The Secret Files: Introduction > [1 ¦ 2 ¦ next]


In 2005 Dr David Clarke gave a preview of the Fortean nuggets released at The National Archives (TNA) in a series of articles published by The Fortean Times (issues 193-201). The Secret Files (see contents) can be downloaded from The Real UFO Project.

2005 was a bumper year both for historians of the “secret state” and UFO researchers with the release of hundreds of UK Government files under Britain’s new Freedom of Information Act. If Charles Fort was around today he would be have been waiting patiently, notebook and pen in hand, at the doors of The National Archives at Kew in southwest London, on New Year’s Day. For journalists and Fortean researchers alike 1 January has for decades marked the opening of sensitive and often revealing official documents held under lock and key for 30 years or even longer in the case of the files relating to the work of the secret services or the Royal family.

But 2005 was different because the great British tradition of secrecy itself is now under threat. During the Cold War the “secret state” pervaded just about all workings of Government, with the most mundane information – for example the colour of carpets in the M16 headquarters – being subject to the Official Secrets Act. The FOIA theoretically allows public access to all Government information except those subject to exemptions for reasons such as national security or the Data Protection Act.

The potential use of the FOIA for Fortean and UFO researchers is enormous. In the USA researchers have been able to use their legislation (introduced in the late 1960s) to gain access to thousands of documents produced by the CIA, FBI and other more shadowy agencies. These agencies had all previously denied any interest in UFOs, cattle mutilations, remote viewing and other bizarre Fortean phenomena.

During the 1990s pressure increased for the introduction of a British FOIA. From 1992 when Prime Minister John Major’s administration introduced a programme of ‘Open Government’, the establishment has slowly and reluctantly accepted that the culture of secrecy must end. Open Government established in law the right of the public to request the release of files retained under the Public Records Acts. As subjects of the Crown rather than citizens with rights enshrined in a written constitution as in the USA, Britons have never enjoyed an automatic right of access to official records. The Code of Practice for Access to Government Information meant that for the first time historians could apply for access to closed records. Even then files could still be censored or be deemed exempt from release if their contents were still “considered to be sensitive.”

Meanwhile, at The National Archives an ever-increasing volume of official papers have been released following pressure from MPs and the Press. Even “30 year rule” covering UFO files was successfully challenged in 1999 when a UFOlogist, Dr Colin Ridyard, used new appeal procedures to challenge a decision by the MOD. Ridyard had properly applied for copies of UFO reports filed by pilots and radar stations during 1998-9. The MOD rejected his request on the grounds that a search for data would be too expensive and “would require unreasonable diversion of resources.” Ridyard’s MP took his case to the Parliamentary Ombudsman whose intervention led the MOD to agree to provide the information as “as one-off exercise.” In his assessment Ombudsman Michael Buckley welcomed the MOD’s decision but accepted the Code “recognises that there are limits to the resources that a body can reasonably devote to answering requests for information.”

While the Code of Practice gave only limited right of access to closed files it was the first step in the hard-fought campaign for a genuine Freedom of Information Act. A British FOIA was a Labour Party election manifesto pledge in 1997 and a “watered down” version of the Act was implemented in January 2005. Although critics have attacked the FOIA as a toothless version of the more comprehensive right of access originally promised, the results have already been seen in an increasingly open response to requests for information. »

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