The truth is out there... and it's a bit of a letdown

Yorkshire Post, UK/January 22, 2008

By Sarah Freeman

The Ministry of Defence is about to open its UFO files, but the contents threaten to reveal more about Cold War blunders than extraterrestrials. The truth often has a habit of disappointing.

When the Ministry of Defence announced it was going to parcel up all the reports it had ever made on UFOs and send them to the National Archive it created a wave of excited chatter in chat rooms and web blogs devoted to all things paranormal.

Interest was understandable - the MoD has had an office dedicated to UFO sightings since 1950 and while it's more likely to have been a dingy broom cupboard, with no natural sunlight, and few home comforts than any kind of Men in Black headquarters, details of its activities have always appeared shrouded in secrecy.

According to the conspiracy theorists its staff have been too busy covering up alien landings to hold press conferences and publish books, their filing cabinets overflowing with documents containing precise co-ordinates of extra-terrestrial visits to planet Earth. However, those who've had an early glimpse of what's on offer insist that those wanting photographic evidence of little green men will remain disappointed.

One of those responsible for the MoD decision to go public is David Clarke, a man who has spent the last few years using the Freedom of Information Act to bombard the Government with requests to release details of various incidents up and down the country.

As pastimes go, it's hardly conventional. While some would described him as an obsessive and others as just another player in the great cover-up machine, the Sheffield Hallam University lecturer insists he's neither.

"Whenever anyone asks me whether I believe in UFOs I quietly groan," he says. "I am interested in unidentified flying objects, but it's something which comes with a whole lot of other connotations.

"Originally the term was coined by the Americans in an effort to get away from flying saucers, but it doesn't seem to have worked. For me these sightings are a part of social history and I've always been intrigued by how they were viewed by intelligence sources."

David has been nothing if not committed and one can only imagine the MoD switchboard staff must let out a small sigh whenever they hear his voice on the other end of the phone. His mission began in 1999 when he applied for the release of files relating to a UFO sighting in Rendlesham, Suffolk - an incident dubbed Britain's answer to Roswell - but in 2005 a new piece of legislation came into force which was manna from heaven.

The Freedom of Information Act compelled public bodies to release information on request within a one-month time limit and with the law behind him David's assault on the MoD and in particular intelligence branch DI55 intensified.

"In the end, I think they decided it was costing them a lot of time and money to reply to every individual request, so they would be better off handing over everything they had to a national archive," he says. "Over the past 30 years there have been 7,000 sightings and because there is so much paperwork the release is going to be staggered over a number of years."

David is now trying to secure a grant which would pay for an in-depth audit of the papers, which he says will tell us as much about military intelligence, or the lack of it, during the Cold War than they do about alien life-form.

"Clearly the MoD never believed we were visited by little green men," says David. "However, DI55 was supposed to investigate UFO sightings in case it was evidence a foreign government was developing missiles and satellites or testing prototype aircraft.

"It's work was shrouded in secrecy, because they knew if it came out they were spending public money tracing UFOs it would be taken out of context, but it was, or at least should have been, considered vital intelligence work. What's interesting is just how scant most of the reports are."

The opening of the Government's X-Files is bound to renew interest in cases such as the Rendlesham Forest incident in 1980 when several witnesses reported an apparent UFO landing outside the perimeter fence of a military base in Suffolk. One of the witnesses, Colonel Charles Hunt, sent a detailed report to Whitehall, but the files show he was never interviewed and the subsequent investigation was fatally flawed due to a confusion over dates.

"Bearing in mind this was a military base, you might have thought the MoD would have taken more interest in the witness statements of respected officers," says David. "In reality they did nothing and when Col Hart's report landed on their desk some three weeks later it still failed to kick them into life.

"They concluded that there was nothing especially noteworthy about what happened at Rendlesham. However, it turned out Col Hart had included the wrong dates for the sighting and because the MoD failed to cross reference the report with police logs unsurprisingly the investigation came to nothing.

"It's easy to forget, but in the 1980s we were in the height of the Cold War, night and day there were protesters outside Greenham Common, but when it came to sightings of what could have been Russian satellites or aircraft there was no sense of urgency.

"In truth, 90 per cent of sightings can be easily explained whether it be a 9.45pm flight into Manchester or even an unusual cloud formation which is picked up on radar, but it's that five per cent which no one can explain which is interesting."

While most of the papers won't set the paranormal world on fire, their release almost didn't happen when some 63,000 files running to 12 million pages, apparently contaminated by asbestos, were earmaked for destruction. However, when news of their intentions became known the MoD, confounding accusations of a cover-up, spent £3m making digital copies of the files.

"While we managed to save these papers a lot has already been lost or destroyed," says David. "Pretty much everything before 1950 has gone and it wasn't until 1967 that they stopped routinely destroying things at five-yearly intervals. It is a victory for freedom of information, but there are always going to be some who will consider it a whitewash.The truth is that these papers show they were incompetent at keeping proper files and tracking information on UFOs, so if we had ever been visited by aliens I'm sure we would have heard by now."

The sightings

1977 Broad Haven, Wales

There were several reported UFO sightings in the area during the 1970s, but the most widely publicised was the strange visitation to a field near to Broad Haven Primary School in February 1977. Fourteen primary children witnessed a silvery yellow cigar shaped UFO and some said they had seen a figure in a sil ver suit. Following this report there were adult witnesses to a dome shaped UFO in the same area.

1989 Bonnybridge, Scotland

A fire crew were attending a blaze when they saw what appeared to be a red object hovering in the distance. A second object then appeared above a loch about 20ft from the witnesses, followed by a third which passed overhead. After a further spate of sightings the area was dubbed the UFO Capital of Scotland.

1987 Ilkley Moor

A former police officer was walking over moorland when he claimed he saw a small green creature about 4ft tall with overlong arms running towards a hollow in the hillside. He shouted at the creature, which waved its arms at him, and he managed to snap a picture. The resulting photograph, which experts later said had not been tampered with, did show a strange figure, but sadly he was never seen again.

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