Over the past 30 years, details of British UFO sightings were nervously reported, carefully filed away and instantly rendered inaccessible to the public.
That has all changed in the last month, thanks in great part to the efforts of a small group of UFO researchers led by professor and journalist David Clarke. On May 14, the U.K. government began releasing its entire collection of UFO reports — 160 files that include more than 11,000 sightings — to the National Archives, a move made in response to the hard-fought campaign by Clarke and his colleagues that hinged on Britain's 2000 Freedom of Information Act, which came into full effect in 2005.
Clarke describes the high-profile release of almost 60 years worth of material as the "culmination of around 10 years of work." A UFO skeptic who believes the origins of most reports to be atmospheric phenomena rather than flying saucers, Clarke has long been fascinated with the cultural factors that lead people to believe in UFOs and has for years advocated the benefits of exposing the truth.
"There is nothing so powerful as truth and often nothing so strange," Clarke, quoting Daniel Webster, said as he explained that many who believe in the supernatural had for years assumed Britain's Ministry of Defence was withholding the files in an effort to conceal what it knew. Those claims can now be refuted by reading the notes in the files themselves, and as Clarke pointed out, "The fact is, the MoD (Ministry of Defence) couldn't explain them either."
But getting the government to agree to the release wasn't easy, and without the Freedom of Information Act — or its predecessor, the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information — obtaining government files was all but impossible. "Before the mid-1990s, there wasn't a lot you could do," Clarke noted. "If you wanted to see a document, you had to wait 30 years."
Or more. Winston Churchill asked in 1952: "What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience." That request, a gem in a pile of correspondence between the then-prime minister and the Air Ministry, came to light under the 30-year rule — in 1988. The report he sought took another 13 years to become public.
Fortunately for Clarke and his colleagues, they didn't have to wait that long. The 1994 Code of Practice enabled him to obtain information on the infamous Rendlesham Forest Incident — a mysterious 1980 reputed spaceship landing observed by members of the RAF and known familiarly as "Britain's Roswell" — and when the FOIA went into effect in 2005, Clarke said the group began "piling on the pressure."
Finally, in May 2007, the Ministry of Defence and Defence Intelligence Staff agreed to release their entire collection of UFO reports to the public. Clarke said he was more surprised by his success than anything else, admitting, "I never really thought that they would go that far."
Acting as a consultant expert for the National Archives, Clarke has spent the past few months crafting a detailed background briefing on the files, pointing out which sightings remain mysterious and — as is most often the case — which can now be easily explained.
One memorable case was a series of crop circles that appeared in Hampshire in 1985, which puzzled Army teams and sparked a frenzy of rumors and speculation. Five years later, the real perpetrators were discovered — practical jokers "Doug and Dave," who, on the way home from the pub late one night, spontaneously decided to set up a hoax.
Will his significant victory — made all the more prominent by its intriguing subject matter — lead others to take up similar causes in the name of transparency?
"I think it will," Clarke said, calling the FOIA "a fantastic thing." That a group of researchers actually used legislation to successfully get the government to take such a huge step is certainly unusual, but, as Clarke says, "As a journalist, I feel quite passionate — now we've got this freedom of information, we need to use it."
The United States has had similar legislation at the national level in place for over 40 years, and while making FOIA requests are commonplace for many journalists, few citizens take matters into their own hands on such a large scale.
Perhaps after several decades the luster of the U.K.'s FOIA will also fade. Then again, perhaps not. "Here in Britain, we're obsessed with secrecy," Clarke observed, a sentiment which also explains why he's unsurprised by the reaction of die-hard UFO conspiracy theorists. They've instantly dismissed the release as government whitewash, and continue to believe that the real truth is still out there — somewhere.
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