UFO disclosure advocate Dr. Steven Greer’s recent documentary Unacknowledged is now on Netflix. In the documentary, Greer adopts the claims put forward by Donald Zygutis in 2016 that Carl Sagan was on the receiving end of a government effort to force him to become a debunker: “After he was threatened by the intelligence community, and blackmailed, he then began to debunk the issue.” It seems fairly clear that the claim was lifted from Zygutis, but it’s interesting to see the way a bad idea with zero evidence in its favor.
If anything, Sagan was actually the target of Soviet efforts to convince him to promote UFO and ancient astronaut issues. While in the 1950s, the Soviets largely dismissed UFOs as a product of American “war psychosis,” these subjects were a known subject of Soviet propaganda in the 1960s (see, for example, articles the Soviets wrote about ancient astronauts in magazines for Western consumption, and the sheer volume of material in early ancient astronaut books attributed to Soviet sources), and Sagan himself even seemed to recognize that the Soviet government had something going on behind the scenes. The Soviets, for example, facilitated his partnership with Iosif Shklovskii, whose ancient astronaut speculations Sagan added to and enhanced for his English edition of Shklovskii’s book Intelligent Life in the Universe.
That book came out in 1966. The next year, Robert Low, the project coordinator for the University of Colorado’s Air Force-sponsored study of UFOs, better known as the Condon Commission, outlined the Russian involvement in a letter of December 8, 1967 to J. Thomas Ratchford, then working for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research:
When you get a chance, I would appreciate it if you would let Art Lundahl know that I have been in contact with Carl Sagan about the establishment of the UFO commission in the USSR. While Sagan is very interested in the UFO problem and in what we’re doing and also in the recent developments in Russia, he felt reluctant to contact Shklovskii. His reasoning is that, since the Soviet investigation is being conducted by the military, it would be difficult for Shklovskii to say anything whatever about it without compromising himself. Hence, Sagan felt nervous about even asking him to comment on the matter.
The American effort to reach out to the Soviets in investigating UFOs—which, for the Condon Committee included ancient astronauts—coincided with the Soviet Union’s big push to deliver ancient astronaut propaganda to the West. Sputnik, the USSR’s magazine for Western readers, ran articles about ancient astronauts that very same year, and provided them to UFO Contact magazine for American publication.
That’s not to say that the American intelligence services weren’t involved in monitoring Sagan. There is a small grain of truth to the story, according to no less an authority than Sagan himself.
In a famous incident that occurred in 1961, Air Force Intelligence became concerned about Sagan’s close ties to Soviet scientists and sent an agent, whom Sagan called “Igor Rogovin,” who was under cover with the Library of Congress, to spy on him when he met in Los Angeles with Alexander Alexandrovich Imshenetsky, who was then studying exobiology—potential space microbes. The Air Force arranged the meeting and evidently had taken an interest in Soviet efforts to find extraterrestrial life.
Rogovin—a fake name—pretended to be the Soviets’ translator, even though the Soviets were fluent in English, and inserted himself into every conversation, dominating the dialogue. When the Soviets went to use the restroom at the airport, Rogovin asked Sagan to provide him with intelligence, mistaking Sagan for a fellow spy. Sagan was suspicious. He mistook Rogovin for a CIA agent and called the CIA’s San Francisco office, and the agency briefly mistook him for a Soviet spy in a comedy of errors, and the Air Force dispatched Rogovin again in 1963 to spy on Sagan and Imshenetsky at a Committee on Space Research meeting in Florence, this time with his face masked behind a beard.
Sagan himself told the story in 1973 in Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection, but what he did not explore in significant detail was that both the American government and the Soviet government were using UFOs and ancient astronauts as another playing field in the Cold War, and Sagan expressed his shock and outrage that the American spy agencies attempted to manipulate young scientists into engaging in spy games to gain insight into Soviet space plans, or to prevent Americans from sharing their own information with the Soviets. “That American intelligence agencies would attempt to use comparatively innocent young scientists (I was twenty-seven and politically unsophisticated) to carry out such a purpose is appalling,” he wrote. “At least it appalls me.”
This was not the last time that Sagan got caught up in intelligence matters. Sergei Tretyakov, a Soviet spy, claimed that around 1980, the KGB had used the connections between Sagan and Russia to feed Sagan false information about nuclear winter as part of a plot to exaggerate the effect of nuclear war to deter American aggression. Sagan was a leading anti-nuclear advocate at the time, but so far as I know, no one has confirmed Tretyakov’s allegations, made in a 2008 book, and there are many who consider it either an exaggeration, a lie, or CIA disinformation.
From his first meeting with a Soviet scientist to his partnership with Shklovskii and his attendance at Soviet-sponsored extraterrestrial life conferences, Sagan’s close working relationship with the Soviets kept him in the sights of America’s many intelligence services. It was this grain of truth that allowed the conspiracy that the U.S. government “turned” Sagan from believer to debunker to blossom.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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