Sunday, 31 January 2010

Ex-files Re-upholstered

The UFO and conspiracy industry suffered a double-whammy this week. At the Royal Society conference on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence scientists dismissed the UFO “evidence” as unconvincing. Gordon Brown's government isn’t convinced either, as shown by the MoD's recent decision to close its UFO desk and the public hotline on the grounds they are an “inappropriate use of defence resources”. But all is not lost, thanks to the nation's best-selling tabloid.

This was an opportunity The Sun could not allow to pass by. The paper that likes to believe it has a direct link to the public mood stepped in to fill the void by establishing its own X-files bureau. The Sun has a long history of inventing its own content. Back in 1985 the tabloid, then edited by the legendary Kelvin Mackenzie, told its readers that a popular print of a tearful street urchin known as the Crying Boy was cursed after running a story about a series of house fires where it had survived unscathed. When hundreds of people threw out their prints Mackenzie knew he had hit the jackpot, telling the punters: "Send them to us and we'll burn them for you."

Like the crying boy legend, the UFO bureau has "got legs" as Mackenzie would say. And who best to act as The Sun's “UFO expert” than Nick Pope, who is happy to take Murdoch's cash in return for regular endorsement of every submitted fuzzy photo showing everything from seagulls to Chinese lanterns as proof that aliens are buzzing us.

Pope described his former employer’s decision to close the real X-files as “bizarre” because of “massive public interest in the issue.” If there's something unusual in our skies, he says, then "we need to know or we could be leaving ourselves open to terrorist attack" (Sun, 22 January). But he failed to appreciate the delicious irony hidden in his own words which leads me to suspect this is all part of what Baldrick would call "a cunning plan."

What created the massive public interest that Pope speaks of? The final set of UFO sighting statistics released by the MoD revealed they received 634 UFO reports in 2009, triple the numbers logged over the previous two years. The vast majority of these "UFOs" are reports of lights in the sky sent in by members of the public who have seen Chinese lanterns, aircraft, bright stars and other common IFOs. This is precisely the sort of tedious and uncorroborated reports the MoD know are of no interest to them. To spend scarce public funds following these up, as Nick Pope believes they should, is a mad way to squander resources at a time when soldiers are dying in Afghanistan.

Which leads me to ponder further on who or what is behind the tripling of UFO reports received by the MoD over the past two years. Who has been encouraging people to interpret what they are seeing not as lanterns sent up for fun but as alien spacecraft? Who is it that has been running a relentless UFO campaign aimed at keeping the subject firmly in the public domain and any contrary voice out of a paper that claims to tell its readers the truth? Why that must be The Sun!

Now, how about this for a conspiracy theory: Nick Pope finds himself out of a job and then the MoD pulls the plug on its own X-files, which until now have provided his bread and butter. So he then steps in to help a tabloid newspaper invent a phony UFO invasion to create a new job for himself. You couldn't make it up.

The Eerie Silence - UFOs and astronomers

The search for extraterrestrial life was back in the news again this week. Learned astronomers told the Royal Society that evidence of life elsewhere in the universe is likely to be found during the 21st century – but the idea that aliens were already here flying around in UFOs was laughed out of court.

That was the signal put out to the media by the world’s leading space scientists who gathered in London for a two day conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, said the chances of discovering life during this century were better than ever. With powerful space telescopes such as that carried by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, now orbiting the sun, the chances of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting stars in other solar systems have increased. “Were we to find life, even the simplest life, elsewhere that would clearly be one of the great discoveries of the 21st century,” Rees told the BBC. "I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms that we can't conceive."

For decades the optimistic predictions of SETI scientists like Frank Drake and Paul Davies, who both spoke at the conference, have encouraged the rest of us to accept that intelligent civilisations must exist elsewhere in the vast universe. But the days when governments feared mass panic if such claims were confirmed appear to be a thing of the past. Bookies Ladbrokes slashed the odds on ET life being found by the end of the decade from 5000-1 to 1000-1 after Lord Rees made his comments, which suggests we no longer fear aliens but are desperate to meet them.

But the disconnect between the carefully considered views of astronomers and those of the UFO industry – which believes aliens are already here and the facts are being concealed from the public – are still a universe apart. Lord Rees summarily dismissed UFOs by saying: “I’m utterly unconvinced.” His views were shared by others who covered the proceedings including Michael Hanlon, science writer from the Daily Mail who wrote: “Despite all the X-Files claims and conspiracy theories, there has not been a credible account of a flying saucer visitation by extra-terrestrials to Earth.”

Professor Paul Davies, whose new book The Eerie Silence: Are we alone in the universe? is published in March, is better placed than any of his contemporaries to appreciate the “will to believe” in UFOs. Back in his student days Davies was a member of BUFORA and a believer in UFOs and intelligent alien life. In 1968 he sent a letter to an academic journal to protest about an article by the eminent physicist R.V.Jones that debunked flying saucers. Drawing upon the same arguments relied upon by present-day UFO proponents such as Stan Friedman, the young Davies urged Jones to re-examine the hard evidence for UFO visitations that included ground traces and images captured on film and radar.

But speaking forty years later on BBC Radio 4, Paul Davies’s views have radically changed. Unlike the 1960s, when few scientists entertained the idea of alien life he said “it is now fashionable to think the universe is teeming with life.” Although he believes it is likely life does exist in other solar systems, the bottom line is that despite the ET hype of the past five decades “the observational evidence for life beyond earth, never mind intelligent life, is totally lacking.”

Asked if he believed aliens had already visited us, his reply – based upon 40 years of reflection since his student days – could not be clearer. He does not take UFO stories seriously and has not seen any convincing evidence of alien visitation during human history. Of course the conspiracy nuts will account for this by dismissing Davies as just another pawn in the international cover-up.

But the four decade transition of Davies from young UFO buff to a cautious and open-minded scientist is a lesson many others dazzled by the UFO "evidence" can and should learn from.

On Sunday, 7 February, the Observer published a detailed examination of what SETI has achieved fifty years since Frank Drake first pointed the Green Bank radio telescope towards Tau Ceti.

The article, by Robin McKie, quoted astronomer Seth Shotak who said he was confident a signal from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilisation would be found by 2025:

"Then we will ask other observatories to check it out, and if they back us we will simply announce the existence of a message from ET. There will be no message to the President and no interference from Men In Black."

Northern Lights

Missiles and rockets launched by the Russians have been source for a long list of UFO flaps in northern Europe during the past 50 years. During the Cold War UFOs provided a useful cover for military activities which the Soviets wished to conceal from the West. So it was no surprise when on 9 December last year thousands of Norwegians were treated to a spectacular spiral of light in the pre-dawn sky, the Russian defence ministry initially claimed it was nothing to do with them. The two minute light-show was visible for hundreds of miles across northern Norway and footage captured by witnesses was quickly posted across the world. Sky-watchers described seeing a bright blue tail tapering to earth which exploded into a giant white Catherine wheel of spinning light. From the images and the duration, it was clear this was not a fireball meteor or a display of the Northern Lights and inevitably speculation turned to UFOs and “portals to another world.” But 24 hours later Russian defence officials confirmed the plume of light was caused by a Bulava missile test-fired from a nuclear submarine in the White Sea. Defence analyst Pavel Flegenhauer said the images were consistent with an embarrassing failure, something the Russians were keen to conceal. He added: “At least this failed test made some nice fireworks for the Norwegians.”

Monday, 18 January 2010

MoD UFO Files Disclosure

Using 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.