By Nick Pope
Late in 2007 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) gave an undertaking to release its entire archive of UFO files. On May 14 2008 the National Archives released the first batch of files, leading to worldwide media coverage, including articles in the New York Times and coverage on CNN News. On October 20 2008 the National Archives released the second batch of files, again generating global media coverage, including a feature on ABC News's Nightline. I used to work at the MoD on these files and although I left government service in 2006, I assisted the National Archives in the release process by reviewing the files, selecting cases of potential interest to the media and acting as someone to whom they would refer journalists wanting to discuss the files. I will set out the background to this release and explain how the French government's 2007 decision to release its UFO files was a major factor in the UK decision, as was the fact that the MoD receives more FOI requests on UFOs than any other topic. I will then give detailed information about the files, explaining how much material there is, what it comprises and what the timeline is for full disclosure. I will also discuss the level of classification involved and the various FOI exemptions that mean certain information will not be released. Finally, I will pick out some cases from the newly released files and discuss the wider implications of this release.
I used to work for the MoD in the UK and for 3 years I ran their UFO project. My remit was to investigate UFO sighting reported to the British government, looking for evidence of any potential threat, or anything judged to be of any "defence significance". In 2007 the French government released their archive of UFO files and this was followed by many stories suggesting that the British government was about to do the same. This process has now begun and has commented upon extensively in the media and in the UFO community. However, the situation is more complex than many suppose and some of what's been written has been misleading or wrong. Accordingly, I'll clarify the position, explain what's already happened, what's happening now and what future developments people can expect to see.
The Public Records Acts
Before the UK's Freedom of Information Act came fully into force in 2005, the Public Records Acts set down the rules on access to government files. The best-known feature of these acts was the so-called 30 Year Rule, which did pretty much what it said on the tin and meant that most files wouldn't be opened until 30 years after the most recent document. Some more sensitive files were withheld for longer, while some would never be released. The 'default position', as it were, was not to release. It was a totally different culture, and when I joined the MoD in 1985, it was a closed organization with limited public and media interface. The Department I left in 2006, after a 21 year career, was virtually unrecognizable from the organization I'd joined over two decades ago.
There was a major wave of UFO sightings in the UK in 1967 (and indeed in the US and elsewhere) and the subject enjoyed extensive media coverage. There was parliamentary interest too and one of the key decisions in relation to MoD UFO documents was taken in that year. It was agreed by Defense ministers that in view of the historical/public interest, all UFO files would be kept permanently and considered for eventual release. Prior to that, files on the subject had been reviewed 5 years after closure and might be either destroyed, sent to MoD records management divisions or sent to the Public Records Office (now renamed the National Archives). What this meant was that prior to 1967, few UFO files had survived this process and with a few exceptions, UFO files from the Fifties and early Sixties had been destroyed. There was nothing sinister about this and such decisions were made all the time on a wide range of subjects. It was a subjective business and I've done it myself: administrative staff would bring me files and I'd have to decide whether to authorize destruction, permanent retention or a further review. I never authorized the destruction of a UFO file and following the 1967 ruling, nobody should.
Freedom of Information
The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act (passed in November 2000 and coming fully into force in January 2005) effectively reversed the default position and the presumption now is that information is released, unless any of the formal exemptions apply. I was trained in this and have dealt with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests myself, so have first-hand experience of this. Ufologists have used FOI (and the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which preceded FOI but attempted to apply some of the principles) extensively and researchers such as Georgina Bruni and Timothy Good have achieved some high-profile successes. The file of the Rendlesham Forest incident and on the Cosford incident, the Flying Saucer Working Party and Project Condign (a highly classified UFO study sponsored by the Defence Intelligence Staff and undertaken by a defence contractor) were all obtained using the Code or FOI. All these files and more besides are now available on the MoD website, www.mod.uk. Go to the Freedom of Information section and search the Publication Scheme and the Disclosure Log, using keywords such as UFO and UAP and it's all there, alongside documents and files on a vast range of other fascinating subjects including MoD's 2001 remote viewing study.
FOI or Investigation?
The MoD receives more FOI requests relating to UFOs than on any other subject, including the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. The section where I worked is now so busy dealing with FOI requests that this has taken precedence over the research and investigation that was done in my day. Few UFO sightings are currently investigated in any meaningful sense of the word and most sightings elicit little more than a standard letter. A major case such as Ray Bowyer's sighting over the Channel Islands on 23 April 2007 will at least be investigated, but not to the extent that has previously been the case. The case file on the Channel Islands UFO sighting ran to 9 pages. Compare that with previous major cases such as Rendlesham Forest or the Cosford Incident, where the case files ran to over 100 pages of documentation. Investigations are suffering because of the workload being put on staff due to FOI, but FOI is taking priority because if it fails to comply, MoD would be breaching the law.
By 2007 the workload involved in dealing FOI requests was becoming intolerable and I know that staffs were getting increasingly frustrated. Accordingly, because of the administrative burden involved in responding to UFO-related FOI requests on a case by case basis, MoD decided to proactively release its entire archive of UFO files. As mentioned earlier, the French government did this in 2007 (and the dedicated server crashed due to the volume of hits as around 220,000 people attempted to access the material on the day of release) and this was another reason for the release, as was the hope that the move would help deal with accusations that MoD was covering up the truth about UFOs. Indeed, both the MoD and the National Archives hope that this will be a good news story about open government and freedom of information. MoD confirmed to me in December 2007 that the final decision had been taken and I duly broke the story in the media.
There are around 160 files in all, covering sighting reports, public correspondence, policy files and files detailing with how the MoD handles the subject when raised in parliament and in the media. 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 defense 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: MoD has received over 11,000 UFO reports to date and case files on major incidents can run to over 100 pages of documentation. The entire process is likely to take 3 - 4 years.
The Asbestos Files
While most files are ones from the secretariat branch that has the policy and investigative lead on UFOs (i.e. the division where I worked) 24 Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) UFO files are also being releasd. The DIS provided specialist advice and assistance on a number of areas related to specific investigations. These 24 files were part of a batch of several thousand DIS files that had been contaminated by asbestos. It was feared originally that they'd have to be destroyed. Historians were outraged and conspiracy theorists smelt a rat. But at a cost of around £3M all the files have now been decontaminated and scanned onto CD-ROMs. Many UFO researchers have made Freedom of Information Act requests relating to these files, so the material can now be considered for release in the usual way.
What's in the Asbestos Files?
The 24 files cover the period 1975 to 1999 and cover a wide range of material, including both policy and investigations. Many of the UFO sightings detailed are mundane, but there are some more interesting ones, including sightings by civil and military pilots and sightings corroborated by radar evidence. And of course the period covered means that there will be documents on Rendlesham Forest, the Cosford Incident and Project Condign. Some of the documents will be new, but many will be copies of ones in the secretariat divion's file. This is because the DIS UFO files mirror those of the secretariat division responsible for setting policy and leading investigations, because the secretariat and the DIS were looking at the same cases and corresponding with each other about them. Some documents I wrote are in the files and some documents are ones that were written to me. Brief details of these 24 files are available on the MoD website, in the Disclosure Log. A search on the phrase "DIS UFO Incident Files" will turn up the information.
The First Batch
The first batch of files were released on May 14 2008. They covered the period 1978 - 1987. There were 8 files in this first batch, which led to some misunderstanding as many people thought this was the same as saying that there were only 8 individual cases. In fact, most of the files were sighting report files and each file contained several hundred pages of documentation, consisting mainly of one or two page summaries of individual sightings: the raw data, as it were, recorded in a standard format by the person receiving the UFO report. Overall, therefore, there were thousands of pages of documentation in these 8 files, detailing several hundred sightings. Most cases had mundane explanations and were clearly misidentifications of ordinary objects and phenomena, mainly aircraft lights, satellites and meteors. But some were more difficult to explain, including cases where the witnesses were pilots and police officers, together with instances where UFOs had been tracked on radar. There were also some more light-hearted cases, which were almost certainly hoaxes or instances where some practical joke had got out of hand. Some of the more interesting incidents included:
26th April 1984: Members of the public report a UFO in Stanmore. Two police officers attend the scene, witness the craft and sketch it.
13th October 1984: a saucer-shaped UFO is seen from Waterloo Bridge in London by numerous witnesses.
11th September 1985: 2 UFOs tracked on a military radar system travelling 10 nautical miles in 12 seconds.
4th September 1986: a UFO passes an estimated 1.5 nautical miles from the port side of a commercial aircraft.
The release made the news all around the world and within a couple of months the material had been downloaded around 2 million times. The National Archives regarded this as one of their most succesful proactive events of all time.
The Second Batch
A second batch of Ministry of Defence UFO files was released on October 20 2008 and are now available at the National Archives. There are 19 files, many of which contain several hundred individual documents. The files date from 1986 to 1992 and therefore include cases from my tour of duty on the MoD's UFO project (1991 to 1994). It's fascinating to see these files again - it's a real blast from the past. As with the first batch, most of the UFO sightings in these newly released files can be explained as misidentifications of ordinary objects or phenomena, with around 5% being more difficult to explain. The cases that concerned me most were those involving near misses between UFOs and commercial aircraft. There are several such cases in these files, along with more sightings from police officers and more cases where UFOs have been tracked on radar. I did a seemingly constant stream of TV and radio interviews, appearing on most TV news programmes (including a number of US shows such as ABC News's Nightline) and on others shows such as GMTV, The Alan Titchmarsh Show and Newsround, as well as prestigious radio shows such as Radio 4's Today programme and BBC World Service's The World Today. I appeared twice on this latter show, once giving a conventional interview and the second time reading a science fiction story they asked to write, based on the files, which listeners were then invited to continue. The fact that such extensive media coverage resulted not only from the first release but from the second illustrates the appeal that this subject has with the media. The British file release is helping move the UFO phenomenon out of the fringe and into the mainstream.
Close Encounter Over Kent
One of the most interesting cases from the second batch of files occurred on 21st April 1991. I remember this incident very well and indeed I was involved in the official investigation. We were informed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) - the UK equivalent of the FAA - that there had been a near miss involving a commercial aircraft. The aircraft was an Al Italia MD-80 with 57 passengers on board. It was a height of around 22,000 feet over Kent, near Lydd, when a brown, cigar-shaped object passed so close to the aircraft that the pilot shouted "look out, look out". In the normal course of events, any near-miss would be investigated by the CAA. However, most such incidents involve other aircraft, and as the crew were not able to identify the object, it was treated as a UFO incident and passed from the CAA to the MoD. We launched a full investigation and eliminated all the usual possibilities, including weather balloons, military aircraft, etc. We even checked to see whether we had accidentally fired off a missile of some sort. We drew a complete blank and the incident remains unexplained to this day. This incident had a profound effect on me, because I realised that a commercial aircraft had come within seconds of being blown out of the sky over the UK. This illustrated that whatever one believes about UFOs, the phenomenon raises important defence and air safety issues. However, some people at the MoD and the CAA did not treat the incident as seriously as me, simply because of their automatic reaction to hearing the word "UFO". This was deeply troubling and convinced me that I should make every effort to ensure that all UFO incidents were investigated thoroughly, in a proper scientific manner. It also convinced me that I should make efforts to ensure the subject was taken more seriously within government, the military and the intelligence community.
Another case from the second batch that I discussed in my various media interviews was that of Milton Torres, a United States Air Force pilot who stated that on 20th May 1957 (in fact, the date is the subject of some confusion/debate) he was ordered to open fire on a UFO that was being tracked on radar. He was based at RAF Manston in Kent and was scrambled to intercept a UFO that had been tracked over Kent. He claims that he came within seconds of firing off a salvo of 24 rockets when the UFO accelerated away at a speed of around Mach 10. Torres stated that he was subsequently warned to stay silent about the incident and only mentioned it years afterwards, at a reunion. While Torres has gone on the record and given a number of media interviews, following the release of the documents from the MoD files, most people have not realised that the account in the MoD file is not an official USAF or MoD witness statement. It is a transcript of an interview with Torres, undertaken years after the event and forwarded to MoD by a ufologist. The ufologist then speculated that the incident was part of some secret test, which is patently false, as such tests would be conducted in the restricted airspace of various ranges over the sea. Needless to say, one does not conduct tests involving the potential firing of live weapons over the mainland UK! Torres is clearly an honourable man, recalling a difficult and potentially life threatening mission. But I would suggest that ufologists need to track down the original paperwork if they are to get to the bottom of this incident. Torres is not the only pilot to have been ordered to open fire on UFOs. General Parviz Jafari (Iran, 1976) and Comandante Huertas (Peru, 1980) were placed in similar positions and their stories, in their own words, can be found on the Coalition for Freedom of Information website. Check out www.freedomofinfo.org for further details.
Other Highlights From The Second Batch of MoD Files
There are plenty of other fascinating cases from the MoD UFO files. These include a case from 5 November 1990 when a number of RAF Tornado aircraft were overtaken by a UFO. There is a case from Scotland where a spectacular UFO photo was sent to the MoD. It was on my office wall for years, but was removed by my Head of Division, who had convinced himself that it showed Aurora - supposedly a prototype aircraft, the existence of which has never been confirmed. Additionally, there is a file that I opened on alien abductions and alien contact cases, with a series of bizarre letters. There is also material on crop circles, including papers showing how the MoD tried to get the military to stop flying over crop circles and photographing them, as it undermined the line that we were desperately trying to push at the time, i.e. that we weren't interested in the phenomenon!
Summer of the Saucers
At the same time as these file releases, the summer of 2008 has seen a massive upsurge in UFO sightings in the UK and - perhaps fuelled by the release of the government files - an increase in media coverage, as journalists become increasingly aware that there's a serious story here of interest to a vast number of people. I shall highlight the two cases that have attracted most media attention. Both are to be covered in Series 2 of the History Channel series UFO Hunters.
UFO in Near-Miss with Police Helicopter
A spectacular encounter between a UFO and a police helicopter took place on 8th June in South Wales, over the military base at RAF St Athan, close to Cardiff International Airport. The helicopter, with a crew of 3 on board, was about to land when it was in near collision with a UFO. Initially described as being disc-shaped and covered in lights, early media reports suggested a chase had taken place, with the helicopter pursuing the UFO south over the Bristol Channel and only breaking off pursuit when the UFO proved too quick and when they ran low on fuel. After the story broke on 20th June the story changed and the police were careful to use the phrase "unusual aircraft" as opposed to UFO. Additionally, while confirming the sighting, they denied a chase had taken place. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the story was a quote from the MoD Press Office, where a spokesperson made the following comment: "But it is certainly not advisable for police helicopters to go chasing what they think are UFOs". It has now emerged that numerous other people in the area saw the UFO. The story generated massive media coverage and numerous FOI requests have been made to the MoD and the CAA, so look out for further developments on this story. Whatever one believes about UFOs, incidents like this illustrate the the phenomenon raises serious defence and flight safety issues.
UFOs Filmed Over Military Base
The police helicopter story was followed by an even bigger story, when it transpired that a few hours before the police helicopter incident, soldiers at Tern Hill barracks in Shropshire saw several UFOs fly directly over their base. One of them filmed the objects on his mobile phone. The Sun (the UK's best-selling national daily newspaper) ran the story on the front page under the headline "Army Spot UFOs Over Shropshire". Again, investigation into this sighting is ongoing. The film is inconclusive and may even just show so-called Chinese lanterns, but the media coverage has been almost without precedent.
A Vision of the Future
Once all the files have been released, most FOI requests can simply be dealt with by a standard reply that refers people to the National Archives and/or the MoD website. At that point, it is entirely possible that MoD will attempt to disengage from the subject altogether, as the United States Air Force did when Project Blue Book was terminated in 1969. The DIS disengagement that followed Project Condign is a possible model and precedent for this. Whether MoD will need a new review, or will simply rely on Project Condign, is open to debate. But something has to give. There's no point in investigating UFO sightings if you're not going to do it properly. I once wrote a paper on this for the MoD Press Office (after I left the UFO project but before I left MoD), who were having difficulty reconciling Directorate Air Staff's public line that they "weren't interested" in UFOs with the fact that they had a telephone line for people to report sightings and did investigate sightings from pilots.
No Smoking Gun
So far as the files are concerned, don't expect a smoking gun. There isn't one. The files contain no references to spacecraft in an air force hangar or alien bodies at a government laboratory. No back-engineering, no deals with extraterrestrials and no alien autopsies. If such things have happened (and I have no knowledge that they have) I don't believe they have happened in the UK. I'm accused of being part of a cover-up when I make such statements, but they're true, whether people like it and believe it or not. Much of the material is mundane - when I joined the UFO project each case looked different, but when I left they all seemed the same. It's not all gloom, of course and there's some amazing stuff in amongst the mass of more routine material: UFOs seen by police officers and pilots, UFOs tracked on radar, craft seen performing speeds and maneuvers significantly in excess of those of our most advanced military aircraft, intriguing photos and videos, etc.
The Limits of a Paper Trail
A word of warning. Documents and files can never tell the whole story. The written word has its limitations. Reading a book about war doesn't mean you truly understand what it's like to be under fire in a war zone. Unless you've been there and done it, you can only - at best - have an outsider's view - a second-hand understanding, as it were. It's the same at the MoD. Journalists and members of the public who make FOI requests relating to UFOs (or on any subject, for that matter) may get to see some documents and files, but that only tells part of the story. Documents and files don't generally capture the politics, the personalities and the intrigue. They don't capture the unminuted discussions that take place every day, in the office, the corridor, the canteen or at social functions. Think about it from a personal point of view. How much of what you do at work each day is ever written down? If an outsider was to read some of your files, would they really understand all the business of the organization? Ufologists who specialize in document research make a valuable contribution to the subject, but an experienced journalist will tell you that the paper trail can only lead you so far. In any organization, but especially in a fundamentally secretive one like MoD, documents and files can only ever tell part of the story.
I am always reluctant to use the word disclosure, because in ufology the word is often associated with the work of Dr Steven Greer, whose Disclosure Project has become something resembling a political campaign (as has Exopolitics) aimed at ending the UFO cover-up in which many conspiracy theorists believe. But I do use the word (with a small d and not a capital letter!) because in a very real sense, disclosure is precisely what the MoD is doing in relation to documents and files. Much has already been released and there's more to come. These are exciting times.