Welcome to the Summer 2013 column and the latest round-up of news and views on the unexplained, conspiracy theories, the weird and the wonderful.
National Archives UFO Files
The five year program to declassify and release the entire archive of Ministry of Defence UFO files is reaching its climax. With the release of the tenth and final batch we come to the end of a story that has enthralled the public and led to a record amount of mainstream media coverage of the UFO phenomenon.
First of all, some background and statistics: MoD's UFO project ran from 1953 until 2009, when it was axed, as part of wider defence cuts. In that time, over 12,000 sightings were investigated. Some files from the early years had been destroyed many years ago and a number of others had already been released under the so-called 30 Year Rule - part of the old Public Records Act. The policy decision to release the remainder of the files was made in 2007 and the primary reason was that the MoD was receiving more Freedom of Information Act requests about UFOs than on any other subject. The French government had also released their UFO files, setting a precedent that MoD found difficult to ignore. The first batch of MoD UFO files was released in May 2008. Other batches followed every six months or so. In all, there were around 200 files and over 50,000 pages of documentation.
I've been heavily involved in the file release program at every step of the process. I broke the story in the media at the end of 2007 and was then invited by staff at the National Archives to help with the release itself. This involved recording an interview announcing the release, which was syndicated to the world's media, and then picking out specific cases that might be of particular media and/or public interest. Mostly, however, it involved my becoming the public face of this story, either through writing features for national newspapers, or by giving TV/radio interviews. I was already the media's 'go-to guy' for UFO stories, but having worked on these files while running MoD's UFO project, I was inevitably the person to whom the media turned for a comment on the story. In total, I've probably given several hundred TV, radio and newspaper interviews on the release of these real-life X-Files, with credits including Newsnight, Radio 4's Today Programme, the main BBC and ITV news bulletins, Good Morning America, Larry King Live and CNN News.
The public reaction has been phenomenal, but the reaction from the UFO community has been surprisingly disappointing. Some ufologists dishonestly or mistakenly claimed that their making FOI requests to the MoD led to the release of the UFO files - perhaps unaware that hundreds of their fellow ufologists were simultaneously doing the same thing! Others complained that exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act covering areas such as defence and national security meant that the most interesting documents had not been released. My involvement in the release of these files fuelled conspiracy theories that the whole process was either disinformation or a prelude (part of an acclimatisation program) to 'Disclosure', given that a sizable number of people believe that I'm still secretly working for the MoD!
Whatever ufologists (be they skeptics or believers) think of the release of MoD's UFO files, this has been pretty much the biggest and most significant UFO story for many years. It's moved the subject to a much more mainstream position with the media and I'm proud to have had the opportunity to play a part in this.
Here are some concluding comments, giving my overall assessment of the material. Like anything else in this column, or on my www.nickpope.net website, this quote may be freely used:
"These are the real-life X-Files. Most UFO sightings had conventional explanations, but a small percentage remained unexplained. These included cases where UFOs were seen by police officers, chased by pilots and tracked on radar. Whatever you think about UFOs, the release of these files shines a light on one of the most intriguing subjects ever studied by the British government".
Here's a final quote, also free to use:
"I hope people have had as much fun reading these real-life X-Files as I had working on them."
Click on www.nickpope.net for further details of the release of MoD's UFO files.
Nick Pope discusses the release of MoD's UFO files in a live CNN news report
Nick Pope at the National Archives, opening the real-life X-Files
Citizen Hearing on Disclosure
From 29th April to 3rd May, the National Press Club in Washington DC hosted an event in which 40 witnesses discussed the UFO phenomenon in hearings in front of former members of Congress. The process mirrored, as far as was possible, actual Congressional hearings. These 'Citizens' Hearings' were the brainchild of the Paradigm Research Group and its Executive Director Stephen Bassett. A significant number of the witnesses were ex-government or ex-military personnel who have had some verifiable involvement with the UFO phenomenon, either as witnesses, or as people who have undertaken official investigations of UFO sightings. I was one of the participants, in view of my official research and investigation with the British Government on this subject. I think the event was a great success and while it is unlikely that this will lead to Congress holding real hearings on UFOs any time soon (this last happened in 1968), some important political contacts have been made and the event did much to keep the subject in the media spotlight and, as a consequence, in the public eye. Click on www.citizenhearing.org for more details of this important event, including photos and the opening statements made by the witnesses. The entire proceedings were filmed for a documentary (which may even get theatrical release), provisionally entitled Truth Embargo, which will be released later this year, or more likely, in 2014.
Nick Pope, Jim Penniston and John Burroughs give evidence to the Committee
Nick Pope and other witnesses take the affirmation before testifying at the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure
Encounter in Rendlesham Forest
The book that John Burroughs, Jim Penniston and I are writing on the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident has been retitled, by mutual agreement with our publishers, St. Martin's Press. The original title was Rendezvous at Rendlesham, but we had all agreed that this was provisional. After a series of meetings it was agreed that Encounter in Rendlesham Forest was better. The book will be published in March next year and is already generating a lot of interest. John Burroughs and Jim Penniston are the two witnesses at the heart of the incident and while previous books and TV shows have contained some information about the UFO case that many regard as being bigger than Roswell, this is the first time that the two people most centrally involved have revealed the full facts about what happened at the twin bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge over a series of three nights in December 1980. The full story of what happened will shock and surprise everyone. Click on www.andrewlownie.co.uk for further details of this forthcoming book.
JFK Assassination - 50th Anniversary
As a broadcaster and writer well-known for my media interviews and articles on conspiracy theories, I'm often asked about the assassination of JFK. In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of JFK's death, there's going to be increased interest in this topic.
The assassination of JFK was a defining moment in American history and marked the birth of the modern conspiracy theory era. The Warren Commission, set up to investigate the killing, concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the President and that he acted alone. The evidence was overwhelming, in particular, the so-called "backyard photos", which showed Oswald posing with the murder weapon. Even the House Select Committee on Assassinations (which did later support the idea of a conspiracy - albeit on dubious evidence) concluded that the photos were genuine, as did Oswald's wife, who took them. However, almost immediately, some people began to question the official version of events.
The Warren Commission was not without its flaws (exactly the same can be said of the 9/11 Commission), but this does not render their fundamental findings unsound. Despite a multitude of claims and theories, no compelling evidence has been brought forward to call into question the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots and that he acted alone. More to the point, no competing theory is supported by nearly as much evidence as the official conclusion.
Most of the conspiracy theories concerning JFK's death can be eliminated by the simple application of the 'means, motive and opportunity' test. These conspiracy theories range from being merely self-contradictory and illogical, to being demonstrably false and patently absurd. That's not to say that people who believe in conspiracy theories are crazy. To this day, vast numbers of ordinary people believe in JFK conspiracy theories, alongside ones relating to the moon landings or to 9/11. Distrust of government is a big factor in all of this.
Often, with the untimely death of a famous person, people look for some sort of deeper meaning. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, is a good example. It's as if people are unable to accept the fact that one of the most famous and beautiful women in the world died in so mundane and pointless a way: a car being driven at high speed; a driver who had been drinking; a passenger who was wearing no seatbelt. So it is with JFK. People look for a more complex story, even though modern history, sadly, is full of instances where a single, deranged individual shoots a famous person (e.g. John Lennon) or large numbers of people (e.g. the Sandy Hook school massacre), for reasons that may never be fully known. The motivations for such acts are the subject of much debate and controversy. There is unlikely to be a single, neat answer, but the root cause usually involves a combination of mental illness, a perceived grievance and a desire to do something that will make the world pay attention to an individual who was previously ignored or disliked.
The assassination of JFK is an excellent example of a principle known as "Occam's Razor": when examining competing theories, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is most likely to be the correct one. The simplest explanation that fits the facts in relation to the assassination of JFK is that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the lone gunman. It may not be as interesting as the various conspiracy theories, but it's almost certainly the definitive explanation.
Author, journalist and TV personality Nick Pope used to investigate UFOs for the British Government and is now recognised as a leading authority on UFOs, the unexplained and conspiracy theories.