Wilbert Smith is an iconic figure in the history of ufology. To question him or his claims, at least to many "established" ufologists, is the equivalent of heresy. Charges of character assassination are almost certain to follow, as evidenced by Stan Friedman's May 2005 MUFON Journal column, where he predictably, if erroneously, claimed that I attempt to "discredit Smith with character assassination."
Talk about shooting the messenger...
Unfortunately, the pro-Smith ufologists have a penchant for ignoring the facts about Smith, and his "work" involving the UFO phenomenon.
Why, you might ask, won't they make an objective, honest appraisal of the Smith story?
Because it provides critical support for those who believe in the Holy Trinity of modern ufological conspiracy theory:
(a) The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (of which, hard as it may be for some to accept, I am a cautious advocate);
(b) The Cosmic Watergate / Conspiracy of Silence (ie. the government cover-up of crashed flying saucers); and
(c) Majestic-12 (Smith reported, after all, that he had been told by Dr. Robert Sarbacher that "concentrated effort" was being made by a small group under Dr. Vannevar to determine the "modus operandi" of flying saucers - this "small group," to some, referred to MJ-12).
Instead of critically examining the evidence to draw objective, reasoned conclusions, these pro-Smith ufologists have used it to fit their own pre-exisiting conclusions about the nature of the UFO phenomenon. It is the triumph of belief over logic.
Take, for example, Smith's "UFO research station" at Shirley's Bay, which Smith established a few miles west of Ottawa in October, 1953, and news of which had leaked to the public via the media just weeks later (so much for "Top Secret").
On 17 May, 1955, Smith (below) appeared before the House of Commons Special Committee on Broadcasting in Ottawa. He was not, however, testifying alone. Smith, who at the time was senior radio regulations engineer (in other words, a mid level civil servant), was there as an aide to G. C. Browne, the Controller of Telecommunications (Department of Transport), as were two other men who worked under Browne, C. M. Brent, Superintendent of Radio Regulations (Smith's immediate superior), and F. K. Foster, the radio inspector who had been responsible for preparing the presentation to the Committee.
Despite what some ufologists would have you believe, the session that Smith attended had absolutely nothing to do with UFOs. Rather, it dealt with the relatively mundane world of television broadcasting, the licensing of stations, the discussion of the report for 1953-54 for "Technical Development in Broadcasting Regulations," and so forth - in other words, the stuff that the government of Canada paid Smith to work on.
Here is an example of one "riveting" exchange:
Q. In all of those stations mentioned on pages 24, 25 and 26 - can you tell us whether any of them applied for a greater strength than that for which they were eventually licensed?
A. The Windsor station is one example. It was necessary to restrict the power in a certain direction in order to meet with Unites States requirements, that is, the Federal Communications Commission's requirements.
Q. In other words, station CKLW television was given a lower strength than it applied for because there would have been some complication over the treaty otherwise?
A. That is right.
And so it went for quite a while, until a question was asked of Browne about a station in Kitchener, Ontario, and what was being done to limit its signal. At this point, Browne asked Smith, who hadn't said a word so far, to answer (Smith had more specific knowledge of this particular question). Smith complied. The discussion then turned to the question of signal interference, which Smith handled as well. In the course of that discussion, Jean-Louis Richard, a Liberal M.P. representing Ottawa East, asked:
"I would like to ask a question on the subject of interference. As members of the committee know the passing of an aeroplane overhead upsets the picture appearing on television screens. Is that interference due to the aeroplane, or to something passing in front of the wave?"
Smith responded: "The answer that I can give to that question is rather a complicated one because the wave from a television station behaves very much like a ray of light. It travels a path which is very nearly a straight line. Ordinarily the wave from a television station proceeds in a straight line directly to the antennae of the receiver set. If however, an aeroplane is passing overhead, some of the radiation from the television station strikes the aeroplane and is reflected back. That wave will arrive at the receiving point either in phase or out of phase, so it will either add to or subtract from the picture according to the relative length of the path between the transmitter, the aeroplane and the receiver, and that is really what causes the flutter in the image on the screen,"
After this lengthy answer, Richard asked, out of the blue:
"Thank you, Mr. Smith. I understand you were in charge of "Flying Saucers" around here for a while."
Smith answered: "That is correct."
Richard followed up with "Do you think flying saucers are interfering with our television?"
Smith replied: "No, I do not think you can blame them for that."
We'll never know for sure, as there are no recordings of the proceedings, but I have no doubt that Richard was smiling when he asked these questions - and Smith may well have been smiling when he answered them. Richard was a member of the governing party, but he was a backbencher. First elected in 1945, he never held a cabinet post in his 27 years in the House of Commons (he retired as an M.P. in 1972 - see www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/people/key/bio.asp?lang=E&query=1589&s=M). For permanent backbenchers like him, committee work is all to which they could hope to aspire. Unfortunately for them, as anyone who has ever watched parliamentary committee proceedings on television knows, these committees are often very dull work. The Special Committee on Broadcasting in 1955 was no different (as the transcripts reveal, in mind-numbing detail). Richard, who was M.P. for a riding only miles away from where Smith's Shirley's Bay "UFO observation post" had been located, decided to inject a little levity in the proceedings, something which M.P.'s do from time to time (again, watch committee proceedings on television). This should be clear from the question he asked - "are flying saucers interfering with our televisions" - and even Smith's response - "no, I don't think you can blame them for that."
As soon as Smith had given his answer, the questioning returned to more serious matters, apropos of the committee's brief. If the question had been serious, one would have expected immediate follow-ups, and yet there were none. Indeed, the next question, presumably asked after everyone had a brief chuckle, was simply: "Mr. Smith, you said in answer to Mr. Flemming's question that television from hamilton is received very well in Toronto. That means that this private station in Hamilton is received in all of Toronto?"
In other words - back to work.
The questions continued along these lines for a while, and then Donald Flemming, Progressive Conservative M.P. for Eglinton (an Ontario riding), interjected:
"May I bring the committee back to the interesting question of flying saucers?"
The Chairman replied, sensibly: "I remind you that we are discussing television broadcasting; however, I do not bar the question."
The following exchange ensued:
"Mr. Flemming: How long did you carry on this operation before you decided that this was causing no interference with television or radio reception?
Smith: Well, the operation was not carried out for that purpose. It was intended to gain any knowledge that might be available to us; it was not necessarily for television or radio.
Mr. Flemming: I appreciate that, but when was it that you decided that it did not interfere with television or radio broadcasting?
Smith: We operated a station for making certain measurements out at Shirley's Bay from August of 1953 to about the same time in 1954, and on the basis of our measurements, which were nil, we came to the conclusion we had very little data of any nature to go on.
Mr. Flemming: When was the decision taken to close that station, and why?
Smith: We were not getting anywhere with it. In the beginning we thought it would run for a year, but we got nowhere with it, so we closed it down.
Mr. Flemming: The closing down came in the fall of 1954?
Smith: That is right."
The questioning then moved on to a different topic, and no more was heard about flying saucers.
So what was this exchange about? Did it demonstrate genuine interest in the subject of UFOs?
Richard, in asking his original questions about flying saucers to provide a moment of levity, had made a major tactical mistake. He opened the door for the Opposition to ask some serious questions about the nature of Smith's work, questions which, depending upon the answers given, could be used to attack and / or embarrass the government later.
Unlike Richard, who was simply a government backbencher, marking time on just another committee, Flemming, a leading member of the Progressive Conservatives, the Opposition party, was an important M.P. Already a senior critic within the Tory caucus, he would go on to serve as Finance Minister from 1957, when the Tories returned to power, until he took over as Minister of Justice and Attorney General in 1962, a post he held until the Diefenbaker government fell in 1963 (see www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/people/key/bio.asp?lang=E&query=15100&s=M). Unlike Richard's questions, Flemming's were clearly designed to get Smith to admit that the "research" had nothing to do with Smith's actual job at Transport, and to get information as to whether any information at all had been gathered from the work, and how long the station at Shirley's Bay had been in operation.
This was a set-up by Flemming, as a member of the opposition, to lay the groundwork for later questions in a far more important forum - the House of Commons - that would embarrass the government (that is, after all, what Opposition M.P.'s spend most of their time doing).
Leaving these Parliamentary machinations aside for a moment, ufologists should also note the answers given by Smith. Unlike his brief exchange with Richard, Smith took Flemming's questions seriously, and gave an honest reply:
"on the basis of the measurements, which were nil, we came to the conclusion we had very little data of any nature to go on; and
We were not getting anywhere with it."
Despite what some might want to believe, this was the real truth behind the Shirley's Bay "UFO Observation Station."
While some ufologists maintain that Smith was simply covering up what really happened at Shirley's Bay (which, as illustrated above, was hardly a "top secret" operation), or that he had been ordered to keep silent about the truth, the facts speak otherwise. Smith could not have been expecting these questions - when they arose, he answered forthrightly, even correcting Flemming as to the nature of the work at Shirley's Bay. He wasn't, in other words, hiding anything. Indeed, if Smith had been part of a cover-up, here was a perfect opportunity to bury the Shirley's Bay story by simply agreeing with Flemming that the station had been operated primarily to monitor interference in radio and television signals, that the reported work on "flying saucers" had been exaggerated, and that it hadn't discovered anything. Smith, however, undoubtedly knew that it would have been a serious matter to lie in front of a parliamentary committee - the kind of thing that could get a civil servant fired, or worse - much to the later chagrin of the government.
By answering honestly, Smith gave the opposition Tories, who knew that the end was near for the governing Liberals (the Liberals had been in power since 1935, and were rapidly running out of gas), yet another opportunity to attack and / or embarrass the government on the best possible issue - the expenditure of public funds.
In short, Smith, a mid level civil servant in the Department of Transport, and a man with a personal interest in UFOs, had become, as Bob Dylan famously wrote, "only a pawn in their game."
The result would lead to an embarrassment for the government - and the truth about Smith's "UFO research."
To be continued...