Despite a line that I once heard in a movie that the United States is the only country in which unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are sighted, the United Kingdom appears to have its fair share of unexplained phenomena across its skies too. The UK’s National Archives has published an extensive array of documents of sightings and policy relating to UFOs from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) that include:
a wide range of UFO-related documents, drawings, letters and parliamentary questions covering the years 1985-2007.
The Highlights from the National Archives are fascinating on many levels, and the MOD reports make for an interesting read. The reports include descriptions as detailed as: “Four or more moving bright solid orange lights. Followed by a further eight identical objects. Rose vertically over the side on the valley. Made no sound” to “Five rather big orange things flew over the witness. He was terrified,” to a report from “two competent and slightly embarrassed police officers”, to the ubiquitous sighting of “something ‘very strange.’”
Some of the reports make me question the alcohol intake of the witnesses, but I can’t help but give a little more credence to a number of others filed by air traffic controllers, police officers, and the Ministry of Defence Guard, or if the sighting is from a town called Ugley (and, unlike Facebook, I happen to like some of the more unusual names for towns and villages across the UK and Ireland). For some reason, reports from Ugley just make me Want to Believe.
So how, might you ask, is this little piece of fascinating knowledge related to the law? The UFO files are published as a result of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)- the same Act that brought many Members of Parliament down to their knees with the publication of their Parliamentary expenses ($2,600 for a duck island?! I still don’t comprehend that one, but I digress).
The FOIA was enacted in 2000 and aimed to modernize the government and increase transparency. The MOD has stated that requests for information on UFOs are the top three of requests submitted under the FOIA and that the administrative burden posed by releasing them on a case by case basis has been overwhelming, hence the decision to release a large number of these files for publication through the National Archives.
The FOIA provides a general right of access to any individual who requests information from the public authorities in the United Kingdom. An individual can inquire whether a public authority holds information that they specify; if the authority does hold such information, it is obliged to communicate the information to the requesting individual, subject to certain restrictions. The Secretary of State can issue an order to limit the information that a public authority is required to disclose under the FOIA.
To ensure that the FOIA applies to a large number of public authorities, general “catch-all” terms are used – such as “public bodies”, and where it is believed that certain authorities will not fall under such terms they are specifically listed in Schedule 1 of the FOIA.
Of course, as with almost all legislation, there are a number of exemptions to general rights of access due to practical concerns, such as if the request is repeated or vexatious or the information, as well as issues of confidentiality. Specific exemptions apply, inter alia, if the information:
- is reasonably accessible to the applicant through other resources or intended for future publication;
- has been provided in confidence;
- has been supplied or directly or indirectly relates to bodies that deal with security matters;
- constitutes a trade secret or would prejudice the commercial interests of any person;
- is required for the purpose of safeguarding national security;
- has been held for criminal investigations or proceedings conducted by a public authority;
- would prejudice international relations (this heading also preserves the confidentiality of information obtained from other states, international organizations, or international courts);
- infringes parliamentary privilege;
- relates to the formulation of government policy or includes Ministerial communications;
- would prejudice the economic interests of the UK; or
- would prejudice the operation of law enforcement.
A number of the exemptions are absolute, including information relating to bodies dealing with security matters and parliamentary privilege. For the remaining provisions, the exemptions only apply if “in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in [either] disclosing the information” or confirming or denying the existence of such information. The Freedom of Information Act also provides an exemption that allows the public authority to not disclose information, or even confirm or deny that they possess the information.
If the public authority asserts that the obligations in the FOIA do not attach to them by virtue of an exemption, they have a duty to respond to the enquirer within 20 working days, stating the exemption and why it applies in the case in question.
Overall, the files released by the MOD definitely make for an interesting read – the publication in bulk seems like a sensible way to meet the administrative demands of a large volume of Freedom of Information requests, although I feel sure that the MOD will continue to receive a number of requests for information in this area.