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.