Two years ago, the National Security Agency began posting previously classified documents on its Web site to deflect the growing number of requests each year for information about flying saucers and space aliens. But the plan backfired.
Rather than relieving suspicions that the agency is hiding information about unidentified flying objects, the result has been more people than ever demanding to see UFO documents. A record 36,000 people perused the UFO page last month.
What has piqued UFO believers' interest is not so much what the documents on the Web site say - often little or nothing between the blacked-out censored sections - but their extraordinary volume: thousands of pages of unofficial reports and antiquated radio interceptions from abroad.
Among the postings from the files of nation's most-secret spy agency is a National Enquirer article with the headline, "Take UFOs Seriously or Be Prepared for Sneak Invasion By Space Aliens."
All of this is fueling speculation among believers who wonder why, for something that doesn't exist, the agency has collected a ton of records.
The NSA staff, burdened with hundreds of written requests under the Freedom of Information Act, is unamused. Staff members say the time required for the UFO requests slows down the response time for all requests.
The agency hasn't kept exact numbers about UFO requests. But Pamela Phillips, chief of FOIA/Privacy Act Services, said the increase in letters asking about UFOs has been "significant," forcing the office to hire several additional staff members.
Phillips said the "conspiracies" that believers are deriving from the postings can be easily explained.
"These documents contain the term UFO, but they are not necessarily about aliens," she said. "They just contain the term which describes an object that was flying that was unidentified" at the time.
As for the Enquirer article - which one UFO enthusiast says proves that the weekly tabloid known for its alien abduction stories has been right all along - Phillips says it's more likely that it was clipped for amusement and found on someone's desk after they retired.
Much of the latest increase in requests is a result of better technology. In the past, people interested in viewing the agency's files would have to find its address and know whom to write to, then type and mail a letter. Now, people can use the agency's online request form to ask for documents, made even easier with a ready-made letter template. Visitors can send in multiple requests in seconds.
The agency hasn't added to the UFO page since its first posting two years ago, but it plans to soon, Phillips said, especially for the most commonly requested items.
Agency officials said most of the UFO requests they receive ask for information about specific words pulled from the online documents. Enthusiasts believe the agency categorizes documents under keywords - and they just haven't hit on the right word yet.
In pre-Internet times, most requests for documents with a keyword would center on popular tales such as "Area 51," "Roswell," or "Philadelphia Experiment." Today, the keywords are more numerous, prompting agency officials to compile lists of common ones - such as "snowbird" and "sigma" - and the results of those searches, so they don't duplicate their efforts.
Even with lists and a stack of frequently requested documents close by, agency officials say it's hard to keep up with requests that are similar but change by a single word. Every request, no matter how similar to a previous one must be queried again and given the same attention.
Believers say what the documents don't say is most interesting.
"The fact that they're releasing this stuff and it's so blacked out, the theories just flurry," said John Greenwald, who has collected UFO documents from NSA and other agencies for more than five years and posts them on his Web site, "The Black Vault."
"Maybe it has nothing to do with aliens, that's a possibility," said Greenwald, of California. "But I've never found so many documents this blacked out before, and that adds to the fascination."
To Greenwald and other enthusiasts, it comes as no surprise that so many people are perusing the security agency's UFO documents. One batch of papers deals with an alleged "spotting" in Iran in the 1970s, which has captured the imaginations of many believers.
The NSA apparently intercepted radio communications of an Iranian pilot who said he had temporarily lost control of his airplane when he encountered something in the air that he couldn't identify.
The documents on the Web - at http://nsa.gov/docs/efoia/released/ufo.html - shed no additional light on this situation, which only adds to viewers' curiosity.
"More people than ever are interested in this stuff," said Peter Gersten, an Arizona-based attorney and director of Citizens Against UFO Secrecy. "Each year you get more and more people, especially young people. With `X-Files' and `Star Wars,' it's exotic. It's entertaining. It's the greatest mystery of all time."