A policeman in Kent, U.K., listens to sounds emitted by an obect that fell from the sky in 1967.
A policeman in Kent, U.K., listens to sounds emitted by an obect that fell from the sky in 1967. Photo by Getty Images
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In February 1998, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's private secretary, John Holmes, contacted one of the units at the UK Ministry of Defense. He needed a briefing about a letter he had to formulate, in response to a missive a member of the public had written to the prime minister.

Citizen Nick Redfern had sent Blair a copy of his new book, in which he had written that he had found evidence of the existence of unidentified flying objects and extraterrestrial beings. He believed they had made many attempts to land on British soil and, indeed, had done so. He also believed Her Majesty's Government was well aware of this and was concealing the information from the public.

The book, "A Covert Agenda: British Government's UFO Top Secrets Exposed," had been published a while earlier and received media coverage. A file at the ministry contained a three-page document with a specific answer to each of the questions Redfern raised in the book. It transpired that, according to the ministry, the man was a full-time UFO researcher and very well known. During the five years preceding the publication of his book in 1997, he contacted the ministry no less than 25 times wanting to know if it was aware of UFO landings and what it was doing about them.

The Ministry of Defense devoted a considerable amount of time to examining each of Redfern's claims. A strange phenomenon reported by citizens turned out to have been a pair of helicopters that had taken off for a night flight; mysterious flames turned out to have been a brush fire. The incidents Mr. Redfern numbered as 1 through 4 had occurred more than 20 years earlier; incident No. 8 had occurred 30 years earlier and some of his claims went back 50 years. The files that might cast light on these affairs were no longer in the ministry's possession. They could have been retrieved from the archives, should the minister have so desired, but this would have involved considerable expense and require a special instruction from him.

Redfern received completely serious and coldly courteous answers to all his claims, as was fitting and expected. The ministry felt it had done what was incumbent upon it, but Redfern was not satisfied and turned to Tony Blair for answers.

'Section 40'

This week, The National Archives declassified this correspondence. The archives' website is very user-friendly and reflects healthy journalistic instincts as well as a considerable dollop of wit. It is a pleasure to surf. The archive people clearly know what interests the world.

When it received the request from Tony Blair's private secretary, the Ministry of Defense recapitulated the history of its relations with Nick Redfern and on four pages set forth in detail the policy of Her Majesty's' Government with regard to UFOs - as it had voiced a number of times in replies to private members' questions in Parliament.

According to the file the British government did not engage in the investigation of UFOs, unless there were reasons to presume there was a threat to Britain's air space. The government did not intend to allocate resources for the investigation of the phenomenon. In short, the message was: stop pestering us. In this spirit, the ministry suggested to the prime minister that he thank Mr. Redfern and return his book to him.

But the story is a bit more complex. This is the ninth time in the past four years that Britain's National Archives has released classified documents relating to UFOs. Anyone not conversant with the intricacies of British governmental administration will find it hard to decipher the secrets of the numbers and letters printed at the top of these letters; a few words are covered with black labels bearing the mysterious inscription "Section 40."

In the nature of things, the question arises of what Her Majesty's Government has been concealing. The archives opened its website to a guest blogger - a journalist who himself has frequently pestered the government demanding to see the UFO documents. His name is David Clarke and he writes: "Do aliens exist and have they been visiting us in UFOs? And has the government hidden that fact from us for decades as some conspiracy theorists believe?" His own answer to this is, literally, a bold "No." He wrote that the British government had never concealed any information about visits by extraterrestrial beings, and that the 6,700 or so pages published this week proved that the officials who dealt with UFOs and extraterrestrials knew only what concerned citizens called to their attention.

"Indeed?" one might ask, in equally bold letters. The UFO documents released in recent years do consist mainly of reports that the authorities had received from citizens. It turns out that, up until three years ago, there was a hotline that citizens could call to report information on UFOs and extraterrestrial entities. It is no longer operative.

The documents revealed this week reflect the routine work of the special UFO unit that dealt with the issue - or, in British bureaucratic language, the UFO "desk." This means there was someone at the Ministry of Defense with the title "UFO desk chief." And maybe he had a deputy and a secretary or two, and duty registrars who carefully documented what citizens told them. Apparently the routine work of the desk did not include real investigations but rather, at most, issuing clarifications.

Along with transcribing the information proferred by members of the public, the unit had to provide responses to the media and compose replies to private members' questions in Parliament. Apparently they had a lot of work - 178 files have been revealed, containing about 50,000 pieces of paper.

There is a big temptation to say that this could only happen in England, which contributed "Yes, Minister" - the 1980s' political sitcom - to the world. But who says that somewhere at our own Kirya (Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv ) there isn't an Israeli director of a UFO unit sitting behind a desk?

This topic ignites the imagination of people all over the world: The UK National Archives site notes that since it began to reveal classified UFO documents in 2008, these documents alone have chalked up 3.8 million downloads on computers in 160 countries.