Then he seemed to cool down.
Wednesday, February 7, Saunders was summoned to Condon's
office. Low and Condon were present. The questioning focused
on the memo. Did Saunders know of it and know where it
was kept? Saunders said that the memo was only part of
the whole problem. It alone did not seem especially important,
he felt. The broader issues of scientific integrity were
at stake. Condon, furious that he had not immediately
been informed that McDonald knew of the memo, told Saunders,
"For an act like that, you ought to be ruined
countered by saying that Condon and Low seemed to be treating
the symptoms rather than the disease. He reminded them
of the efforts of the entire staff to get Low and Condon
to modify their intractable stance. He reviewed the long
sequence of events and reminded Low that he had blocked
the investigation of one particularly startling UFO case.
Low protested that the investigation on this was completed.
No mention was made of any dissatisfaction with Saunders's
Levine was summoned while Saunders was still in Condon's
office. Saunders offered to stay. Low rose from his chair
and physically ushered him out the door. Levine was unnerved
by the forcible ejection of Saunders. Again, the questioning
went straight to the memo. Levine said that he was at
the Denver meeting when the memo was given to McDonald.
He understood there was nothing whatever confidential
about the memo, and did not see anything wrong with the
action. Condon asked why Levine had not brought the memo
to him, and Levine said that Condon's public and private
statements had indicated that there was little likelihood
of effective communication. He told Condon that Low had
slammed the door in his face when he brought up the handling
by Low of an Edwards Air Force Base case, and recalled
that Condon himself had suggested that Levine call in
sick when he was scheduled to make a talk at Colorado's
High Altitude Observatory.
accused him of being disloyal and treacherous, and Levine
replied that loyalty to a scientific goal might take precedence
over personal loyalty. Condon asked why Levine didn't
invite him to come over and investigate the important
cases. Levine indicated that he did not feel it was his
place to invite the chief scientist of the project over.
The questioning lasted about an hour. Condon dismissed
Armstrong had joined the project at its inception with
no convictions whatever about UFOs. By February, 1967,
she was convinced that the study was being gravely misdirected.
When, on February 7, 1968, Condon told her that he was
going to fire Saunders and Levine the next day, Mrs. Armstrong's
first impulse was to resign immediately. But she then
decided first to confront Condon with what she regarded
as clear, unassailable documentation of the factors behind
the disagreement and low morale of the staff.
talked to Condon on February 22, 1968, at his office.
She told him frankly that there appeared to be an almost
unanimous lack of confidence in the project coordinator
and his scientific direction of the project. She pointed
out that Low had indicated little interest in talking
to those who carried out the investigations or in reading
their reports. She said that her long, close association
with Low gave strong evidence that he was trying very
hard to say as little as possible in the final report,
and to say that in the most negative way possible. At
Condon's request, she wrote a follow-up letter in which
she added that the tone of the memo indicated that Low
was not unbiased from the beginning. Condon then wrote
her: "My position is that that letter is a confidential
matter between the two of us and that for you to disclose
it to anyone else would be gravely unethical."
But after long consideration, Mrs. Armstrong felt that
it was more important to the public interest to state
her feelings clearly.
others who left the project also felt they had an obligation
to speak out, and when Condon failed to respond positively
to his outspoken letter of criticism, McDonald brought
the matter before the executive officers of the National
Academy of Sciences in a vigorous written protest. Saunders
and Levine cleared their desks at Woodbury Hall and left.
about the near-mutiny in the investigating staff, Condon
said that he would make no comment. Low stated that he
had absolutely "zero comment" to make about
the dismissals. Thurston Manning, vice president and dean
of the faculties of the University of Colorado, delivered
word through his secretary that he had nothing to say.
Scott Tyler, in charge of public relations for the university,
said that he had no comment.
hope that the establishment of the Colorado study brought
with it has dimmed. All that seems to be left is the $500,000