INVASION! (of privacy)

Today’s post comes from Joseph Gillette, an archivist on a cross-training assignment with the National Archives History Office. It is part of a series concerning the Air Force’s Project Blue Book investigation.

Pages from RG341 NN-375-209
Offer of transfer of Air Force documentation related to Project Blue Book, March 31, 1975. (Records of Headquarters United States Air Force, National Archives)

In the mid-1970s, the National Archives prepared to absorb the records of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, as well as its precursors, Project Sign and Project Grudge.

The purpose of these projects was to investigate the increasing number of unidentified flying object (UFO) sightings throughout America and determine their nature and any potential threat.

While Sign and Grudge were short-lived (1947–51), Blue Book lasted from 1952 to 1970. Meant to replace the previous projects, whose mandates and conclusions were considered tainted by predetermined bias, Blue Book was to investigate the UFO phenomenon with something approaching scientific rigor.

By the time Blue Book ended, America had gone through the tumult of the civil rights era and protests against the Vietnam War. Americans were increasingly skeptical of their government and, in particular, the military. Sensing the public’s mood, the Air Force was eager to release as much as possible from Blue Book.

Pages from RG341 NN-375-209-2
“Appraisal Report on Transfer Offer,” June 19, 1975. (Records of Headquarters United States Air Force, National Archives)

For the National Archives, ingesting and making publicly available such a collection of records created unique challenges. In particular, privacy agreements were typically included as part of the process of interviewing witnesses. The Air Force raised this issue in the initial offer of records.

It was reiterated in more detail in an Intraservice Memorandum and Endorsement of August 25, 1975:

Pages from RG341 NN-375-209-3
Intraservice Memorandum and Endorsement, August 25, 1975. (Records of Headquarters United States Air Force, National Archives)

This was an immediate point of concern for the National Archives. Appraisers suggested three alternatives to deal with these privacy matters—have a sample sent to the National Archives Building to establish the nature and degree of interspersion of restricted information, have Archives staff view the records when they complete the survey of records, or waive the formal appraisal and bring all the records in directly.

The June 19, 1975, appraisal report raised the issue again.

Pages from RG341 NN-375-209-4
“Appraisal Report on Transfer Offer,” June 19, 1975. (Records of Headquarters United States Air Force, National Archives)

Ultimately, it was the appraiser’s recommendation that “Despite restrictions, the records should be transferred to the National Archives. These records provide documentation relating to a unique and baffling phenomenon and how one agency chose to approach it.”

By August 26, 1975, Garry Ryan, chief of the Military Projects Branch, Military Archives Division, was already reporting resistance on the part of potential researchers to the suggested access restrictions:

Pages from RG341 NN-375-209-5
Interservice Memorandum and Endorsement, August 26, 1975, (Records of Headquarters United States Air Force, National Archives)

His suggestion was to work with the Air Force to resolve the matter of access: “The problem of access is not NARS’ [National Archives and Records Service] alone. The Air Force is at least as deeply involved. Their help should be solicited with any hesitation on NARS part. We should not formally accession the records until we have received some firm promise of help in this matter. We are more likely to get Air Force help now than at a later time–another reason for not sending the records back to the Air Force.”

Another Intraservice Memorandum and Endorsement, this time from August 25, went into greater detail concerning the extent and nature of the personally identifiable information, with a recommendation for how to deal with it:

Even so, there was still apprehension about researchers potentially appealing the deletion of names, leading to a request for the Office of Legal Counsel to ask for help from GSA’s legal council.

In addition, the National Archives undertook a time study to try and determine how long it might take to redact names and other assorted personally identifiable information. They determined that each box would require 11 hours of archives technician time and 15 hours of archivist time. For all 137 boxes the entire project would take 1,500 hours of archives technician, and about 2,050 hours of archivist time!

By September 4, the records were in the possession of the National Archives. James O’Neill, Acting Archivist of the United States, wrote to the Acting Chief of the Office of Air Force History requesting a partnership in making these records publicly accessible:

By October 8, the Air Force had agreed to send four people for three months to screen Blue Book case files. If they did not complete the work after three months, another four individuals would be sent.

At this point, the Archives established the photocopying regimen prior to the arrival of the Air Force reviewers. In November, the Archives received some welcome news from the office of the Air Force Judge Advocate General reducing the amount of information requiring redaction. Certain categories of persons who made UFO sighting reports would not be deleted, including military personnel who made reports in the line of duty, civilian employees of federal, state, and local governments who made reports in the line of duty, and Ground Observer Corps personnel who made reports while acting in their capacity as volunteer sky watchers for the Air Force.

On the same day, NARA received the official offer of transfer of these records from the Air Force to the National Archives, including instructions for the withholding of personally identifiable information.

By the spring of 1976, screening was complete and NARA was preparing to open the redacted records to an eager public.

So . . . what stories do these records tell? Do they recount obvious natural phenomena misinterpreted by witnesses? Stories concocted to garner publicity and attention? Instances of imagination energized by Cold War hysteria?

Or, possibly, tales of alien visitations to our world?

A closer look at the records themselves will be forthcoming in Part II of this post!

Read the entire report from the Records of Headquarters United States Air Force.

Do our records show proof of UFOs? Read Kerri Lawrence’s article in National Archives News

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