Monday, 13 April 2009

UFOs: the Inside Story of Real-life Sightings

Copies of my new book based upon the Ministry of Defence's UFO files can now be pre-ordered via Amazon.
The UFO Files: the Inside Story of Real-life Sightings will be published in paperback during July 2009 by The National Archives. The recommended cover price is £12.99 but those who order early can obtain a discount.
The book has been specially produced to accompany the ongoing releases of MoD files via the TNA website UFO page.
The UFO Files showcases accounts of UFO experiences extracted from the entire TNA collection from the 19th century to the present day.
The first two chapters include official accounts of sightings and investigations of phantom airships, foo-fighters and flying saucers from the first half of the 20th century.
Later chapters cover classic UFO incidents featured in the Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence files, ending with the most recent material released under the Freedom of Information Act. The book concentrates upon primary documents and interviews conducted with key witnesses, much of which will be new even to seasoned UFOlogists.
Working with The National Archives has meant that some key historical documents have been made available for publication for the first time. The book will include over 70 original images from the files, including accounts collected by an Air Ministry investigation of strange phenomena sighted over London in 1921!
A summary of the contents, taken from the TNA new books page, follows:

Original records reveal how British Intelligence and the CIA investigated many Cold War sightings, from the Roswell incident of 1947 to ghost aircraft, Radar Angels to the RAF's confidential files. The book sheds new light on many famous cases, such as RAF Topcliffe, 1952; the Flying Cross in Devon, 1967; RAF West Freugh, Scotland, 1957; the Berwyn Mountains UFO crash and the Phantom Helicopter Mystery, as well as the notorious 'Welsh triangle' and the Rendlesham Forest incident. Dramatic witness statements and personal interviews - many undertaken by the author himself - combine with rarely seen photographs, drawings and newly available documents to bring these extraordinary experiences vividly to life. From aerial phenonema of the First World War to crop circles and a secret UFO study of more recent times, The UFO Files offers a unique guide to our most intriguing mysteries. 

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Author of MoD UFO study to remain in the shadows

The identity of an MoD intelligence expert who wrote a controversial report on UFOs must remain a secret, the Information Commissioner has decided.
Three years ago the Ministry released - under the Freedom of Information Act - a copy of a four volume report, code-named 'Project Condign', that was completed in 2000 and classified "Secret - UK Eyes Only."
Condign was the brainchild of a mysterious intelligence officer, working as a contractor for the MoD, who was given access to secret documents covering DI55's investigations of UFO incidents over three decades.
He was asked to produce the report because of his long experience as an advisor to the Defence Intelligence Staff on the subject of UFOs.
His study concluded that UFOs - or UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) - did exist but were most likely to be natural, but poorly understood, atmospheric phenomena such as ball lightning and dusty plasmas.
The report said there was no evidence that UAPs posed a threat to the UK and there was no information of intelligence value within the reports MoD had received. 
As a direct result the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) decided to have no further involvement in the subject after 50 years of collecting sighting reports.
The existence of the Condign report was revealed as a result of 18 months of sleuthing by myself and my colleague Gary Anthony, which culminated in the FOI request and subsequent release of the papers to the international media.
A full discussion of the background can be found on my webpages - along with a detailed paper we prepared for the International UFO Reporter, published in 2007.
Since that time we have been pressing the MoD to release not only the name of the report's author, but also the names of the intelligence officers who briefed MoD on the need for the study, and of the person who ultimately commissioned it.
During 2007 Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker piled pressure on Defence Minister Adam Ingram on our behalf. He tabled a series of Parliamentary written questions on the Condign report and its author.
One of the questions asked "who the author was, what the author's qualifications in this subject were; to whom the report was circulated [and] what actions were taken on the recommendations of the report."
In response Baker was told the report cost the public around £50,000 but they would not name the author or say anything more about his background. "The author of the report was a contractor and was employed by the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) on a long-term contract," Ingram responded in Hansard, 19 March 2007.  "Further details of the author, including the name, are being with-held under the Data Protection Act 1998 [Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act]."
Not satisfied with this answer, Gary and I requested an internal review of the decision to with-hold the names. We waited 11 months for a response from the MoD - a total of 190 working days, when the maximum recommended by the Commissioner is just 40 working days!
The response when it came refused to back down, citing section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act (personal information).
Then we decided to complain to the Information Commissioner under section 50 of the Act. In our appeal we cited the Commissioner's own guidance on "personal information" (FOIA Awareness Guidance No 1), which says: "It is often believed that the Data Protection Act prevents the disclosure of any personal data without the consent of the person concerned. This is not true. The purpose of the Data Protection Act is to protect the private lives of individuals. Where an information request is about people acting in a work or official capacity then it will normally be right to disclose."
In our appeal we argued that in the context of the Condign author "there can be no question that a) the contractor paid to produce the UAP report and b) the various Defence Intelligence officers who briefed [MoD] on the need to commit public funds for a UFO study...were acting in a work or official capacity."
We added that "the authors and background context of public reports, released into the public domain, should be open and accountable to scrutiny. Without disclosure how can can members of the public, or indeed the scientific community, draw any valid conclusions as to the reliability of the conclusions reached, or to judge if public funds have been wisely spent?"
After two years we finally received our answer in an Information Commissioner Decision Notice dated 30 March 2009.
This says the Commissioner, Richard Thomas, investigated our complaint but ultimately decided to uphold the MoD's decision to with-hold the names under Section 40 of the FOIA. The Commissioner looked at the work and positions of all four individuals cited in our request. With respect to the report's author, he was clearly persuaded by the MoD's arguments against the release of his name.
The notice reads: "...the Commissioner understands that the report was commissioned and produced by the author with strict security guidelines; at the time the report was drafted it was a classified project with those involved being subject to the Official Secrets Act. Secondly, the MoD has explained that civil servants and contractors are given clear instruction that 'any association with intelligence, security or counter-terrorism work must not be disclosed.' Therefore, in the Commissioner's opinion given that the author, acting on instructions from the MoD would not have discussed his work on the draft report with those outside the DIS, it is reasonable to suppose that the author would not have expected his name, and moreover his authorship of the report, to be placed in the public domain."
Another signficant paragraph reads:
"...the Commissioner must take into account the impact disclosure could have on the personal life of the individuals concerned. The Commissioner recognises that this area of work [UFOs] attracts a significant level of media interest and accepts the suggestion by the MoD that disclosure of these names is likely to lead to attempts to contact them and question them about their work for the DIS. In addition, the Commissioner has also given consideration to the fact that at least two of these individuals have retired. The Commissioner is mindful that retirement cannot be used to circumvent disclosure where necessary but when the individual has retired, possibly many years before the request was made it must be considered whether disclosure would have a detrimental impact on the private life of the individual concerned. The Commissioner considers that given the passage of time and the retired status of the individuals any attempt to contact and interview [them] could be deemed as having a detrimental effect on their private life. In other words, retired civil servants and a contractor could be subject to questioning, and potential criticism of decisions they took when employed by the MoD a number of years ago."
It adds: "the Commissioner believes that the likely intrusion is not justified by any pressing public interest in identifying the individuals concerned given their seniority, status and extent of involvement in the subject."
So there you have it folks.
We're only likely to discover the true identity of these spooky officials in another 50 or more years, long after they are dead and buried.
No doubt this will ensure that pesky journalists can't ask them any awkward questions that might embarrass them, and their employers. 
The full text of the Information Commissioner's Decision Notice will be available on the IC website shortly.

SHU student makes headlines

Sheffield Hallam journalism student Darryl Curtis made the headlines this week with a story concerning a stolen Blackberry containing the personal details of hundreds of VIPs.
Darryl is in the second year of his journalism degree and is a keen student on my investigation and research skills module which looks at data protection issues.
Two weeks ago he came to see me with Blackberry he had bought from a homeless person in Sheffield City Centre. The person who offered it claimed it held hundreds of phone numbers and personal details of MPs, Cabinet Ministers, senior police officers and civil servants.
Darryl's nose for a good story paid off and we were amazed to discover the device appeared to have no password protection.
Scanning through the Blackberry we could see personal phone numbers of Children's Secretary Ed Balls, Foreign Secretary David Milliband, local Sheffield MPs David Blunkett and Richard Caborne along with several senior police officers including the Chief Constable of North Yorkshire, Graham Maxwell. There were also National Insurance numbers, home addresses and in one case computer passwords.
After handing over the phone to South Yorkshire Police we were informed the owner of the Blackberry had been traced. It appears that it belonged to former Sheffield City Council Chief Executive Bob Kerslake, who is now the Government's Housing Czar. His car was broken into two years ago, when he was still working in Sheffield, and a Blackberry was stolen.
This means the unprotected device, with its contents, had been on the streets of Sheffield for up to two years before it fell into Darryl's hands.
Darryl said: "I was shocked by what I found. Nothing was password protected and there was a wealth of information on there."
A spokesman for the the pressure group No2ID, Michael Parker, told The Yorkshire Post: "This isn't just a shocking lapse in security, it shows a complete absence of security...It shows how the civil service still has no idea of the value and importance of the personal information they keep. In this case it is personal details of careeer politicians, but in many other cases it's personal, bank and medical details of British citizens. This just shows why plans for a national database of information is a disaster in the making."
The story made BBC News online on 11 April after it was featured in The Yorkshire Post, Sheffield Star, Daily Mail and Scotsman.
Well done Darryl.