U.K.'s real-life version of the 'X-Files'

British government declassifies thousands of documents detailing its decades-long effort to respond to public's belief that UFOs exist.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
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This shot, recently released by Britain's National Archives and taken by a vacationing RAF officer, purportedly shows a strange light in the sky over Sri Lanka. British National Archive

The British government has released 8,500 pages of previously classified documents detailing its decades-long effort to respond to the public's insistence that UFOs exist.

Among other disclosures, the files reveal that the House of Lords held the only full debate on UFOs in the history of the British Parliament and that the country thought it was possibly facing an alien invasion in 1967. The papers also include messages from the British government to the prime minister of Grenada responding to that nation's attempts to sponsor a debate on UFOs at the United Nations in 1977-78.

The documents also detail how the British government began making official inquiries into UFOs starting in 1950 after receiving reports of a number of flying saucer sightings. At the time, Britain's Ministry of Defense set up a secret working group called "The Flying Saucer Working Party" to monitor the sightings. The existence of the group remained under wraps until 1988, when correspondence between Winston Churchill and the Air Ministry was revealed.

"What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience," Churchill wrote to his air defense chief at the time. A six-page report that was subsequently issued by the secret panel found no evidence to suggest anything out of the ordinary. It chalked up the UFO reports to hoaxes, psychological delusion, and mistaken sightings of ordinary objects.

But the British documents also reveal that that report relied heavily on CIA and U.S. Air Force information supplied to the U.K. It notes that U.S. policy at the time "was to debunk the subject and restrict the release of information to the public about UFO sightings made by the armed services."

On the morning of Sept. 4, 1967, the authorities received a number of calls reporting six small "flying saucers" across Southern England. The U.K. responded by scrambling its defenses as well as police forces. But it turned out to be a false alarm: According to the report, engineering students from Farnborough Technical College had concocted "a rag-day hoax."

U.K. declassifies UFO files (photos)

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Over the following years, the British government logged thousands of UFO sightings. However, standard policy until 1967 "was to destroy UFO files at five-yearly intervals, as they were deemed to be of 'transitory interest.'" A summary released along with the new documents concludes that "a large number of records dating from the period before 1962 have been lost."

Between 1959 and 2007, Britain's Defense Intelligence branch has logged "more than 11,000 UFO reports." But during a 1979 Parliamentary debate, the government's spokesman, Lord Strabolgi, said that "there is nothing to convince Her Majesty's Government that there has ever been a single visit by an alien spacecraft...As for telling the public the truth about UFOs, the truth is simple. There really are many strange phenomena in the sky, and these are invariably reported by rational people. But there is a wide range of natural explanations to account for such phenomena."

A briefing document accompanying the new files notes that investigations found "ordinary explanations" for most UFO reports. At the same time, however, it allowed for the existence of "some cases on record where no common explanation can be found. For the Ministry of Defence, these types of report remain 'unidentified' rather than 'extraterrestrial.'"

Among other highlights:

  • British defense officials dismissed claims made by retired U.S. Colonel Corso in a 1997 book "The Day after Roswell" noting that Colonel Corso was not a reliable source of information.
  • When RAF pilots were scrambled in response to reports of approaching Warsaw Pact airplanes, there was "no evidence to suggest that any of these scrambles have taken place against anything other than man-made aircraft."
  • UFO sightings have dropped from a peak of 609 in 1996-97 to an average of 130 per year between 2001 and 2006.
  • The number of UFO reports in 1996-97 increased by 50 percent, seemingly in connection to the 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident.

This story first appeared on CBSNews.com.