OUT THERE

The Government's Secret

Quest for Extraterrestrials

By Howard Blum

Simon and Schuster

300 pp. $19.95

ONE OF the worst-kept secrets in the history of subterfuge is the fact that the United States government has long been involved in investigating UFOs, extraterrestrial intelligence and sundry airborne exotica. And why not: To ignore these often mystifying phenomena would be to disregard both national security and the public welfare. Moreover, to the astonishment of absolutely no one, the feds routinely deny involvement. Or they grudgingly concede that, sure, some agency might have been interested years ago -- but certainly not in these enlightened times.

Outrageous lies? Probably. But consider the alternative. Suppose that back in '47 a disk-full of aliens crashed in New Mexico and the Air Force swept in, scooped up the mess and hustled it off to a base in Ohio (a scenario zealously believed to this day by hundreds of UFO partisans). What is the government going to do? Hold a press conference? Imagine the Defense Department spokesman saying, "Well, actually, we've been fibbing. For 43 years we've had four ET stiffs in a freezer out at Wright-Patterson. You oughta see 'em: Look like parking meters made out of broccoli casserole. But their civilization has cars that go 300 miles on a cupful of leaf mulch, and they've succeeded in eliminating old age, game shows and underarm odor." What would be the effect on this horoscope-besotted, Elvis-sighting, quack-raddled nation? The Dow would plummet to triple digits and the ensuing pandemonium would make the "War of the Worlds" panic look like a lawn party.

Yet Howard Blum, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, is just downright astonished that the government hides its interest in off-planet intelligence. Which, he contends, is going on right now: Some 17 top-secret security officials collectively known as the "UFO Working Group," he says, have been meeting in a secure crypt at the Pentagon since early 1987 to examine the possibility that space creatures are trying to make contact with us.

There is no good reason to doubt these findings, especially in light of Blum's impressive roster of named and confidential sources, documentary evidence and general reputation. (He is the author of I Pledge Allegiance, about the Walker spy family, among other volumes.) On the other hand, so what? The Big Question isn't what the government is up to; it's what, if anything, it's found in the four decades since a Seattle aviator first reported seeing flying saucers. And here Blum, like his numerous predecessors in the "true story" UFO book biz, not only fails to find a smoking gun -- he doesn't even have a warm slingshot.

Which is not to say that Out There isn't intriguing, informative and just plain fun to read. Blum expends only about a third of the book on the Working Group and other latter-day government projects; the rest is a brisk background tour of great moments in Ufology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in America. Most of this is familiar stuff, from the alleged crash near Roswell, N.M., to the Air Force's Project Blue Book (a two-decade study of UFO reports discontinued in '69) to astronomer Frank Drake's Project Ozma (an ambitious attempt to monitor radio signals from other worlds) to the appearance, a couple of years ago, of copies of a document purporting to be an "eyes-only" briefing paper delivered to President Eisenhower in 1952. The text of this report, supposedly prepared by a top-secret panel called "Majestic-12," confirms the Roswell crash and the government's coverup of the evidence.

There are some wonderful passages, many of them colorfully recreated by Blum from interviews. There's the time in 1985 that the Defense Intelligence Agency's Project Aquarius drafted a gaggle of psychics to "scan" the globe for Red subs and, later, an apparent UFO. There's Carl Sagan's successful 1982 attempt to get Sen. William Proxmire to quit fighting SETI funding. ("It's hard enough to find intelligent life right here," Proxmire told the Senate.) There's Frank Drake's creation of a coded message for interstellar broadcast to other life forms -- a message so ingenious that "no scientist on Earth was able to decipher it." There's a marvelous 50-page excursus -- the book's longest sustained narrative -- on the enterprising hamlet of Elmwood, Wis., where saucer sightings became so commonplace in the '70s that the town initiated a summer festival called "UFO Days" and the school cheerleaders chanted, "We'll zap you with our ray guns." ALL THESE and many more anecdotes are depicted with careful professional attention to smell-the-paint sensory detail and rendered in Blum's thoroughly alluring prose style, which oscillates between Newsroom Breathless and outright lyrical. He leans heavily on such proven narrative-propulsion techniques as ending chapters with a suspenseful one-liner ("Even without the general's help, by now I knew too much.") and suffusing simple exposition with so much detective-story tension that the reader scarcely notices that not much gets solidly proved. He also sets what has to be a new world's record for the use of first-person diction in a work of straight nonfiction, to the frequent irritation of readers who are more interested in the facts than in how Blum might be feeling at each stage of his investigation.

But in the end, it doesn't matter: Nothing is revealed. We never learn whether the government has actually confirmed any of the putative UFO sightings mentioned, including the weird signals with which Blum has teased us repeatedly in the early chapters. An FBI source admits that even the Bureau itself may "never know if the {Majestic} papers are genuine or not." We are left only with the paranoid's logic: If the feds are hiding something, then they must have something important to hide. And that, apparently, is good enough for Blum, who concludes that "a malicious clique of the powerful has conspired to keep this miracle a secret."

What "miracle" is that, exactly? Perhaps NBC's planned four-part miniseries based on the book will somehow explain it; it is not between these covers. Or maybe Blum simply doesn't find it necessary. In the closing pages, he discloses that "now, at the end of my journey, I have become a believer. There are other worlds." The reader, unfortunately, is not equipped to agree.

Curt Suplee is a writer and editor with the Outlook section of The Washington Post.