A View on the Condign Report

John Rimmer
Editorial Notes, Magonia 92, June 2006.

You will probably have seen mention in the papers and elsewhere of the ‘Condign Report’, the report of the Ministry of Defence’s definitive ‘UFO Project’. Squeezed out of the MoD through the Freedom of Information Act by researchers Dave Clarke, Andy Roberts, Joe McGonagle and Gary Anthony, the report was commissioned on behalf of the Defence Intelligence Staff in 1996 to provide background for the MoD’s claims that UFO reports were “of no defence significance”.

An unnamed researcher, probably a retired senior RAF officer according to Clarke, studied UFO reports from the Ministry’s files, but undertook no first-hand investigation: the logic being that as the report was Top Secret, any questioning of civilians would lead either to its premature publicity, or to claims of Men in Black interrogating witnesses!

The main aim of the investigation was, implicitly if not explicitly, to support the MoD’s line on UFO reports, and to assess whether the UFO phenomenon itself posed any sort of threat to national security. In doing this the unknown compiler has taken a trip down some of the lesser-trod paths of UFO research, and come up with some conclusions that the world of ufology has found difficult to assimilate.

But the one aspect of the report that ufologists of all persuasions will judge it on is that it concludes that some UFO reports are generated by an unknown phenomenon – hastily adding that there is no evidence that this is an extraterrestrial phenomenon. Instead it looks back a few decades to the era of Donald Menzel and the early years of Phil Klass, and suggests that the most puzzling reports are probably the result of atmospheric plasma phenomena, and describes these throughout as UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), consciously or unconsciously using the terminology devised two decades ago by Jenny Randles.

Condign: Severe and well deserved - usually of punishment.

So nothing new there then, for ufologists at least, but it must be counted as something that an official government report is willing to accept the possibility that at least some UFO reports cannot be explained by our current level of scientific knowledge. Isn’t this what ufologists have been wanting to hear for years?

Well, maybe, but we are an ungrateful lot, and that’s not the response the report generated. As always, contributors to the essential UFO UpDates discussion group were quick off the mark, basing their comments on brief reports that appeared in some papers before the full report was released, and you’ll probably not be surprised to learn that the response, largely from America, was cries of “whitewash”, “waste of time”, “garbage”, etc. Obviously a few people felt it not was actually necessary to read the report before dismissing it!

But even the more thoughtful commentators found Condign (incidentally, were are assured that the code-name was randomly generated, and has no connection to ‘Condon’) curiously unsatisfactory. There are a lot of good things about it; the first one being that it actually exists, that someone actually thought that it would be a good idea to undertake a detailed internal report on the subject. Secondly that for someone coming onto the subject from the outside, our anonymous author has done his homework and read up on the literature. Dave Clarke commented at the press conference launching the publication how curious it was to see photocopied pages from his own books in a Government document, stamped ‘Top Secret’.

It’s equally curious to see pages from the works of John Michell and Paul Devereux treated the same way, along with ‘Top Secret’ maps of leys and fault lines at Warminster, but it does at least show that Condign’s author had read outside the usual range of Whitehall and MoD reports.

Part of the Report’s brief was to judge if UFOs represented any threat to aircraft, and it concludes that there have been a number of deaths as a result of aircraft either trying to avoid or to connect with UFOs. Perhaps one of the most unexpected parts of the report is the suggestion that both the Russian and former Soviet and the American governments have investigated the UAP phenomenon, and examined the military implications of it, and that further research should be carried out into possible military application of plasmas.

Quite a few things can also be deduced from what Condign doesn’t say. It is clear for instance that the famous ‘UFO Desk’ in Whitehall was very much out of the loop, and was not involved in compiling the report; indeed they didn’t know about it until its release under the FOIA, giving the lie to any claim that this was “the British Government’s UFO Project”.

Ultimately, although extremely important, Condign is a flawed document. The range of its inquiries were constrained by operational considerations, much of the background literature used is of limited usefulness, and it falls into the trap of most overviews of the phenomena of promoting a one-size-fits-all explanation of what is likely to be a heterogeneous range of events.

Nevertheless it presents a challenge to ufologists, which is unlikely to be met by calls of ‘government cover-up.’ The science may be shaky, the understanding of the social background limited, but it’s still an important document, and we’re not going to get anything better for a long time to come.