Byline: NICK HOPKINS
TAKEN at face value, it was an attempt by the CIA to clear up a perplexing mystery.
The agency admitted, albeit reluctantly, that more than half the sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects recorded during the Fifties and Sixties could be explained after all.
The darting silver objects seen in the sky and assiduously reported by members of the public were not flying saucers or alien space ships of any kind.
They were U.S. military spy planes flying top-secret reconnaissance missions from bases in Nevada and California to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
The aircraft, the Lockheed U-2 and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, flew at very high altitudes - the latter flew at more than 2,000mph at up to 85,000ft. No wonder people squinting into the heavens thought they had seen strange objects.
Duplicity had been necessary, the CIA reasoned, in the interests of `national security'.
The Air Force had made `misleading and deceptive statements in order to allay fears and to protect an extraordinarily sensitive project,' the agency said. So the public had been fobbed off with half-hearted explanations of the sightings - weather balloons which had gone astray and atmospheric phenomena were the favoured white lies.
The optimists in the CIA hoped that this belated admission in documents published on the Internet would be another nail in the coffin of the UFO `believers' who have been a thorn in their side for 50 years. But the realists acknowledged that far from defusing the issue, it has only added to the intrigue.
After so many years of fooling the public, why should anyone believe the CIA now? And why has the CIA suddenly come clean about a subject in which it always maintained it had no involvement.
Even if the report were true, what about the other UFO sightings which the CIA cannot explain? There is a strong body of respected opinion on both sides of the Atlantic which believes the CIA has panicked in the face of an enormous surge of interest in all things extra-terrestrial.
While the number of UFO sightings rises every year, the vacuous explanations and stone-walling have remained the same.
`The old cover-up stories just don't wash any more,' said John E. Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, based in Washington. `The flying saucer community is definitely onto something.'
The UFO `believers' who have dissected the CIA report divide into two camps: the radicals who don't believe a word the agency is saying; and the moderates who accept the CIA is probably telling the truth - but not the whole truth.
Walter Andrus, international director of the Mutual UFO Network, is in the former camp. `The public are not stupid,' he said. `They've been lied to by the government so often over the years that they are not going to believe it.'
There are Britons, though, who are less dismissive of the CIA. They think the agency is boxing clever to try to assuage the thousands of people who believe they have seen a UFO but are still inherently sceptical.
`Obviously there is a problem of admission here,' said Nick Pope, who studied UFO sightings for the Ministry of Defence between 1991 and 1994, and still works there.
`The CIA hardly inspires confidence in what it is saying by admitting that everything it has said in the past was all lies. But even if you do believe that many of these sightings were spy planes, it does not amount to very much.
`The report does not help to explain the numerous low-altitude sightings of UFOs, or the photographs of circular-shaped objects in the sky. Hundreds of them …