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The protest’s ringleader, a stocky man with a crew cut, musters his troops with a bullhorn. And soon, on this Wednesday noon at the end of March, 25 Operation Right to Know demonstrators are marching in a circle outside the General Accounting Office (GAO). Their signs proclaim “UFOs are real and the government knows it” and “Tell the Truth About Roswell.”

Roswell? To the UFO community, the New Mexico city is Watergate, Iran-contra, and Whitewater all wrapped up in one. In 1947, something fell out of the sky near Roswell. The government claimed—and still claims—that the object was a weather balloon. “We know we’re being lied to,” says demonstration organizer Elaine Douglass. “The government has had proof of extraterrestrial life for nearly 50 years,” in the form of a crashed saucer and its crew.

No one is suggesting that the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, is hiding downed saucer pilots inside its building at 4th and G Streets NW. But the GAO—and other branches of the government—are now, for the first time, venturing into territory previously covered only by UFO-dom’s true believers.

At the request of Congressman Steven Schiff (R-N.M.), the GAO last year began auditing the paperwork surrounding the Ros well crash. The GAO hunt prompted the Air Force to start its own investigation, and last September 8, Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall released that agency’s first statement on UFOs in 25 years.

“Air Force research efforts did not disclose any records of the recovery of any “alien’ bodies or extraterrestrial materials,” concludes an executive summary of the report.

Even the White House got involved. According to the Washington-based Skeptics UFO Newsletter, presidential science adviser John Gibbons penned a memo to Widnall asking her to declassify all Air Force UFO material.

Longtime UFO debunker Philip J. Klass publishes the Skeptics newsletter. He “guesstimates” that the Air Force spent tens of thousands of dollars on the investigation. “But as a taxpayer, I don’t object,” he says. “I think the cost will be quite nominal if only Operation Right to Know were to accept the findings.”

Fat chance. For this demonstration, Operation Right to Know has produced a replica of the craft that the military insists fell to earth near Roswell. Completely unsaucerlike, the model consists of eight separate yellow balloons hoisting two flat, shiny objects shaped like home plate of a baseball diamond. “They’re made of cardboard with Reynolds Wrap,” explains Right to Knower Mark Smith of Glen Burnie, Md. “I covered them up last night at 12 o’clock.”

Douglass, an Adams Morgan resident, characterizes Operation Right to Know as “the activist wing of the UFO community.” Its purpose is to end the cover-up of extraterrestrial activity by world governments, and its tools are marches, rallies, street theater, and lobbying. “We’re saying the days the government could silence us with ridicule are over,” she explains. Clearly, Douglass is unabashed: She sports a saucer lapel pin, and joins in the chant of “Go, go, GAO, people have a right to know!”

Among crashed-saucer stories, “Roswell has one unique quality—it’s not a friend-of-a-friend story,” says Curtis Peebles, aerospace historian and author of Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth (Smithsonian Institution Press). “It’s obvious something happened….The question is, what?”

In June 1947, sheep rancher W.W. “Mac” Brazel and his son discovered curious debris in the scrub desert 75 miles northwest of Roswell. Brazel contacted the local sheriff, who in turn notified Maj. Jesse Marcel, an intelligence officer at Roswell Army Air Field, home base of the 509th Bomb Group.

On July 8 that year, the base issued a press release stating that the 509th had recovered a “flying disc,” and that the strange object was being “loaned…to higher headquarters.” The announcement was the stuff of banner headlines—for all of a day. Then Brig. Gen. Roger Ramey, commander of the Eighth Air Force at Fort Worth, Texas, stated that the wreckage came from a Rawin Target radar weather balloon. Photos by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram show Marcel kneeling beside a pile of debris that looks like wooden sticks and paper covered with tin foil—hardly the cutting edge of flying saucer technology, unless the saucer is from an Ed Wood movie.

Douglass and her cohorts don’t buy the story. They insist that the military staged the photos, and whisked the genuine UFO wreckage to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. There, the debris became the subject of a top-secret research project that yielded the Stealth bomber and fiber optics. “Is it credible that these highly trained military people couldn’t tell the difference between a flying disc and a weather balloon?” she asks.

“The government said the debris field was three-quarters of an acre long. If this thing crashed, there’s no way it could put down a debris field like that,” adds Smith, the model builder.

The Roswell incident remained a mere footnote in UFO lore for 31 years. Then in 1978, nuclear physicist and UFO researcher Stanton Friedman located intelligence officer Marcel, living in obscurity as a retired TV repairman. Marcel told a very different story. The debris he helped scoop up, he insisted, was “nothing from this earth.” It consisted of shards of metal thinner than newsprint but so strong that even a blow from a 16-pound sledgehammer couldn’t make a dent. Marcel also reported finding an object which he described as an “I-beam,” painted with hieroglyphic-style symbols. He alleged that he had been ordered not to breathe the truth to anyone, not even his family. The Roswell incident has spawned at least half a dozen books, a newsletter, several TV docudramas, a movie on the Showtime channel, and an International UFO Museum in Roswell. Investigators flushed out dozens of alleged witnesses, including a few who claimed knowledge of alien bodies recovered from a second crash site.

Among these witnesses was Glenn Dennis, a mortician from Roswell. Dennis claimed that airfield personnel contacted him and peppered him with questions on embalming techniques. Figuring that some airmen had died in a crash, Dennis drove to the base, only to be forcibly ejected by the MPs. The next day, he said, a nurse with security clearance told him that she had helped perform autopsies on several nonhuman bodies with oversize heads, four-fingered hands, and narrow slits for mouths.

“The first time I heard this, it reminded me of a bad Oliver Stone script,” says UFO investigator Karl Pflock. “But now that I’ve gotten to know Mr. Dennis very well, I’m firmly convinced he’s an honest man.”

Pflock has something that other saucer researchers don’t: connections. His résumé includes stints as a special assistant for defense, space, and science and technology on the staff of former Congressman Ken Kramer (R-Colo.); as deputy assistant secretary of defense during President Ronald Reagan’s second term; and as a research and publications director for the House Republican Conference. He’s also married to Mary Martinek, chief of staff for Congressman Schiff’s office. In 1992, Pflock helped arrange briefings for Schiff’s staff and for a staff member of the House Government Operations Committee (now called the Government Reform and Oversight Committee), where Schiff serves as a subcommittee chairman.

In late 1992, Schiff started receiving queries about Roswell from his constituents. One of his correspondents was Dennis; the mortician reportedly complained about being manhandled by the military and claimed he was told that “if he talked, he’d be dog food.”

In March 1993, Schiff wrote to then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, asking for a personal briefing on the military’s role in the Roswell incident. The department referred him to the National Archives, where the Air Force had deposited the voluminous files from Project Blue Book, its 18-year official investigation into UFOs. Unsatisfied, Schiff penned a second letter to Aspin in May, demanding that the Department of Defense produce its own report. That same month, Schiff received a letter from the Archives stating that there was no mention of theRoswell incident in the Blue Book files or any other defense department records.

Schiff fumed that he was being stonewalled, and launched the GAO investigation. Doing so sparked the most publicity he’s received during his six years in Congress. “You called hot on the heels of NBC,” says Barry Bitzer, Schiff’s public-information officer.

Schiff is reported to be skeptical about UFOs. “I don’t think the congressman has come out strongly as to whether there are little green men running around,” Bitzer says. Rather, Schiff considers the issue one of “government accessibility and accountability.”

And Schiff seems to have a point. The Air Force report released last September concluded that the miltary fibbed…sort of. The wreckage at Roswell was indeed from a balloon, but not your ordinary weather balloon. Instead, it came from a device lofted to detect the faint reverberations from Soviet nuclear blasts, as part of a top secret operation called Project Mogul. According to historian Peebles, the full train of a Mogul balloon would have stretched over 700 feet. The apparatus would have consisted of 20 rubber balloons, three to five radar targets, recovery parachutes and an acoustic payload. “It lost lift,” explains Peebles, “dragged across the desert, and the balloons and radar reflectors were ripped to shreds.”

So why, after nearly half a century, would a congressman have trouble uncovering the true story? Peebles doesn’t believe that Schiff was getting the runaround. He notes that by 1948, when the Air Force began its first official investigation of UFOs, the Roswell case was considered solved, and thus a non-UFO matter. As a result, documents on the case would not have been included in the Air Force’s UFO files.

And perhaps that’s what the GAO will find. Results of the audit are tentatively scheduled to be released June 30, under the stultifying title “Records Management Procedures Dealing With Weather Balloon, Unknown Aircraft, and Similar Crash Incidents.” “We don’t comment on work in progress,” says agency spokesman Cleve Cor lett.

Outside the GAO building, the UFO rally winds down around 1 p.m. Although Operation Right to Know members have been chanting themselves hoarse voicing support for the GAO and Congressman Schiff, several express doubts that the audit will turn up a smoking gun. The cabal behind UFO secrecy is too clever to leave a paper trail, they argue. “They should be asking where are the bodies, not where are the records,” says demonstrator Larry W. Bryant.

“I don’t think the GAO will find much,” confides Douglass. But she remains undaunted. “Then the ball will be back in Congressman Schiff’s court. We’ll be pushing for a full congressional investigation.”

For information on Operation Right to Know, call (202) 232-2410.