Ministry of Defence UFO Files
By Nick Pope
Arguably the biggest UFO-related media story of the last few years has been the ongoing programme to declassify and release the entire holding of Ministry of Defence (MoD) UFO files and transfer them to the National Archives. Having worked on these files while employed at the MoD and having worked with the National Archives in the run-up to the files being made public, it’s my aim to look below the surface of this story and tell the inside story of this fascinating development.
The British government’s UFO project had its roots in a 1950 initiative by the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser, the great radar pioneer Sir Henry Tizard. Tizard was intrigued by media coverage of UFO sightings and decided that the subject should not be dismissed without some proper, official investigation. Accordingly, he agreed that a small study group should be set up to investigate the phenomenon. This was dubbed the Flying Saucer Working Party. This group issued a final report in 1951 and concluded that all UFO sightings could be explained as misidentifications of ordinary objects or phenomena, optical illusions, psychological delusions or hoaxes. The main body of the report ends with the following statement:
“We accordingly recommend very strongly that no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken, unless and until some material evidence becomes available”.
However, during the period 1952 to 1957 there were a series of high-profile UFO sightings including numerous incidents where UFOs were seen by RAF pilots or tracked on military radar. These forced the MoD to rethink its scepticism and investigate the phenomenon – something it did right up until 30th November 2009.
The Real X-Files
In the lifetime of the MoD’s UFO project, the Department received over 12,000 sighting reports. As well as these files, there are policy files, public correspondence files and files detailing with how the MoD handles the subject when raised in parliament and in the media. There are hundreds of files and tens of thousands of pages of documentation. Up until comparatively recently, little of this material had been made public. Some of the older files were available at the National Archives and researchers such as Georgina Bruni and Timothy Good used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a few high-profile documents, such as the file on Britain’s best-known UFO case, the Rendlesham Forest incident. Then, in 2007, the MoD dropped a bombshell and announced that it was to release the entire archive of UFO files and transfer them to the National Archives. There were four reasons for this decision:
• The MoD was receiving more Freedom of Information Act requests on
UFOs than on any other subject.
• The French government had released their UFO files in 2007, setting a precedent that would have been difficult to ignore.
• MoD believed this would be a good way to demonstrate their commitment to the Freedom of Information Act and to open government.
• MoD hoped that releasing the files would defuse the accusation that they were covering up information on UFOs.
The first reason was the key one. Hundreds of people were bombarding the MoD with FOI requests and the administrative burden of responding to the hundreds of requests was becoming unbearable. Directorate Air Staff (DAS) – the MoD division that had the policy and investigative lead in relation to the subject – received 199 UFO-related requests in 2005, 140 in 2006 and 120 as at 18th September 2007, the date DAS wrote to the Under Secretary of State for Defence recommending that the files be released. Other parts of the MoD that were involved in investigating UFO sightings (e.g. the Defence Intelligence Staff) were also receiving large numbers of FOI requests on the subject. Writing in 2006, following MoD’s release of a formerly classified study into UFOs codenamed Project Condign, Under Secretary of State for Defence Tom Watson said:
“There is a real and enduring interest in Unidentified Flying Objects. By far the most popular topic of FOI requests has been UFOs, followed by recruitment enquiries, enquiries from staff, and historical events such as World War Two, the Falklands conflict and the Balkans. Recent freedom of information releases on UFOs have attracted media interest from as far away as Japan.”
MoD realised that if they released the files proactively, most FOI requests could be dealt with by simply referring people to the National Archives.
MoD decided not to release the material all in one go, mainly because of the administrative burden of redacting the files, i.e. deleting any information covered by the various exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, ensuring that classified information and personal data isn't released. Names, addresses and other personal details relating to witnesses and officials have to be removed, to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act. Other exemptions cover categories such as defence and national security and examples of the sort of information that is being withheld include classified information such as the capability of military radar systems, information passed to the UK in confidence by allies, commercially-sensitive information and information which, if disclosed, would reveal intelligence sources or methods of gathering intelligence. It's a massive job and a tricky one. Tens of thousands of pages of documentation have to be read word by word to ensure the material is properly redacted.
To date, batches of files have been released on the following dates:
14th May 2008
20th October 2008
22nd March 2009
17th August 2009
18th February 2010
5th August 2010
3rd March 2011
11th August 2011
12th July 2012
In all, this has involved the release of 184 out of around 200 files. One final batch of files has yet to be released. This will take place early in 2013.
What’s in the Files?
Much of the material is mundane. Mr Smith is out walking his dog late at night and sees a vague light in the sky that could be anything and – as with most UFO sightings – is probably a misidentification of aircraft lights, a satellite, a meteor or a Chinese lantern. However, in among the more routine material are some truly amazing incidents: UFOs seen by police officers and pilots, UFOs tracked on radar, craft seen performing speeds and manoeuvres significantly in excess of those of our most advanced military aircraft, intriguing photos and videos that impressed MoD’s technical wizards. What isn’t in the files is some ‘spaceship in a hangar smoking gun’. If there is such a thing, they didn’t tell me!
Media and Public Reaction
Because I used to work on these files, the National Archives asked me to assist with the release programme. Prior to the release of the first batch, I selected a range of cases to highlight to the media: some explained, some unexplained and some humorous. I also recorded a short film to promote the release. There was some nervousness prior to the initial release. When the French government released their UFO files in one go in 2007, demand was so high that the dedicated website crashed. The National Archives brought in extra processing power and back-up systems in advance, but fortunately all went well. Their prudence was justified by the statistics: within two weeks, the website had been accessed over two million times.
The release of each batch of files generated massive coverage in the media. To promote the story I have written feature articles for The Times, The Guardian, The Sun and The Mirror. In addition, I have been interviewed on the subject by a vast range of TV and radio shows, including Newsnight, ITN News, CNN News, Larry King Live, Good Morning America, Sky News, GMTV, This Morning and Radio 4’s Today programme, to name a few of literally hundreds of programmes.
The Reaction of the UFO Community
The reaction from UFO researchers was mixed and ironically was not as enthusiastic as the reaction from the wider public. Some criticised the MoD for what they felt was a lack of proper investigation in many of the cases. But much of this stemmed from the fact that in many cases the most likely explanation was found straight away and the witness received little more than a standard letter back, explaining MoD’s policy on UFOs and stating that most sightings had conventional explanations. Others failed to appreciate that in the shadowy world of government, the paper trail hardly ever tells the full story. A number of ufologists thought that the file release programme was part of a co-ordinated government campaign to acclimatise the public to the idea of an extraterrestrial presence, prior to an official announcement that aliens were visiting the Earth. Others felt that the absence of a ‘spaceship in a hangar’ smoking gun document meant that the whole programme was disinformation. “All the really good stuff is being held back” was a phrase that was often used. My involvement in the release programme and the fact that I was inevitably the person to whom the media turned to for a quote added fuel to the fire, as many in the UFO community believe that I’m still working for the government and that my 2006 resignation was a ruse.
As I have explained, the key motive for the file release was to ease the administrative burden caused by the hundreds of people who were bombarding MoD with FOI requests. This, in part, was successful and UFO-related FOI requests certainly declined from the levels seen 2005, 2006 and 2007. However, just as this problem receded, another one emerged. The numbers of UFO sightings reported to MoD began to rise, exponentially.
2006: 97 reports
2007: 135 reports
2008: 285 reports
2009: 643 reports
Moreover, a higher and higher proportion of these UFO reports were clearly caused by members of the public misidentifying Chinese lanterns – those ubiquitous fire balloons that are increasingly popular at weddings, barbeques and other social functions. MoD’s corporate irritation with the UFO phenomenon reached breaking point and after over 60 years of official research and investigation into the mystery, the Department decided enough was enough. With effect from 1st December 2009, the Ministry of Defence terminated their UFO project. The news was slipped out in a way designed not to attract attention, by making an amendment to an existing document in the Freedom of Information section of the MoD website, entitled "How to report a UFO sighting". The announcement stated that "in over fifty years, no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom" and goes on to say that "MOD will no longer respond to reported UFO sightings or investigate them".
There was to be a final twist. In response to a query from a journalist, the MoD press office made an interesting comment. The quote was published in The Sun on 22nd January 2009 in a story that ends with the following:
The MoD defended its decision to shut the UFO division. A spokesman said: "We do not feel there is any military value in reviewing the public's sightings".
The key point is that the quote didn't say there was no military value in reviewing UFO sightings - only that there was no military value in reviewing the public's UFO sightings. Where evidence suggests that UK airspace has been penetrated by an unidentified object, this must automatically be of defence interest and should be investigated properly, not least because such activity may be espionage or terrorism related. Indeed, I am sure that sightings from pilots and uncorrelated targets tracked on radar will continue to be looked at, albeit outside of a formally constituted UFO project. That's the implication of the comment from the MoD press office. On the one hand, this is understandable and it's clear that the vast majority of sightings reported by the public were misidentifications of ordinary phenomena or objects - largely, in recent years, Chinese lanterns. On the other hand, it's patronising to assume that no useful information could ever come from the public and it's unscientific to ignore data.
The relationship between the MoD, the UFO lobby and the phenomenon itself is full of ironies, many of which are illustrated in this article. The release of information is seen by some as being part of a cover-up. Opening files is followed by closing the UFO project. Ufologists dream of a day when they can see the MoD’s UFO files, but then react in a lukewarm way when the files don’t tell them what they want to hear. MoD stopped investigating UFOs just as sightings reach near-record levels. Whether one believes this is conspiracy or bureaucracy, it’s certainly a fascinating story.