By Dr. David ClarkeUsing the Freedom of Information Act, I have obtained a copy of a document drawn up by the MoD in September 2007 when Defence Minister Des Browne approved the transfer of the UFO files to Britain’s National Archives.
In the 5-page document a senior MoD official says:
“Since the end of WW2, MoD have been tasked with recording and, from time to time, investigating UFO sightings. Contrary to what many members of the public believe, MoD has no interest in the subject of extraterrestrial life forms visiting the UK, only in ensuring the integrity and security of UK airspace."The writer goes on to explain although the files contain nothing of relevance to the defence of the realm, the contents are of "keen interest to a large worldwide group of amateur and professional 'UFOlogists'" who had bombarded the Ministry with complex requests for information since the arrival of the Freedom of Information Act in 2005. The 'UFO desk' - closed in December 2009 - received 199 requests in 2005, 140 in 2006 and 120 in 2007.
Processing these requests had become “increasingly costly and time consuming” especially when MoD’s responses were challenged by UFO researchers. Furthermore, “the piecemeal release of information…fuels unhelpful speculation from those who believe there are issues that MoD are trying to hide.” Nevertheless, Des Browne was informed that:
“…MoD is aware of no clear evidence to prove or disprove the existence of aliens and consequently the files are considerably less exciting than the ‘industry’ surrounding the UFO phenomena would like to believe.”Pressure was building during 2007 for full disclosure of the files. During this time myself and colleagues Joe McGonagle and Gary Anthony led a campaign to persuade the MoD the only sensible option was to commit to a public release of the entire remaining archive of files.
This document shows how successful our campaign actually was. The Secretary of State was told the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) had already made a written commitment to review its own UFO files for release “in response to an FOI request from an academic researcher” (me).
Early in the year the French National Centre for Space Studies decided to release its files on the internet, which “increased the already significant press and internet speculation that we [MoD] are about to release our own.”
By the end of 2007 it had become obvious that MoD would soon be obliged to release “virtually all its UFO files” and for copyright reasons it was decided the best conduit for disclosure was via The National Archives at Kew.
MoD impressed upon the Secretary of State for Defence there were “clear presentational benefits in meeting public demand and expectation” for the release which “would also smooth the workload” on the desk officers who were being distracted from more important priorities.
Although MoD did not expect the volume of requests about UFOs to reduce when the decision was announced (in May 2008), it planned to invoke exemption 22 under the FOIA that allows public authorities to turn down requests for information that had been earmarked for release in the next 12 months: "This would assist in managing the release of the files in a structured manner."
A total of 160 UFO files dating back to the 1970s were included in the three year project, 48 of which have been released via The National Archives UFO page to date. Most of these files were created by the Air Staff secretariat with a further 27 defence intelligence files whose contents were largely duplicate copies of those held by the 'UFO desk.' The disclosure would also include a considerable number of files covering FOI requests and responses since 2005. A further 20 or more files have been added to this total since this decision was made.The total costs of the project include £13,000 to scan the file and £3,000 to purchase specialised redaction software.
Referring to the contents of the files, the MoD noted that it was unusual for files to be transferred to TNA so far in advance of the usual 30 year rule. However, "it is assessed that the high level of public interest and lack of sensitive material in the files means that no precedent is set by their early release." He continues:
“The majority of the files are of low security classification but include references to air defence matters, defence technology, relations with foreign powers and occasional uncomplimentary comments by staff or police officers about members of the public, which will need to be withheld in accordance with FOI principles. In particular, the PQ [Parliamentary Questions] will require considerable work before they can be transferred as they contain background notes for Ministers, but there is no reason, in principle, why they cannot be released.”The document ends by suggesting that MoD should continue their policy of playing down their interest in UFOs after the press announcement was made, in May 2008.
Anticipating a great deal of interest from the press and the general public, the Secretary of State for Defence was told “there is a risk that media will overplay the MoD’s involvement in these cases, therefore we will need to manage our message and be prepared to deal with a high level of media interest. There is also likely to be frustration that people who want to view files at the TNA will be charged.”
In the event, visitors to the TNA website have been able to download the files for free for the first month.
Des Browne gave his approval to the project on 25 September 2007 and the rest is history.
As these documents "are deemed to be of public interest" MoD plan to upload a full copy of the disclosure document onto their FOI publication scheme in the near future.