In May of 2006, at a little past 7 in the evening, an odd thing happened in the English seaside town of Hastings. As a government report put it shortly afterwards: “Two witnesses thought they saw an alien outside their kitchen window.” And that was that. No abductions. No probes. Just a fleetingly interrupted cup of tea.
This Close Encounter of the Brief Kind is among the many UFO-related reports contained in 6,700 pages of documents recently declassified by Britain’s Ministry of Defence, or MoD, the latest batch of 50,000-plus pages that have been made public since 2008. The documents represent three decades of paperwork generated by a branch of the MoD known as DI55—or, informally, the UFO Desk—which was responsible for investigating the hundreds of sightings reported in Britain each year. Before it was disbanded for budget reasons in 2009, after 50 years in existence, the UFO Desk amassed one of the world’s most comprehensive public records of potential alien activity, making it a treasure trove for those who study and theorize about the topic.
The United Kingdom’s National Archives, which published the reports on its website, has worked hard to play up the wow factor—publicity material includes mentions of “faceless humanoids,” “alien tourism,” and “Tony Blair.” But if you take the time to go through these papers, it gradually becomes clear that there is very little in the way of genuine intrigue here. The most compelling thing about the documents, in fact, is how profoundly, clerically drab they are—a monumental testament to the power of bureaucracy to suck the life out of the farthest reaches of the universe.
“This was not ‘Men in Black’,” says Nick Pope, a journalist and author who worked the UFO Desk between 1991 and 1994. “We did not have gadgets that could wipe people’s memory after a UFO sighting. Neither was it ‘X-Files.’ There was no creeping around dark warehouses with torches and guns. It was a desk job.” When asked whether it was at least an interesting desk job, Pope laughs. “Erm, ooh,” he says. “Most of the time, no.”
It seems astonishing that one of the most enduring mysteries of modern times should be reduced to a flurry of stolid paperwork, but the British do have a special talent for this sort of thing. And, to be fair, the vast majority of sightings were not exactly Spielbergian. A good many of them, in fact, were just daffy. “Having lived for over 60 years in this area, and have seen many things round and about,” goes a typical query, “I wonder if you can shed any light on the odd movements going on in the skies.”
The UFO Desk had a standard form letter for odd movements in the skies, which explained, in the kind of fraughtly patient tones you might use with a persistent child, that the MoD was only interested in reports containing “evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom,” that not a single UFO report so far had revealed such evidence, that “rational explanations” could be found for the most mysterious sightings, and that the MoD did not have the time, the money, or the inclination to investigate this particular sighting any further. Or, in other words, “Go away.”
Internal memos, meanwhile, tended to be finger-drumming, eye-rolling affairs. Upon hearing from a resident of Peckham, South London, who’d waited two-and-a-half decades to report a “strange event” (“a bright star like object almost directly overhead”) an investigator wrote to his colleagues: “I suspect that as it’s 25 years ago, getting hold of any records would be a trifle difficult.” The investigator eventually sent the man a letter saying: “This may take a little time.” (I could find no trace of further correspondence.)
According to Pope, the real job of the UFO Desk was not to look for evidence of little green men, but to look for evidence of secret terrestrial weaponry. “I had a little joke,” he says. “I’d always say that we were more focused on Moscow than Mars.” Occasionally, the desk guys would get something that had promise, something from a “credible witness” (that is, someone in uniform), something that warranted a further look from the wonks and generals. They’d send it upstairs, then never hear about it again.
If the MoD was interested in getting to the bottom of whether any of the UFOs represented real alien visitations, it didn’t show it. Certainly, the ministry did not heap resources upon the effort. When Pope worked there, the UFO Desk amounted to just that: a desk (“It was me and an admin assistant”). The pay grade for the job was D, just above the tea lady. And still the procurement people sent out ill-tempered memos about money and manpower, the wastefulness of addressing the concerns of a woman who’d seen “a flash from the corner of her eye.”
To make things worse, very often the desk guys agreed. “About 99 percent of the time, what you had was someone reporting lights in the vicinity of an airport, which was clearly a waste of time and money,” Pope says. “There was some frustration, wanting to get Joe Public off your back so you could get down to the more interesting cases. If 99 percent was John Smith seeing aircraft lights and 1 percent was Flight Lieutenant Smith seeing something exotic from the cockpit of his fighter jet, obviously you were more interested in the flight lieutenant.”
Britain, like America, has a small but vocal contingent of conspiracy theorists, those who feel that the government is committed to an elaborate, ongoing scheme to hide the truth about UFOs. These documents, however, do not portray the desk guys as imperious Keepers of the Information; they show men who are every bit as eager for a hit as the theorists are. Further, they often reveal a similar degree of frustration at the lack of progress. “If at any stage in the future [UFOs] are shown to exist, then there is the potential for severe embarrassment,” wrote one disgruntled civil servant. “We can justifiably be asked how we could receive so many reports and ignore them.”
If the desk guys were guilty of anything, it was to succumb to the endless avalanche of frivolous or muddle-headed sightings, which bred a kind of bored detachment. Generally, the notations on the MoD’s standardized reports tend to be extremely terse. In one characteristic example, an object’s color is described as “quite yellow.” In another, it seems the investigator could barely bring himself to lift up his pen. Under the all-important category “Description,” he has written: “Just said UFO.”
You can sympathize with these people. Here they were doing what was supposed to be an important job, and they spent the majority of it poring over phrases like “A space vehicle oval in shape,” “An object that was military shaped,” “A big flying object, looked like a glider,” “Two objects that looked like stars,” “A dot in the sky that did not look like an airplane,” and “I was on my way to the petrol station as I had run out of cigarettes when I noticed the Light in the sky. It started to move in the direction of Hull.”
This final example points to a fundamental, possibly fatal problem for all UFO investigators. In a briefing written shortly before a 1979 House of Lords debate on the subject, an MoD staffer asked why alien life forms would even want to visit an “insignificant planet” circling an “uninteresting star.” This question becomes more pertinent still when alien life forms have journeyed across the void to lurk over the household of a Mrs. Woodward of Bexley Heath.
The irony was not lost on the UFO Desk. “We’d have competitions to see who received the most bizarre and surreal letters,” says Pope. “We’d go to the archives trying to find good ones.” He adds, “People used to write funny comments in the margins, which is a real civil servant thing to do. I remember we had one guy saying he’d observed a UFO through his French windows and someone had written, ‘Snob.’”
The default mood at the desk, however, was grumpy. In 1998, an officer filed a report about a man driving in a car who’d claimed to have seen an ovular object a quarter of a mile in length, with three green windows eight feet apart (think about that). “He’d been drinking but did not sound drunk,” the officer wrote. “He changed his story a couple of times and repeated himself several times.” In response, somebody had pencilled in the margin: “A ‘reliable’ witness? Who ‘filtered’ this?”
The thing that really got the desk guys steaming were the believers, those who saw every bureaucratic shrug as a form of organized obfuscation. One of the more enduring controversies concerned alleged military activity around the site of some crop circles in southwest England, close to a place called Middle Wallop. The theorists had given the incident a name, “Operation Blackbird,” and over nearly two decades launched a barrage of queries and insinuations. In 2006, somebody sent the MoD what they said was video footage of the incident, and somebody on the desk snapped.
“Since the video is allegedly taken in the Wiltshire area, which is home to various military bases, it is entirely possible that individuals did see soldiers skulking in bushes,” an internal memo stated. “The leap that was made to it being part of an operation to study crop circles is probably in line with the logic of UFO buffs who believe that everyone takes their hobby as seriously as they do.”
Occasionally in these documents, you stumble across a moment where politics intrudes on the proceedings—and here the desk was forced to proceed with slightly more delicacy. When a member of Parliament named Bill Cash reported a sighting in 1988—complete with sketches of the “two perfect triangles” he’d seen zipping over his garden—an investigator responded politely that Cash had probably seen airplanes flying into Birmingham Airport, “which was exceptionally busy at the time.”
And the desk kept an eye on what other branches of the military establishment were saying, too. The documents included copies of correspondence between a freelance writer and the editor of RAF News, the magazine for the Royal Air Force. Responding to a story pitch from the writer—a withering rebuttal of a UFO conspiracy theorist—the editor wrote: “This UFOlogist is of course the Earl of Clancart....I feel our political masters would think it improper if the RAF News should be too rude about him.” So, the editor suggested, how about “letting the idiocy of the Earl’s ideas speak for themselves.”
It’s this sort of thing, most likely—the vast tracts of embarrassing detail—that kept the MoD from releasing these files until now. Which, for the UFOlogists, is the worst news of all. There are no secret sites contained in these documents, no brilliant subterfuge. As Pope points out, the diehards will say all the best stuff has been tucked away out of sight, but this particular theory doesn’t explain the stuff that is here. You cannot feign this sense of futility and frustration. Not over so many years.
“Despite what the conspiracy theorists claim, there was no coverup, we never did have an alien spaceship hidden away in a hangar,” says Pope. “It would be more exciting if this was the case, but it isn’t.”
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.