Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Oh Canada - Wilbert Smith & UFOs

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Other Side of Truth: Separating Fact and Fiction in the Study of the UFO Phenomenon (alas, the notes do not appear here):

In 1950 Dr. Robert I. Sarbacher, a distinguished American scientist, claimed to Canadian government engineer Wilbert Smith that the "facts reported" in Frank Scully's 1950 best-seller Behind the Flying Saucers were "substantially correct." When asked by Smith if the UFOs were extraterrestrial in nature, Sarbacher replied, "All we know is we didn’t make them, and it’s pretty certain they didn’t originate on the earth." When Smith inquired as to the classification level assigned to flying saucers, Sarbacher answered, "It is classified two points higher even than the H-bomb. In fact it is the most highly classified subject in the US government at the present time."

At first glance, this seems pretty definitive. Skeptics have quibbled over the years that Sarbacher’s account is second-hand testimony, which is borne out by Sarbacher himself, who, in confirming Smith’s memo to UFO Crash at Aztec author William Steinman in 1983, added that he had never personally seen any aliens, or wreckage, or anything else to do with crashed flying saucers. "Relating to my own experience regarding recovered flying saucers," he wrote. "I had no association with any of the people involved in the recovery and have no knowledge of the dates of the recoveries." However, it is important to note that he then went on to state that "I did receive some official reports when I was in my office at the Pentagon" and that "I had been invited to participate in several discussions associated with the reported recoveries." He also told Steinman, Stanton Friedman, and Dr. Bruce Maccabee that he had been offered a chance to view wreckage and bodies at Wright Patterson Air Force base, but had been unable to go.

This revelation is cited over and over again as evidence that UFOs are extraterrestrial in nature, and that the American government is covering up the truth about them. Stanton Friedman called it "amazing" and concluded that the "value of the testimony by Sarbacher and Smith is in the substantiating of rumours of the involvement of Wright Field as a place where materials and / or bodies were located, at least temporarily... [Sarbacher’s] stature makes the confirmation of government knowledge of crashed UFOs more impressive than any previous testimony." Timothy Good called the Smith memo "one of the most important official documents on UFOs ever released." Canadian researcher Grant Cameron has used Smith’s memo as the starting point in the construction of a theory that Canada was involved in Top Secret research into flying saucers in the 1950s.

But is any of this true?

First, one has to examine what resulted in Canada because of this supposedly "amazing" memo. Contrary to what some ufologists have claimed, there has never been any evidence put forward of a Top Secret UFO study program created under the auspices of the Canadian government as a result of the Smith memo. Instead we have Project Magnet, a part-time project, which was undertaken by Smith from 1951 until 1954. A few resources were provided by the Canadian government, but it was not given much serious consideration by Smith’s superiors, and was shut down when its existence was revealed to the public and became an embarrassment for the government. Dr. Omond Solandt, who was the first Chairman of the Canadian Defence Research Board, from 1947 until 1956, explained that, while Canadian scientists often informally discussed the subject of UFOs, including with American counterparts like Solandt’s friend Vannevar Bush, Smith’s work was "never really classified top secret, or anything else", and that "he never had any institutional base which gave him authority to classify a document. He just put TOP Secret on his personal papers." Solandt went on to state that while the Defence Research Board may have temporarily classified some of his work, it was quickly declassified. There was no Top Secret Canadian UFO program, noted Solandt, nor was there, as far as he knew, an American one.

Cameron and others have claimed that Project Magnet was far more than a "part-time endeavor" by Smith, and implied that Solandt and others were just part of a cover-up, but this assertion is undermined by Smith’s own words. In his 1950 memo he suggested that
"... a PROJECT be set up within the frame work [sic] of this section to study this problem and that the work be carried on a part time basis until such time as sufficient tangible results can be seen to warrant more definitive action." [emphasis added]

Further, the "problem" that Smith refers to was not flying saucers, per se, but geo-magnetic energy, which Smith theorized was related to flying saucers (hence his initial interest in Behind the Flying Saucers). This is made clear by the following passage from the memo: "Doctor Solandt agreed that work on geo-magnetic energy should go forward." [Emphasis added] In 1961 Smith re-confirmed the true nature of Project Magnet, in a presentation to the Vancouver Area UFO Club, Smith stated:

"May I point out that the Project Magnet I was associated with, which received much publicity, was not an official Government project. It was a project that I talked the Deputy Minister into letting me carry out, making use of the extensive field organization of the Department of Transport. No funds were spent on it and we merely had access to the very large field organization and opened a number of files." [emphasis added]

That Project Magnet never moved beyond part-time status is understandable, given that the results were less than impressive. In a 1952 draft status report Smith wrote that, "The results to date have hardly been spectacular." Further, he noted that, "The initial group was quite small to start with and was further depleted during the year by two resignations in favour of more lucrative positions elsewhere." This latter comment is particularly revealing: presumably, if Project Magnet had been cutting edge research, people would have been trying to get involved with the project, not leaving it. Dr. Solandt elaborated on the failures of Project Magnet and Wilbert Smith decades later:

"The Defence Research Board... gave Smith some facilities on DRB property for his [UFO] radio watch and offered to have some experts repeat his experiments which were the basis of his claim to have found a mechanism for the magnetic propulsion of UFOs. Frank Dawes, head of our telecommunications research Lab and an authority on terrestrial and other magnetism repeated the experiments with Smith and showed that the results obtained by Smith were due to sloppy measurements with uncalibrated equipment. There was nothing in the theory." [emphasis added]

Smith, concluded Solandt, was "not a good scientist." His experiments with geo-magnetic energy, which is what would have been of interest to someone like Dr. Solandt, who was a strong proponent of applied science, came to nothing, and so were of no interest to the Canadian Defence Research Board.

Finally, if Project Magnet had really been important, the government would have provided appropriate levels of funding for it. The fact that it did not is further evidence that the Project was not accorded a high level of priority. In fact, Smith, in his memo seeking support for the Project, stated explicitly that it would only cost a few hundred dollars initially, but also that this money would not be new money, but would come from the Department of Transport’s existing appropriation. Without being facetious, this may be the first time in the history of the Canadian government when a civil servant did not ask for new money - no doubt because Smith knew he would not get it.

It is clear that nothing much came of Sarbacher’s comments to Smith in 1950, at least in Canada, and at least as far as Wilbert Smith was concerned. But that is not the end of it: there is still the question of whether Sarbacher was being truthful with Smith in the first place. This seems unlikely. Consider that Sarbacher states that "flying saucers exist [and] are the most highly classified subject in the United States." Assuming this to be true, does it make sense that he would reveal these facts, and others, to a mid-rank Canadian civil servant? It is difficult for ufologists to have it both ways - to assert on the one hand that the government is engaged in a massive cover-up of the truth about UFOs, but then maintain on the other hand that someone like Sarbacher, who supposedly had knowledge of the "truth", and who worked under tight security, would be so cavalier about revealing it to someone like Smith, an act which would have been in clear violation of his security oaths, the penalties for which, as any number of ufologists have pointed out, were severe. This seems even more unlikely when one considers the time period - international tensions were escalating, war was underway in Korea, the McCarthy communist hunts were underway, and the Soviets had the atomic bomb - and the subject and purported level of classification. As Dr. Solandt noted in 1983, "As far as I was aware no non-U.S. citizen was allowed access to any material classified higher than top-secret." How likely, then, is it that Sarbacher would have revealed true, super secret classified information to Smith, or that Smith would eventually have access to alien bodies and crashed flying saucers, as he claimed a few years later?

The answer must be "not very likely at all." The question which naturally follows on from this conclusion is: are there indicators in the information that Sarbacher provided Smith that the information was not genuine? A careful review of the information indicates that there were.
The most significant is Sarbacher’s claim that a "small group" had been established under the direction of Vannevar Bush to study their "modus operandi." Stanton Friedman, in his book Top Secret / Majic, correctly identifies Bush as a world-renowned research scientist who had been, in essence, the "science czar" during the Second World War under President Roosevelt. Indeed, if such a group had been established during the Roosevelt administration, Bush would have been a likely choice to be part of it.

However, given that the flying saucer incidents did not become a serious concern to the United States government until 1947, well into the Truman administration, it is highly unlikely Bush would have played a role in such a group at that time. Bush’s role in government was on the wane, and Truman did not consider him a close advisor. There were a number of reasons for this, the first being an inherent distrust of any holdover from the Roosevelt administration who had been close to the President, particularly those, like Bush, who had kept him in the dark about the development of the atomic bomb. For Bush, notes historian Pascal Zachary, Roosevelt’s death was a "professional catastrophe" which dealt a "huge blow to his plans for the postwar period" and "reduced his influence on atomic policy." Beyond this, however, was the fundamental difference between the two men’s personalities and styles - Truman was a skilled politician, proud of his ordinariness and skeptical of "experts"; Bush could mix it up in the back room if he had to, but he was, at his core, an elitist intellectual. He fit much better with Roosevelt than Truman.

Evidence of this diminishment of Bush’s role abounds, but it can perhaps best be seen in Truman’s rejection of Bush’s "Endless Frontier" report in 1945, a major blow to Bush. As Zachary notes, "while not quite a rift, the non-endorsement signaled stormier times to come." The policy differences between the two were profound. Instead of Bush, in 1946 Truman chose John Steelman, a man Bush disliked, as Chairman of the Scientific Research Board, one of the goals of which was to further blunt Bush’s influence on civilian science policy. Bush was passed over for the position of the first Secretary of Defense in 1947, which he wanted "in the worst way" and had to settle for the position of Chairman of the newly formed Research and Development Board (RBD), against the better judgment of some of Truman’s closest advisors, who were wary of Bush’s ambition.

Bush hoped that he would still be able to influence policy while with the RBD, but these hopes quickly proved illusory. As Zachary observes, the "RBD post was like a slow-motion train wreck. Bush saw the crash coming but was helpless to stop it." The problem was with the charter of the RBD, which left it without real power. The Board could advise the Secretary of Defence, James Forrestal, on "major policy" , but could not direct or control the internal research and development activities of the various military services, which left it powerless to affect change. This resulted in constant battles between Bush and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which Bush lost time and again. In 1948 he resigned, citing the disregard the Joint Chiefs had for his Board. He wrote to Forrestal, "There is now a general impression that, since the Joint Chiefs can invade the affairs of the Board without notice, the latter is in some manner secondary or subsidiary. I find my ability to serve you in connection with the responsibilities you have placed in my hands seriously impaired." By 1950, Bush was, by his own admission, finished as a force in Washington.

Given this reality, there is no reason to believe that Truman would have tapped Bush for any role related to flying saucers. And yet, to those who were not Washington insiders in the late 1940s, unaware of his rapidly diminishing stature within the administration and his battles with the Joint Chiefs (or, one might add, to UFO researchers similarly unaware of these events decades later), Bush would have seemed a logical choice based on their knowledge of his wartime record and influence. Accordingly, his was the perfect name to use in a disinformation campaign - believable to an outsider, but not a name that would in any way compromise security on real secret projects, because Bush by this time was not involved in any such projects. It was a rumour-limiting detail that could be used to control the spread of the disinformation in the event that it went too far.

A review of the evidence therefore leads to the logical conclusions that:

(a) Sarbacher would not have revealed truly super secret information to Wilbert Smith, and

(b) that the information he did reveal to Smith was false.

The question then arises - what was the true reason for the disinformation spread by Sarbacher to Smith in 1950?

One may reasonably posit a couple of possibilities. The first is the theory that the disinformation was ultimately aimed at the Soviets, designed to convince Stalin that the United States had access to advanced alien technology. If so, it would make sense that Sarbacher would pass along disinformation to Smith, in a seemingly innocuous manner, that the Americans undoubtedly knew would quickly wend its way up to Smith’s superiors - as it did - and from there quite possibly on to the Soviets. Canada would be a logical place to plant this information - a close ally of the United States, so that the Soviets would believe the information had at least the possibility of being genuine, but also a proven center of Soviet espionage, as evidenced by the Gouzenko affair in 1946, where a young Soviet NKVD agent defected and exposed a large Soviet spy ring in Ottawa, in the process helping to set off the Cold War. As Stanton Friedman is fond of saying, rule number one for security is that "you can’t tell your friends without telling your enemies." In intelligence matters, with disinformation, sometimes this is exactly what you are attempting to accomplish. Perhaps it was even part of an overall campaign to distract both allies and enemies, and maybe even other elements of the United States government, from the truth about flying saucers; maybe even a real crashed saucer retrieval. Or maybe it was for some reason the nature of which we cannot yet surmise.

In any event, the question arises - why Wilbert Smith?

Smith had one quality that critical, and made him a logical candidate for a disinformation campaign - an intense interest in flying saucers, to the point of being a "believer." As he noted in a 1961 interview:

"I suppose I have always known that there were other intelligent beings in the universe other than ourselves, and that sooner or later they would visit us. In 1947 when the first wide-spread publicity on flying saucers came about, I thought this was something worth thinking about and maybe investigating." [Emphasis added]

Dr. Solandt was on the mark with his observation that Smith, "was out to prove that there were UFOs and that the ‘Establishment’ was dedicated to suppressing all knowledge about them." Smith’s later public activities confirm this impression, including involvement with the discredited contactee movement, to the point of claiming to have been in contact with aliens himself. His unsupported conclusions in the final report for Project Magnet, where he stated, with no substantive evidence to support his conclusion other than his own belief, that "It appears then, that we are faced with a substantial possibility of the real existence of extra-terrestrial vehicles, regardless of whether or not they fit into our scheme of things. Such vehicles of necessity must use a technology considerably in advance of what we have," also give an accurate indication of Smith’s mind-set.

He was, in other words, pre-disposed to believe information that the Americans fed to him if it related to flying saucers, super secret programs, and a cover-up. It was his fascination, not the Canadian government’s, as he made clear repeatedly, such as the following comments made during a speech in 1959:

"During the past ten years I have made a serious and extensive study of the phenomena of flying saucers. I have covered every aspect that I could come to grips with, and have arrived at some conclusions, which, I might say, are entirely my own and do not represent any views which might be held officially or unofficially by the Canadian government." [Emphasis added]

But how would the Americans have known about him?

Smith himself provides the answer:

"In 1950 I was attending a rather slow-moving broadcasting conference in Washington, D.C., and having some free time on my hands, I circulated around asking a few questions about flying saucers, which stirred up a hornet’s nest."

That "hornet’s nest" would have alerted whoever was in charge of the disinformation campaign to a perfect opportunity to seed a flying saucer story, for whatever reason, that might eventually make its way, as Friedman would say, from a "friend" to an "enemy," or sow confusion amongst the Canadians and distract them from something else.

Implausible? Not when one examines the evidence critically. What is implausible is the conclusion that a man like Sarbacher would make such an egregious breach of a super-secret project to someone like Smith? Which is more likely? Solandt had a much higher security clearance than Smith, but even his clearance did not extend to nuclear weapons. How could it, then, have extended to a project allegedly "two points higher" than nuclear weapons in terms of security classification? As Solandt noted, if there had been a super-secret program to deal with UFOs in the United States, "it is unlikely that I would have heard about it."

None of this means that the United States did not take the subject of flying saucers seriously. It does not mean that there were not top secret programs in place to study the phenomenon. It does not even necessarily preclude the possibility of the recovery by the United States military of a crashed alien spacecraft - perhaps even several. It does, however, provide logical reasons to doubt that the information as provided by Sarbacher to Smith was genuine. Indeed, as Solandt concluded, "I assume Smith got the story from someone in the [United States] who fabricated it." A careful and objective review of the facts surrounding Wilbert Smith and Robert Sarbacher indicates that this is the most reasonable conclusion.

Proponents of the reality of the extra-terrestrial hypothesis must look elsewhere for evidence that confirms this theory.


RRRGroup said...


This is an exquisite journalistic exercise.

Let me ask you a question...

Where did the term or, better, practice of "disinformation? originate?

In Nazi Germany? The U.S.S.R.? Or with mad Russian monk, Rasputin? (I'm being serious.)

Also, the Scully tale is being rehashed, and a new book is coming out about the episode that ruined Scully's career (and life?).

Where is the definitive debunking
of Scully's story? (Scully insisted, on his death bed, as you know, that the story was true.)

You've seen Leon Davidson's take on Smith and the Canadian government's "flying saucer" involvement I'm sure.

If not, I'll upload some personal correspondence from Davidson that deals with Smith and other key UFO events.

Davidson's "interpretations" of various UFO sightings and his superb work on Blue Book should be better known by those who are new to the UFO table.

Rich Reynolds

Paul Kimball said...


Yes, Leon Davidson is an often overlooked pioneer of UFo research, among other things being the guy who originally prodded the government to release the Robertson Panel report. I often wonder how guys like Stan Friedman and Bruce Maccabee will be remembered in thirty or forty years, given how little attention is paid to guys like Davidson, or even James MacDonald and Hynek.

The Scully tale forms a sizeable chapter in this book on which I'm working. There's more to the story than people think, but at the end of the day Behind the Flying Saucers is still hooey. Part of the definitive debunking of Scully's story can be found either in J. P. Cahn's expose in True Magazine of Newton and Gebauer, the two con men who cooked up the whole scheme. Of course, a read through Behind the Flying Saucers itself is also a must - Scully did a pretty good job of de-bunking himself!


Anonymous said...

Interesting read. I sure wish I'd come across this blog a long time ago. I have been studying W.B. Smith for the last while, and have been troubled by a few of his claims, but moreso by the fact that I have not been able to come up with an actual copy of his book "The New Science".

I have seen claims of the book, and what are claimed to be quotes from the book, but tracking down information from the claimed publisher have all gone to dead ends.

Is there any actual proof of this book's existance?
I sure can't find it.


Allan Carter said...

It appears Smith's " The New Science" is available to read online at: