UFO files – saved!

After six decades of official indifference UFO records have been finally recognised by Britain’s Ministry of Defence as being ‘historically significant’.

MoD’s ‘Guidance for Record Reviewers’, lists files on ‘unidentified flying objects‘ alongside those concerning nuclear testing, Special Forces and the Royal Family as being subject to special review procedures.

Extract from MoD document 'Guidance to Record Reviewers' (June 2011) - obtained via FOIA

Extract from MoD document ‘Guidance to Record Reviewers’ (June 2011) – obtained via FOIA

The document – obtained via a Freedom of Information request – was prepared by the Departmental Records Officer (DRO) in 2011, two years before MoD completed a ‘special project’ that transferred all surviving files to The National Archives at Kew.

After the closure of the UFO desk in 2009, anyone who contacts MoD to report a ‘sighting’ today is sent a standard letter. But no further records are kept on file. This allows the government to avoid handling further FOI requests on the subject.

But the addition of UFOs to the department’s retention schedule in 2011 came too late to save earlier records that were destroyed long before the MoD’s records retention system became accountable to the public.

Destruction was justified on the grounds that records of UFO incidents before 1962 were ‘of transitory interest’ for defence purposes and ‘in view of the mundane explanations which are found to apply to them…these papers [were] only retained for five years‘ (TNA ref AIR 2/18116).

This policy was put in place after Sir Robert Grigg chaired a committee to ‘review the arrangements for preservation of the records of government departments’.

This recommended that 90% of all departmental papers could be disposed of at first review (after five years).

Under the Public Record Acts of 1958 and 1967 only those records ‘perceived to have possible historical value’ were kept for transfer to TNA.  As most officials – including those working on the UFO desk – felt that UFO investigations were a fruitless diversion of scare resources, their fate was sealed.

National Archive

Examples of documents stored for posterity at The National Archives (credit: The Guardian)

The outcome was that during the ’50s and ’60s records were routinely weeded and destroyed at first review (after five years) and few survived to the 25 year mark where at second review transfer to the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) was possible.

But after a flurry of sightings in the autumn of 1967 followed by intense media interest, questions about the MoD’s records were raised by MP Eric Bullus, a former RAF pilot, on behalf of his constituent UFO researcher Julian Hennessy.

When Merlyn Rees MP, then Minister of Defence for the RAF, became aware that records, including intelligence files on UFOs from the 1950s had been lost, he ordered a freeze on further destruction.

But because of the volume of paperwork in MoD and poor communication this ministerial instruction failed to reach the relevant desk officers. Out of sight and scrutiny, officials in the RAF and DIS continued to mark UFO files for destruction at first review as recently as 1991.

The full consequences of these poor decisions were felt in 2005 when, following the arrival of Freedom of Information, MoD was inundated with requests for information on UFOs.  As they were now compelled to respond to requests by law, an efficient record management system was required to locate and prepare surviving records for transfer to public archives.

Many of the FOI requests received related to incidents before 1967, including sightings reported officially by aircrew. In almost every case officials had to respond that papers had been destroyed decades earlier because the subject was deemed of minimal historical interest.

Other losses included intriguing references to gun camera film of unidentified aerial phenomena obtained by RAF fighter pilots in the 1950s. These films were seen by a retired MoD official, Ralph Noyes, at MoD Main Building in 1970. But when Noyes made inquiries about them three decades later, he found they had disappeared – presumably destroyed.

In 2007 when the MoD announced the transfer of their surviving files to The National Archives they said this was to promote openness and counter what it called ‘the maze of rumour and frequently ill-informed speculation’ that surrounded their involvement in the UFO syndrome.

But  one of the persistent themes running through the papers was the embarrassment they felt about the destruction of swathes of earlier paperwork.

One official noted, in a 1967 document, ‘it is a great pity that this cat was let out of the bag sometime ago’ and added, without a hint of irony, that ‘incidentally, we are not destroying any more papers at present’.

By the time the ‘special project’ involving The National Archives was completed earlier this year the Ministry was left in no doubt about the level of public interest in UFOs – and its place in the social history of the nation.

As of July 2013 there had been 4.7 million individual page views of the TNA’s UFO page and 3.9 million downloads of documents – including one policy file that was downloaded 250,000 times.

Since that time public trust in government record-keeping has been rocked again by revelations that MoD has been holding thousands of files on Northern Ireland that should have been released under the 30 year rule (The Guardian 7 October 2013).

Meanwhile, the same paper revealed how The Foreign Office had been ‘unlawfully hoarding more than a million files of historic documents that should have been declassified and handed over to The National Archives’ (The Guardian 18 October 2013).

The consequences of the government’s record management policy – past and present – in terms of the effect on public trust in the ‘official version’ of history is the subject of a paper I am presenting at the annual conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA) in Brussels on 23 November.

The paper ‘Freedom of Information and archival appraisal: citizens influencing the choice of historical evidence‘, explains how I used Freedom of Information requests to fight and win the campaign to save the MoD’s surviving UFO records.

The late recognition of this subject as being of historical importance by MoD and The National Archives demonstrates that ordinary people can play a part in bringing about changes to official policy.

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