MoD Versus MoD
The Inside Story of Project Condign
By Nick Pope
In May 2006 the Ministry of Defence published on their website documentation relating to Project Condign - a highly-classified study into UFOs undertaken by a private contractor at the behest of the Defence Intelligence Staff. The study itself has been analysed extensively by ufologists, but in this article I will explain some of the politics behind the study and show readers what the paper trail itself never can: the intrigue, the personalities and the internal politics that lie beneath the surface. This is the inside story of Project Condign, told here for the very first time.
The MoD's policy on UFOs hasn't changed much in over fifty years, and was no different from the United States Air Force's policy in their research effort, Project Blue Book. The remit was to examine UFO sightings to see if anything reported might be of any "defence significance". It sounds a simple remit, but actually it isn't, largely because of debate over what "defence significance" actually means. I'm not implying that ufologists don't understand the term. The issue is that the MoD doesn't understand it, or to be more accurate, that different MoD officials involved with the UFO issue have interpreted the term in very different ways.
Within the MoD, sceptics who think the subject is nonsense interpret "defence significance" in terms of foreign aircraft or UAVs making unauthorised incursions into the United Kingdom's Air Defence Region. For the more open-minded, it relates to issues about UFOs - whatever they may be - penetrating our air defences with impunity. For believers (and there have been several) it can be interpreted as the potential for acquiring UFO technology in terms of avionics, aerodynamics and propulsion systems, whatever the true origin of UFOs. Belief will drive action, so people coming to the issue from such different angles are bound to handle the subject in different ways.
In a sense it's a mistake to talk about MoD policy on UFOs at all. Never has a subject been handled so differently over the years, according to the whims of those involved. The reason is clear. With a few notable exceptions, there is little top-down direction on the subject, because senior career-minded personnel (Service and civilian) and ambitious Ministers don't want to touch the issue with a bargepole, for fear their involvement will be taken as interest, and will count against them. Sceptic versus believer debates on UFOs have raged at the very heart of the Establishment, but at desk officer level too, some people thought MoD's involvement in the subject was a waste of time and money, while others thought there were serious defence, national security and flight safety issues at stake, and that more should be done. To summarise, sceptics see "defence significance" more in terms of threats from foreign aircraft, while others see it in terms of an opportunity in terms of technology acquisition.
To Investigate or not to Investigate?
All this manifests itself in extreme sensitivity over one word: investigation. Over the years, the MoD has tried to downplay the subject of UFOs. That's not so much covering up some great truth about UFOs known by the MoD, but not wanting to draw attention to the work that the Department does on the subject, against a background of MPs and journalists who might give the Department a hard time for expending resources on the subject at all, given competing pressures on the defence budget, and ufologists who would bombard the MoD with questions on the subject. So, does the Department "investigate" UFOs at all? On some occasions the MoD has said that it doesn't investigate, but merely "examines", to look for evidence of this mysterious thing called "defence significance". On other occasions, the 'I word' has been used. Interesting, a comparatively recent example of this was when a question was tabled in Parliament about my role. Norman Baker MP tabled the following question:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Defence in what capacity Mr Nick Pope was employed by his Department between 1991 and 1994".
The answer was given on 18 April 2006 by the Under Secretary of State, Don Touhig, and is recorded in Hansard (the official record of parliamentary proceedings), which can be accessed via Parliament's website. The answer read as follows:
"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".
The answer gets to the heart of the issue. Because how can you possibly say whether UFO sightings are or aren't of any "defence significance" (however you define that term) unless you investigate the sightings? The answer is simple: you can't. I'll make one small qualification here: you can, if you hide behind a negative and say "because I've seen no hard evidence of hostile intent from UFOs, they pose no threat and are therefore inherently of "no defence significance". It's a lazy get-out approach, but it has been used on occasion. However, most would agree you can't make a meaningful assessment without first undertaking some form of investigation, and this was the background to Project Condign.
Saucers and Spooks
Unlike many of my predecessors on the UFO project and (apparently) all of my successors, I forged extremely close links with the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS). My opposite number seemed genuinely interested in the mystery and shared my discomfort that we weren't doing enough on the subject. So it was that on 1 June 1993 he wrote me an internal minute (now declassified and released under the Freedom of Information Act, as is the case with all documents cited in this article) which began as follows:
"You may be interested to hear that at long last I have had some funds allocated for serious UFO research ... needless to say we do not want this broadcast and it is for your information only".
I replied on 3 June and my response included the following:
"I was pleased to hear about the funds you have secured, and stand ready to assist with any of the projects you are planning".
There then followed an internal DIS meeting at which it was decided that approval was required from "customers". The two customers identified were the Head of Secretariat (Air Staff) - i.e. my Head of Division - and the Director of Air Defence. A draft note was prepared which contained the following intriguing quote:
"Some recent events, and a cursory examination of the files, indicate that the topic may be worthy of a short study".
One of the "recent events" was the so-called Cosford Incident, where UFOs had been seen over a period of several hours on 30 and 31 March 1993. My opposite number in the DIS and I had spent a lot of time and effort investigating these sightings. I had prepared a briefing on them for my Head of Division on 16 April 1993, which concluded:
"It seems that an unidentified object of unknown origin was operating in the UK Air Defence Region without being detected on radar; this would appear to be of considerable defence significance, and I recommend that we investigate further, within MOD or with the US authorities".
My Head of Division was normally sceptical about the UFO phenomenon, but on this occasion he agreed with my conclusion. His 22 April 1993 brief to the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (one of the UK's most senior RAF officers) stated:
"In summary, there would seem to be some evidence on this occasion that an unidentified object (or objects) of unknown origin was operating over the UK".
In the event, the draft letter seeking approval from Head of Secretariat (Air Staff) and the Director of Air Defence wasn't sent. What happened was that a much more detailed brief was sent to Secretariat (Air Staff) 2 - the Deputy Director who was my second reporting officer. I can't recall the details and they were never written down, but I believe I'd had discussions with the DIS about the wording of this letter before it was sent. Both the Head of Secretariat (Air Staff) and the Deputy Director were generally sceptical about UFOs, but the DIS needed our approval. Politically, given the sensitivities, this approval was needed at Director or Deputy Director level, so I couldn't approve the study myself. As I recall, I'd discussed the wording with the DIS before they sent the proposal and suggested to them the sorts of things they'd need to say if they were to get buy-in. And that was only half the job. The challenge for me was then to 'sell' the proposal to my managers so that the study got the green light. Part of this involved setting up a meeting, where the DIS set out the case for a study and sought to assure my Deputy Director that what was planned was both modest and in no way inconsistent with MoD policy on UFOs (however one chose to define and interpret it).
Language was a key part of the 'selling job' and my DIS colleague and I agreed to drop the term "UFO" in view of the associated baggage, replacing it with the more scientific sounding term "UAP" (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). It became a point of pride - and some humour, as I recall - to write entire documents on the subject without the phrase "UFO" appearing even once.
The proposal was dated 18 October 1993, was classified Secret UK Eyes A and set out a compelling case for undertaking a study. The detailed analysis was to be undertaken not by the DIS but by a contractor. The issue of security was addressed in this way:
"I believe that opening a new contract especially for this study and using competitive tendering would potentially expose the study to too wide an audience ...".
The plan was to amend an existing contract. I drafted the reply to this letter and it was sent back to the DIS by my Deputy Director, who stated:
"I can confirm that we are content with what has been proposed ... I would be grateful if you would keep Sec(AS)2a [i.e. me!] involved in this process".
Delays and Disagreements
A series of delays caused by financial pressures and the pressure of other competing DIS priorities scuppered the original plan. Correspondence dragged on periodically, but it was looking less and less likely that the study would ever take place. Despite the fact that some staff within the DIS felt "We have a remit that we have never met" (i.e. undertaking a proper intelligence study of the UFO phenomenon that would allow an informed assessment of whether UFOs were of defence significance), other DIS personnel were less keen. In a letter dated 25 October 1995 a senior DIS officer said that "spending money on such an esoteric subject in a continuing climate of constraint was not good politically".
However, by the end of 1996 the study was resurrected and, for the first time, the phrase Project Condign was used. However, shortly thereafter, another problem emerged: Sec (AS) began to get cold feet. "I have some concerns about what is planned" stated a letter dated 27 January 1997, before setting out worries that the DIS study would be incompatible with the "we don't investigate UFOs" line that Sec (AS) were busy trying to push at the time. The DIS, however, had concerns of their own. The DIS concern was Sec (AS)! Despite the classification and sensitivity of this study, which was carried out on the usual 'need to know' basis, Sec(AS) had copied the correspondence more widely. They had even included the name of the contractor undertaking the work, who delivered a thinly-veiled rebuke to Sec(AS).
I hasten to add that by that time I was no longer working in Sec(AS), having been promoted in 1994 and posted to another directorate. Had I still been in Sec(AS) I like to think I could have smoothed over these differences. I certainly would have advised my bosses against putting DIS documents on a wider distribution without their prior consent. The tone of the correspondence at this time clearly shows some 'dramatic tension' between Sec(AS) and the DIS. And that's when the really interesting thing happens: Sec(AS) drop out of the picture. The reason is never directly explained, but an internal DIS email dated 17 December 1999 suggests that Sec(AS)'s wider circulation of DIS papers was the straw that broke the camel's back. Project Condign had been completed and the DIS email was discussing circulation of the final report. The key quote is as follows:
"No positive purpose would be served in sending the report to Sec(AS) ... we recommend a letter to Sec(AS) ... identifying that we have completed our declared review, outlining the conclusions drawn ... in view of the "leakiness" of Sec(AS) we would advocate only releasing the report to them on request, in order to discourage further discussion".
However, by 2000 things had changed again and while the letter summarising Project Condign was sent to a handful of DIS and RAF personnel, it wasn't copied to Sec(AS) at all.
For one part of the MoD to describe another in terms of "leakiness" is sensational, and could be seen as evidence of a clear breakdown of trust. This may explain why despite my having been closely involved in the work that led to the setting up of Project Condign, my successors were gradually cut out of the loop, before being excluded altogether. The tragedy of this is that had Sec(AS) have been actively involved in the study, as had been envisaged in 1993, it would have been a far more meaningful exercise. But because of concerns over security, the departmental subject matter experts were excluded from the study, when they should have been regarded as the major stakeholder and treated as such. But the methodology and failings of the study is a story for another day.