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Former Ministry of Defense employee Nick Pope speaks about his career as a real-life X-File agent and his experiences with "The Rendlesham Files."
Nick, you had been working for the Ministry of Defense when you were offered a new job in 1994. Could you tell us about how it came about?
I'd been a civil servant in the British Ministry of Defense since 1985. In 1991, I was due for a move. A vacancy came up and I asked what the job was and I was told, "It's investigating UFOs."
Were you surprised?
I was a bit surprised to be offered a job investigating UFOs. I knew that we had that job, but I had mixed feelings. Part of me thought, "Well, this is obviously gonna be interesting." But on the other hand, I thought it might look a little bit quirky on the CV - I'm not sure it'll be too good for promotion prospects.
Was it well known that there was a job investigating UFO's? What did people in the Ministry think of that job?
It was very widely known in the Ministry of Defense that we had this job. I suppose you'd call it the real X-Files post. People in the Ministry had mixed views about that job. I think half of them thought that this was the most fascinating job in the department - the job they would love to have themselves, above all others. The other half thought it was a complete waste of time and money that we were even looking at the issue.
When you took this position did you, did you have any view about UFO's? Did you believe in them at all before?
When I took up this job, I had no particular interest in the subject, and I certainly had no beliefs on it. I just thought, if anything, "Well it's science fiction isn't it?"
Please describe your first encounter with the Rendelsham file.
As I was doing that job, I started to delve back into the archives and look at some of the old cases that we had. It was soon pretty clear to me that there was one case bigger, more important than anything else that kept coming up: Rendlesham Forest.
When I opened that file for the first time I was absolutely flabbergasted. Most of the UFO files are vague lights and shapes in the sky. Obviously aircraft lights, weather balloons, meteors that sort of thing. Here, I'm confronted with this narrative that have got all these military witnesses encountering not just some light in the sky, but a landed metallic craft. I mean, I honestly thought I was reading science fiction. This case was clearly different from just about everything else that we'd ever had on this subject dating right back to the '50s. I mean, it was clearly the most compelling, intriguing and important case in the entire archives.
What made this case so much more different than the others?
Several things made this case different and special. It was a multiple witness sighting. Most, if not all of the witnesses were serving members of the US Military. The UFO returned on at least two different nights. There was some evidence that this UFO was tracked on radar. There was physical trace evidence in terms of markings on the ground, damage to the trees, and critically, of course, radiation readings taken with the Geiger counter at the landing site. And that, that's of course the key difference with all of this. The one thing that stood out above anything else is that most UFO sightings - these things are supposed to be flying, not on the ground, and yet here we had this account of this object actually on the ground, landed.
When you looked at this folder, what was the British Ministry of Defense's view on the Rendlesham incident?
The whole reason the British Ministry of Defense investigates UFO's is to determine whether there's any threat or potential threat to the United Kingdom. As a result of investigating UFO cases, the British Ministry of Defense has this phrase that UFOs were deemed to be of "no Defense significance." "No Defense significance" became the standard sound bite that we would use for everyone about UFO's. This was simply copied and pasted onto Rendlesham Forest, so effectively, the MOD's assessment of Rendlesham Forest was the "no Defense significance" assessment.
As you started looking into this, was that a wise assessment?
When I looked into this, it was soon clear to me that the "no Defense significance" explanation about Rendlesham Forest just wasn't good enough. It wasn't correct. You can't have a landing of an unidentified craft next to a military base without it being of Defense interest - without it being of Defense significance. You know, it doesn't matter what this thing is. It could be Russian; it could be Martian; it doesn't matter. Anything like that so close to these military bases simply must be of Defense significance.
Why do you think it was decided that it wasn't of military significance? That it wasn't a threat?
I think one reason for the "no Defense significance" assessment was that the original investigation was mishandled. In fact, I would go further and say the original investigation was fundamentally flawed from the very outset. One critical problem was that from the very outset you had two investigations. One undertaken by the British Ministry of Defense, and the other undertaken by the United States Air Force. Not only did you then have these two investigations - the British and the Americans doing their own thing – but, there was very little exchange of information.
Do you think there was a big conspiracy to cover up the truth? Do you think the Americans were trying to cover up what really happened from the British Ministry?
I can certainly see how a lot of this looks very suspicious. But there's a thin line between conspiracy and bureaucracy. Now I look back at that file, I see a lack of information sharing. I see evidence not being shared with the British authorities. I see, frankly, the British authorities not sharing some information, critical information, with the Americans. Does that mean there was a cover up? Does that mean there was a conspiracy? I don't know. The British made mistakes too. One of the critical pieces of information in this whole puzzle is the Defense intelligence staff assessment of the radiation readings taken at the landing site. The MOD's scientific and technical intelligence experts assessed these levels as being significantly higher than background. That information was never passed back to the Americans. Were people exposed to radiation of some sort? Were these people irradiated? Are there health issues that somebody was aware of and yet didn't tell them? That's a big, big question.
Were there efforts do you think made by sort of top brass to keep a lid on the story?
Several things were, I think, quite clear when I looked at the file. Firstly, the Americans were in a very difficult position. Publicly, they were not even supposed to be in the UFO game anymore. Project Bluebook, the official US government research and investigation program on UFO's, had been axed in 1969. Project Bluebook had been terminated. For the Americans to be investigating a UFO sighting at all ran counter to what the US government was telling anyone who asked on the subject. So that's a very difficult position to find yourself in.
Nobody wanted this. This whole incident was an embarrassment. The Americans weren't supposed to be investigating UFOs at all, and the British, while you can investigate UFO sightings, there's the idea that one of things might actually come down puts you into totally different territory. There's nothing in the manual for this.
Why did the Americans consider it embarrassing?
Government and the military the whole world over regard this as a bit of embarrassment, and the problem is the phrase "UFO" itself. It has such pop culture baggage - you know, spaceships and little green men, that for the government or the military anywhere to look at this and take it seriously runs the risk of ridicule.
What else is in the files about British media interest in the Rendlesham story?
Both the British and the Americans had clearly made efforts to downplay the Rendlesham Forest incident. However, when you get to 1983 and the News of the World get hold of this story and put it on the front page, the whole thing just explodes and, and nobody quite knows how to deal with this.
Before the News of the World broke the story, about the only confirmation that the Ministry of Defense had given was to acknowledge that some military personnel had seen strange lights. Once the News of the World put this on the front page, and once Colonel Holt's memo was in the public domain, it took it to a whole new level. This wasn't lights in the sky; this was a metallic craft on the ground. Suddenly the whole "no Defense significance" sound bite was looking a little bit weak.
Let's talk about General Gabriel.
There was a fascinating paper that I found in the file that said that shortly after the incident, General Gabriel visited Bentwaters in Woodbridge. Now, General Gabriel was Commander-in-Chief, United States Air Force in Europe, so he visited the bases. He was briefed on the incident, and he actually took back with him some evidence to his headquarters in Ramstein.
Now, the document makes reference to, for example, Colonel Halt's tape recording being taken back by the General. It's, I think, fairly clear that some of the other items of evidence went too - soil samples, samples from the trees, including sap, maybe the plaster casts that were taken of the indentations where this thing landed.
Reading between the lines, this is a very interesting document because there's an unwritten rule in the UK Ministry of Defense – don't criticize the Americans. The Americans were obviously the senior partners when it came to NATO, and you know, we obviously didn't want to upset them. But, there is a thinly disguised fury in this document that the Americans would remove items relating to this case from the UK without even briefing us on them.
For General Gabriel to come over and take away pieces of evidence – Nick, for you, what did it indicate?
For the senior United States Air Force General in Europe to visit these bases, what that tells me is that right at the very senior levels in the US Military, this was taken seriously. This was judged to be of defense significance.
Was this an isolated event in the cases that you had in your filing cabinets of a UFO over a military installation?
Over the years, I was aware that there had been many cases in the UK where UFOs had been seen in the vicinity of military bases. I had several cases in my files of UFO sightings from the vicinity of military bases. I couldn't really put a figure on it, but I would say that in all there are probably hundreds of incidences where UFOs have been seen close to military bases or where military personnel have encountered UFOs, perhaps as pilots.
What's the significance that they're looking at our military installations?
Well, I don't know what the significance of all this is. I suppose believers would say that if these things are extraterrestrial, that they're clearly going to be interested in our military technology, because it tends to be the cutting edge of our technological achievement - certainly any threat that we might pose to them. Skeptics would say it just shows that these things are probably advanced bits of military hardware that we ourselves built. I don't know. I think you can argue that either way.
Do you believe that what was seen at Rendlesham was an advanced piece of secret technology?
I've asked myself, "Could the Rendlesham Forest incident have been the sighting of some secret prototype aircraft or drone?" From everything I've seen, from everything I've found out about this, no.
The theory that this was some sort of black project - a prototype spy plane or drone - doesn't fit the bill here.
The way in which this thing maneuvered through the trees; in terms of the way in which it suddenly accelerated and shot off at speed with no sonic boom; the fact that this thing was completely silent - this is not an aircraft or a drone.
Having worked at the Ministry of Defense as the UFO man, do you now believe in UFOs?
Having investigated UFOs for the British Government, I'm now firmly of the view that some of these things can't be explained in conventional terms. Whether they're alien or not, I don't know. In a sense, my only conclusion of the Rendlesham Forest incident is a contradiction of the British Government's position – I mean, clearly, this was of extreme defense significance.
This wasn't a hoax?
There is simply no way that this would or could be hoax. It would be orders of magnitude above any sort of practical joke that I've come across. Yes, one or two military personnel might play a joke on each other, but for personnel then to generate official reports to the British Ministry of Defense to sweep up in this the Deputy Base Commander - it would be simply inconceivable. These people would have been committing professional suicide; it would be the end of their careers.