Belief in a government (or quasi-governmental) cover-up is central to the belief system of many people in the UFO community, and in relation to this issue one frequently comes across discussions about the extent to which it’s possible to keep secrets. Having worked for 21 years in an inherently secretive part of the UK government, I thought I’d correct a few popular misconceptions about government secrecy and make some other relevant points on the issue. My knowledge and experience here comes not specifically from my three years on the MoD’s UFO project, but is something gained in the course of my wider 21-year career, which encompassed various postings at a number of different grades. My final posting – to the Directorate of Defence Security – is probably the most relevant one.
First of all, let’s dispel a myth that I hear quite a lot. Many people will tell you that secrets can’t be kept in the modern era. While acknowledging that various historic secrets were successfully kept (e.g. the Manhattan Project and the breaking of the Enigma Code during the Second World War), skeptics often claim that such secrecy would be impossible nowadays, and say that if there were explosive government secrets on UFOs, they would have leaked out by now. The absence of any significant UFO-related material on WikiLeaks is often cited as proof of this. Frankly, this is nonsense. Just because some highly-classified material has been leaked, it doesn’t mean that the walls of the secret state have come tumbling down. Despite the vast amount of material on WikiLeaks, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a significant proportion of leaked material and compromised secrets comes from just two individuals: Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden. The vast majority of people handling classified information keep the secrets with which they’ve been entrusted. On a related point, while the media and the public focus on leaked documents and spilled secrets, they have no visibility of the vast amount of classified material that remains secret.
So how does the government keep secrets in this era of 24/7 media coverage, hacking, targeted espionage, social networking, WikiLeaks and all the other ways in which classified information can be compromised? The answer is Information Security, often abbreviated to InfoSec. I’m not going to go into too many details here, for obvious reasons, but for people who are interested there’s a vast amount of unclassified information about InfoSec in the public domain, covering various ways in which secrets are kept, including vetting, the ‘need to know’ principle, cryptography and a wide range of other measures. A particular buzz phrase at present is the “insider threat” and self-evidently it’s harder to protect information (and other assets) from within than from without. This is one reason why the full weight of the Establishment comes down so hard on the likes of Manning and Snowden, on the basis that the prospect of a long prison sentence is a powerful deterrent to those considering leaking classified information.
I should make a few other points that are relevant here. Firstly, the bigger the secret and the more catastrophic the consequences of its release, the more resources are put into keeping that secret. Secondly, while secrets are successfully kept every day, the keepers of those secrets have to be constantly skillful and/or lucky. Shortly after the 1984 bomb attack that nearly killed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her senior government colleagues, the IRA terror group behind the bomb issued a statement that read in part “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always”. The same applies to keeping secrets. Thirdly, a targeted secret is generally harder to keep than an untargeted one. Once the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had been exploded, Stalin made acquisition of the atomic bomb the Soviet Union’s number one strategic priority, and vast resources were put into the effort. Part of this involved stealing secrets from the Americans, and despite huge efforts to maintain secrecy, Soviet espionage in this area was ultimately successful. It’s much harder with ‘unknown unknowns’ – secrets people don’t even know exist. Fourthly, amidst all this talk of espionage and leaking, we shouldn’t forget the role of accidents. I recall numerous occasions where government laptops have been left in bars, or where classified papers have turned up in the garbage – or, once, following a government surplus sale, at the bottom of an old filing cabinet. Even when there are strict controls, people make mistakes.
So what does all this mean in relation to UFOs? It means that if there really is some colossal secret here, it’s perfectly possible that the government has successfully kept this secret for decades, and could continue to keep it indefinitely. However, it’s equally possible that if such a secret exists, it could be uncovered, leaked or inadvertently released at any moment.
Nick Pope is a former employee of the UK Ministry of Defense. From 1991 to 1994 he ran the British Government’s UFO project and has recently been involved in a five-year initiative to declassify and release the entire archive of these UFO files. Nick Pope held a number of other fascinating posts in the course of his 21-year government career, which culminated in his serving as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defense Security. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist, covering subjects including space, fringe science, defense and intelligence. Nick Pope’s latest book, Encounter in Rendlesham Forest, co-written with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, was published by Thomas Dunne Books on 15th April and is available via Amazon and all good bookstores.