The Limits of a Paper Trail


By Nick Pope

The declassification and release of the MoD's UFO files has provoked much interest and debate. Some people believe that the 'good stuff' will never be released - there are numerous exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, covering areas such as "defence" and "national security". Others believe the release shows MoD did little more than log the sightings. Some believe that the whole exercise is disinformation, while others have speculated that it's part of a campaign to prepare people for some big announcement about UFOs - often dubbed "Disclosure".

One popular myth is that the section where I worked was a 'shop window' and that the serious UFO research went on elsewhere. Some people have accused me of covering this up. Others have suggested that I was unaware of this. Both allegations are false and stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which government works, particularly in a Department such as MoD, where much of the business is highly classified.

The whole 'MoD didn't investigate UFOs' line came from a tiny group of ufologists dishonestly trying to downplay my role by pretending that it was clerical and not investigative. Ironically, MoD itself nailed the lie. Despite a historical reluctance to acknowledge that UFO sightings were investigated, one confirmation was given by the Under Secretary of State for Defence Don Touhig, in response to a Parliamentary Question asked by Norman Baker MP. The exchange was recorded in the 18 April 2006 edition of Hansard (the official record of parliamentary proceedings) and reads as follows:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Defence in what capacity Mr Nick Pope was employed by his Department between 1991 and 1994".

"From 1991 to 1994 Mr Pope worked as a civil servant within Secretariat (Air Staff). He undertook a wide range of secretariat tasks relating to central policy, political and parliamentary aspects of non-operational RAF activity. Part of his duties related to the investigation of unidentified aerial phenomena reported to the Department to see if they had any defence significance".

A further confirmation of MoD's investigative role came more recently, on 1st December 2009, as part of the MoD statement announcing the formal termination of their UFO project. The key part of the announcement, on the MoD website, stated:

"MoD will no longer respond to reported UFO sightings or investigate them".

Use of the phrase "no longer" clearly indicates that the activities described are ones that were previously undertaken.

With the 'MoD didn't investigate UFOs' falsehood conclusively disproven, why did so many of the UFO sightings reported to MoD generate so little paperwork and why do so many of the 12,000 sightings reported to the Department result in little more than a brief summary of what was seen? The answer is simple. Despite what serial FOI requestors and searchers of official archives may believe, the paper trail only leads so far.

On most occasions, the lack of a paper trail is far from sinister. In relation to UFO sightings it may simply reflect the fact that the investigation quickly turned up a conventional explanation for what was seen. This happened in the vast majority of cases. The desk officer would attempt to correlate the UFO report with civil and military aircraft activity, weather balloon launches, astronomical phenomena, etc. This can be done by accessing various databases or contacting various organisations over the telephone. When an explanation is found, the only documentation generated will be a polite letter back to the person who reported the sighting.

On some occasions, however, the lack of a paper trail can be more sinister.

An example of this was given in dramatic fashion in the late 2009, in part of the evidence given to Lord Chilcot's inquiry into the second Gulf War. Here is a quote from a media article (source: Daily Mail, 28th November 2009) concerning a memo from the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, which raised questions about the legality of the war:

The letter caused pandemonium in Downing Street. Mr Blair was furious. No10 told Lord Goldsmith he should never have put his views on paper, and he was not to do so again unless told to by Mr Blair. The reason was simple: if it became public, Lord Goldsmith's letter could make it impossible for Mr Blair to fulfil his secret pledge to back Mr Bush in any circumstances. More importantly, it could never be expunged from the record as copies were stored in No10 and in the Attorney General's office.

A source close to Lord Goldsmith said: 'He assumed, perhaps naively, that Blair wanted a proper legal assessment. No10 went berserk because they knew that once he had put it in writing, it could not be unsaid. 'They liked to do things with no note-takers, and often no officials, present. That way, there was no record. Everything could be denied.

For those wondering if that's really what happened, I should point out that as a freelance journalist myself, use of the phrase "a source close to" very often means that the person referred to has signed off the account of events, while not wanting it directly attributed to them.

I saw examples of such things many times in my 21 years at MoD. Such behaviour could take a number of forms. Sometimes it might involve an official chairing a meeting glancing at the minute-taker and saying something like "and now, not for the minutes please ...". On other occasions it's simply that meetings weren't minuted at all. Post-FOI, officials are increasingly wary of creating lengthy strings of emails and will often opt for a face to face discussion instead.

So what does all this mean for ufologists? Am I implying that the UK government knows the truth about UFOs but that it won't be revealed? No. I am simply pointing out that the paper trail can lead you so far, but no further. This is true of most areas of government business. So the purpose of this article is to point out that while much useful material can be obtained from the National Archives or from FOI requests, it does not - and can never - tell the full story.