Marlowe & Company
272 pages; $22.95
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2001
In these days of the multi-media scream, writers need to do more than tell the truth to get the reader's attention. They need to tell a story, even if the events they're relating are astonishing, verified facts. In Top Secret/MAJIC, Stanton T. Friedman tells the truth in all its stultifying glory, covering an astonishing revelation with an academic attitude that drains the life from its subject with an almost governmental expertise. But in doing so, he accidentally tells the fascinating story of a career academic's brush with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, competing academics, fringe scientists, out-and-out frauds, mysterious phone callers, hostile debunkers, rock'n'roll promoters, and famous scientists in his pursuit to determine the validity of documents that could be an elaborate hoax or the tip of a "cosmic Watergate". In the doublespeak required of UFO investigators, Friedman's research seems to indicate that the papers are not definitely a hoax, that is, they they could be legitimate documents. If this sounds like the beginning of an academic satire by Borges or Calvino, that's because reality, as usual outstrips the limits of even the most imaginative writers.
The papers in question made their debut, in a nod to the future of information dissemination, on what passed for the Internet back in 1985. The email going around the aerospace companies (and forwarded to this reviewer back then) described how Jaime Shandera and Stanton T. Friedman had received a cannister of film in an unmarked envelope. When developed, the film proved to be a series photographs of what seemed to be an official, top secret 1952 United States Government document that described how the formation of a committee, Majestic-12, also known as MJ-12, to deal with the crashed saucer situation in Roswell. Of course, the email flew hot and heavy back then, as it still does today. Real or fake? Hoax -- or evidence of a huge coverup? Stanton Friedman spent the next 12 years researching the validity of the documents he obtained.
Though the back cover would have you believe that Friedman is a disinterested physicist who is "NOT a UFO buff", he has earned his living as a full-time lecturer on the flying saucer circuit. He is the author of a book on the Roswell crash, and takes it for granted that the Roswell incident involved the crash of a flying saucer bearing extra-terrestrials. For most of us, these are ample qualifications for the description of "UFO buff".
There were initially, even in Friedman's eyes, very good reasons to doubt the authenticity of these supposedly leaked documents. One of the members of the team, Donald Menzel, was a well-known astronomer who spent his life debunking flying saucers. A stuffed-shirt academic who publicly dismissed all flying saucer sightings, Menzel seems an unlikely choice for a commission dedicated to studying downed flying saucers and their occupants. However, Friedman discovered that the good doctor may very well have led a double life, acting publicly as a debunker and front for disformation, while privately carrying an Above Top Secret clearance. Friedman's investigations, in this single incidence, create a fascinating portrait of a man who may have been much more than he admitted, and a convincing case for at least the possibility that Menzel may have been on such a commission.
But once he gets past this hurdle, Friedman rapidly begins to wear out his welcome. As he investigates whether or not the people named as part of MJ-12 could have been in the places that the memo asserts they were, his research begins to read more and more like a Biblical series of begats, and it's every bit as interesting. Dates, places, and names swirl by in a confusing muddle. Assertions are made, conclusions are reached, and by the time the proof is provided the readers' eyes are sagging and their attentions are wandering. It may be true, but it's barely readable.
Until, at least, Friedman starts to describe the hoops and rituals required to extract information from the US government using the Freedom of Information Act. When Friedman tells of his own experiences with this Ultimate Bureacracy, the book takes on the surreal aura of a tale by Franz Kafka. The obeisances and offerings necessary to gain access to mostly blacked-out memos are positively mind-boggling, much more so than the begats that result from Friedman's searches.
Friedman really gets in his element when he takes on his debunkers, from Philip Klass to Carl Sagan, with whom he attended college. Is it possible that there's more than a little envy going on? Surely no more than in the war between the believers themselves. When Friedman takes on his own kind, in the form of Kevin Randle, and dueling "leaked" documents are compared, the situation passes beyond absurdity and into farce, relayed with the straight-faced sincerity that makes the best farces so hilarious. Friedman makes some good points against all of his detractors, but falls victim to the same vices he points out. Almost all of his top ten debunkers' tricks are used by the author himself in some form or another. The pot==kettle==black theorem is once again proved by someone hoping to score points against another and making them equally against himself.
Friedman saves some of his most delicious gossip for last, when he takes on Santilli and the 'Alien Autopsy' film. The facts of the matter aside, it's the Santilli versus Friedman conflict that fascinates, as, in a manner reminscent of TV's Columbo, Friedman patiently pursues Santilli, trying to pin him down to one story. This proves to be most difficult, but Friedman's frustrations, with Santilli, Sagan, Randle and the rest of world make for a entertaining glimpse at the place where academia meets fringe science in the food-processor environment of the modern media. Top Secret/MAJIC doesn't succeed in "ripping the lid of the Cosmic Watergate", but it certainly offers a fascinating portrait of the bumbling and mysterious con men, conspirators, believers and debunkers who haunt this strange little subculture.