The FBI File on "Philip Julian Klass"

By Gary P. Posner

Ever write a Letter to the Editor and really let them know what you thought about some bonehead article? Or actually call the paper? Well, if you've ever entertained the thought of doing something comparable with a buttoned-down institution like the FBI, you might think again.

The Computer UFO Network has posted what is purported to be (and appears so to my inexpert eyes) the genuine FBI file on CSICOP luminary and renowned UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass, who died last year (2005) at age 85. CUFON's cover letter (dated February 2, 2006) states that these documents were provided by researcher Michael Ravnitzky and comprise the "releasable portions" of the file. The letter further notes that some material in the released pages has been redacted, and that the FBI's decision to withhold other documents on national security grounds "has been appealed." Ravnitzky, who identified himself in an e-mail to me as "a lawyer, former investigative reporter and private investigator, and aeronautical engineer," promptly brought the posting to my attention.

Seinfeld fans may recall the episode in which Elaine's doctor labels her -- more than a tad unfairly -- as a crank, and how that notation in her medical record haunts her as it finds its way to each new doctor she seeks out. That's very much what I was reminded of as I perused the purported Klass FBI file, which tags Phil as an unstable character and revealer of national secrets.

According to the file, in January 1958, an Air Force District Commander notified the FBI of Klass' "unauthorized disclosure of information classified 'Secret' in an 'Aviation Week Magazine' article" that apparently had spanned two recent issues (November 18 and 25, 1957). The Bureau did not conduct a formal investigation because "such classified information as was contained in the article could not be declassified for purposes of prosecution." Ironically, Klass' detractors generally portrayed him as being in bed with the U.S. government. To the contrary, this episode tends to suggest that, as Phil often stated, he would have blown the lid off the government's so-called "UFO cover-up" had he found evidence of any such conspiracy.

A heavily redacted (as many of these are) 1965 document relates to an allegation of some sort of activity by Klass in his apartment, about which the FBI found "no record of Klass having obtained any kind of licensing for radio transmitting equipment." Some detractors may fantasize that if he was not in bed with our government, perhaps he was sending our secrets to his Soviet handlers. After all, as a result of his knowledge of Defense Department secrets, Klass was indeed approached by Boris and Natasha from time to time. A January 1965 report notes that Phil "telephonically contacted the [FBI's] Washington Field Office [advising] he was having lunch that date with . . ." (the remaining half of the page was redacted).

Now for the morsels that will tickle the fancies of Klass’ pro-UFO "enemies" (and die-hard Seinfeld fans). A February 1975 report states that Klass recently "telephoned the Bureau and spoke with the Editor of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (LEB). In strong terms laced with sarcasm, he derided our publication of the article by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, 'The UFO Mystery.' . . . Klass suggested that by publishing this article, the FBI had given its endorsement to a hoax (that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin) and to a fraud (Dr. J. Allen Hynek)." The report goes on to say that Klass explained the negative results of his exhaustive research into UFOs and made the Bureau aware of his critically acclaimed books (I'm sure they noticed that How to Win Friends and Influence People was not among them). But the FBI defends its publication by asserting that "nowhere in Dr. Hynek’s article . . . does Hynek suggest that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin." (For those who don't know, Hynek was the founder of the Center for UFO Studies and endorsed a number of cases which, if genuine, could have no conceivable explanation other than alien visitation.) Further, "As to the suggestion that the author is a fraud [I hope Phil didn't actually use that word], Klass was informed that Hynek is a widely respected scientist, recognized by all creditable professionals in his field of expertise, who is affiliated with a leading university (Northwestern)." It then says Phil opined that Hynek probably wouldn't remain so for long, but that "Klass would not elaborate on this statement, nor was he requested to do so." (I can imagine the Hoover-trained agent pondering whether Klass planned to have Hynek killed, or just fired.) "The conversation was concluded," the report states, "when Klass suggested that we might be interested in publishing an article by a newly formed organization called the 'Center for Unidentified Ghosts.'" Then this observation: "In view of Klass' intemperate criticism and often irrational statements he made to support it, we should be most circumspect in any future contacts with him." And as with Elaine in Seinfeld, that label was to follow Phil for the duration.

In a June 1975 internal note about a follow-up letter from Phil in which he described Dr. Hynek as "the spiritual leader of the vocal group of 'believers' and 'kooks' who claim that we are being visited by extraterrestrial spaceships," we find this: "Klass is deficient on all points of his argument, particularly concerning the credentials of Dr. Hynek, which could scarcely be better. . . . On the other hand, Klass has no such sterling reputation and has twice been under FBI investigation in connection with the unauthorized publication of classified information." Of course, Klass left this earth as one of the most honored aerospace journalists of all time, whereas Hynek utterly failed to elevate UFOs to the stature of serious science.

Curiously, much of the Klass FBI file concerns two bizarre mailings in 1976 with a return address of "Philip J. Klass" and a Dallas post office box number, and were almost certainly the work of one of Klass' many detractors. Our Philip J. Klass resided in Washington and, although a practical jokester to an extent, had no known propensity for this sort of eccentricity. Yet, these reports were placed in our Phil's file presumably because they were related to advanced (though fanciful) aircraft design and sent by someone using the name "Philip J. Klass" who appeared to the FBI, based on these mailings, "most likely not in full possession of his faculties." Recall that our Phil had been deemed as "often irrational" -- the fuller quote along these lines, referred to earlier, is routinely referenced and pasted into subsequent reports.

These strange mailings, one to Bell Labs in New Jersey and another to Herzog Commodities in New York, consisted of many pages (28 in one and 8 in another) of "reduced and reproduced text" and sketches of airplanes. The type is so tiny, due to four original pages being reduced and fitted onto each single page, that I cannot read it. But one FBI report quotes references to a "psychic time bomb," "Jewish subconscious transformation" (our Phil was Jewish), sketches of aircraft "powered by Volkswagen . . . and Chevrolet . . . engines," and, as the FBI report says, "not to be overlooked, the 'CPP' or 'cattle-prod pod' to fire an electrical charge at enemy aircraft." In addition, the FBI noted "references to Secretary of State Kissinger, Lee Harvey Oswald, President Ford . . . the KGB and the CIA," causing the Bureau to wonder if Klass "has previously come to attention in any manner that would indicate a propensity for violence, even though the correspondence described above does not in itself so indicate." They also noted that after an examination, the Defense Department advised the FBI that "This information was probably conjured up as a hoax. In any event, from a technical standpoint, the terms are not . . . in language that would have been used in a flight testing business." Duh!

Klass would often send me photocopies of his correspondence with UFO proponents (who seemed to appreciate his probing questions and sense of humor about as much as the FBI did). But it was to my utter surprise that the remainder of Klass' file relates to the FBI's policies regarding "psychic detectives," specifically Noreen Renier, about whom I have written extensively, and who singles me out in her book, A Mind for Murder, as her "most relentless" critic. In an April 1987 letter, Klass informs, "I am writing, in connection with an article I hope to author and publish, to obtain the official views of the FBI on the use of 'psychics' to assist in FBI investigations." A series of five pertinent questions then follows. The FBI responded by explaining that "Although the Bureau has never contracted psychics as consultants, it is possible that individual Special Agents may have encountered people who have volunteered information based on their psychic impressions [which] would be handled in the same manner as leads obtained from other sources. The FBI does not endorse or recommend the use of psychics in law enforcement [Q: Is this because no credible evidence exists that "psychic" power is genuine?  A: Hardly.  The sentence continues.] partially because the information obtained is frequently inconclusive. However, we do acknowledge that many police departments . . . have relied on this type of assistance." And, as was typical, an internal "Note" was affixed to the letter, reminding the Bureau of Klass' reputation for "intemperate criticism and often irrational statements," with the continuing recommendation that "the Bureau be most circumspect in any future contacts with him."

Klass replied eight months later, noting that he had since learned (citing a source that I had quoted in my writings) that Renier had been invited "on several occasions" to lecture at the FBI Academy. "What I do find surprising," said Phil, "is that the FBI would give the appearance of endorsement of 'psychic criminal investigators' by inviting such a claimant to speak before large groups of local law enforcement officials. . . . I invite your comments." (Emphasis in original.) In response, the FBI indicated that its "National Academy, as an educational facility, has an obligation to offer a full range of courses . . . responsive to the needs and interests of its students. . . . [A]ttendees of several . . . classes expressed interest in the topic. . . . The FBI does not believe that objective presentation of controversial subjects in an academic environment should be construed as endorsement. . . . However, I thank you for your interest in obtaining the FBI's views in this matter." As always, the obligatory Klass-is-a-crank internal "Note" was appended for the file.

Oblivious to the FBI's dismissive attitude toward him, Klass persisted. "What is open to challenge," he observes in his next letter, "is the question of whether Ms. Noreen Renier [this is the only sentence in the file in which, by apparent oversight, her name was not redacted], who commercially exploits her claims of psychic powers, is 'an appropriate lecturer' to make an 'objective presentation on the subject.' . . . If, as I suspect, the Academy offers a much more balanced presentation on the polygraph, might it not be well advised to use a similar protocol in the future on 'psychic detectives'?" The Bureau's brief reply acknowledged receipt of the letter and that it would be forwarded "to the FBI's Training Division for its consideration of your views." The attached internal "Note," this time about Klass' history of "accusatory or argumentative" correspondence, was lengthier than the letter.

Thanks in part to the FBI's rejection of Klass' advice, Noreen Renier has gone on to become one of the most famous "psychic detectives" in America, with a book in print and frequent media appearances, including on CNN and Court TV. I think I'd better cancel my gift subscription to the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin before I get any bright ideas about writing them a letter.