(from my May 2006 UFO History Keys column in the Ufologist magazine)
During May 2006 the release of a previously secret UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) report on UFOs, identified with the code name “Condign”, attracted a media response that characterised the UFO phenomenon as much a’ do about nothing, and if it was anything it was innocuous. In this case it was “UFOs (are) just plasma” (The Australian, May 8, 2006) or “UFO study finds no sign of aliens” (BBC, May 7, 2006). The inevitable media takes of “the death” of UFOs followed, one of the silliest being Rod Liddle’s “Who needs UFOs when you can play Sudoku?” in the Spectator (May 13, 2006). Other accounts were slightly more discriminating, such as Nature on line, which described the study as “pointless research”, based on poor science (nature.com May 9 2006). Few took the trouble to go beyond the “Executive summary” of the 3 volume report, which was released a week before the full MOD release by a team of researchers led by Dr. David Clarke, who had secured the full report via a Freedom of Information request. His book “Out of the Shadows – UFOs, the Establishment & the official Cover-up” (2002), co-authored with Andy Roberts highlighted his credentials as a solid researcher, but his take on the subject has been sceptical.
More detailed examination of the 460 page study reveals a major problem, as the quality of the MOD sighting report data used was very limited, with most of them taking the form of a 2 page MOD sighting report form, with a mere 17 question prompt points. As the data extracted from these was so limited, the very obvious point is the data falls far short of a credible data base to extrapolate findings from with any serious degree of confidence. Any conclusions extracted from the severe limitations of the MOD sighting report forms would be fraught with uncertainty. Combine this with the dubious research and science that backs up the findings, one can only at best use the report as a helpful insight into the background and workings of MOD deliberations on “the UFO problem”. The MOD UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) reports are just very pale approximations of the more in-depth case studies that inform the deliberations of more serious sighting investigations undertaken in competent civilian investigations. An excellent summary study of such civilian data exists in, for example, in the 681 page book “The UFO Evidence – A Thirty-Year Report” by Richard Hall (2001). I certainly attach more credibility to that study than I do to the 2000 UK MOD “Condign” report.
The explanatory focuses of the 2000 UK MOD study are “plasmas”, and indeed the hypothesised “airborne buoyant charged bodies”, allegedly the result of atmospheric or environmental factors, or meteor activity, serve up a striking sense of deja-vu to researchers well informed on UFO history.
Plasmas as an answer for UFOs were examined in the 1960s and abandoned as an inadequate explanation. In fact it was plasmas that served as the late Philip Klass entry point into the UFO controversy. He wrote a book “UFOs Identified” (1968) which sought to explain away the more substantial UFO reports. Unfortunately his “explanation” was demolished by a leading atmospheric physicist, Dr. James E. McDonald, who himself had been engaged in a very detailed investigation of the UFO subject. His demolition can be read in his 1968 paper “UFOs – An International Scientific Problem”. The US Air Force’s commissioned study – the Condon report – had also examined “plasmas” as an explanation for UFOs and found them to be not a viable one. See the Condon report published as “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects” (1969), specifically Section VI Chapter 7 “Atmospheric Electricity and Plasma Interpretations of UFOs” by Martin Altschuler. The Condon study even convened a Plasma UFO conference in October 1967.
Had the UK MOD analyst who prepared the 2000 “Condign” report properly considered these earlier examinations of plasmas I doubt if there would have been much left to sustain the report, and it would have been largely inconclusive, as the original limited sighting material it was based on, should have suggested. Instead the MOD report even lurches more uncertainly into “plasmas” spawned by meteors. Such dubious and uncertain connections are hardly new.
For example, even our own government minister Lord Richard Casey (External Affairs (now foreign affairs) and the CSIRO, and later Governor General) put forward meteors as a primary explanation as early as 1952 and also in 1954. In fact he had the then Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) head Alfred Brookes secure information from British intelligence and military science sources, specifically G. I. Turney, of the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence, MOD and Dr. Blount. Turney was the chairman of the UK MOD “flying saucer working party” which in 1951 concluded all UFOs were explainable by mundane sources (not plasmas I might add). Turney even wrote of Casey’s “meteor” hypothesis as being “entirely sensible, if not very original” (via Brookes ASIS memo to Casey, External affairs, February 23 1954).
So while the uncritical media and debunking skeptics might embrace the newly released 2000 MOD “Condign” report as the final nail in the UFO coffin, the UFO “corpse” is hardly dead and is very much in vital evidence through continued substantial sightings and robust and often impressive civilian research. In fact the MOD report is an excellent case study of an example of a dubious response of military intelligence to the UFO phenomenon.