This week saw the trailer drop for the hotly-anticipated Men in Black reboot, starring Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson. The original movie, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as super-secret agents “defending the Earth from the worst scum of the universe,” was released to great success in 1997. I was 16 years old at the time and already a few years deep into my UFO obsession. By this point, I was aware of the alleged existence of a real men-in-black-type agency in my native Britain that was said to operate above and beyond the remit of the UK’s “official” UFO unit then operating through the Ministry of Defence (MoD): Secretariat Air Staff 2A–better known as Nick Pope’s former UFO desk).
For years, UFO researchers had speculated that the real UFO research and investigations were being conducted not by Nick Pope and his colleagues, but by unknown individuals in more shadowy agencies in the UK Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) with names like DI55 and DSTI (Directorate of Scientific and Technical Intelligence), but no one seemed to know for sure.
With the above context in mind, I wish to take you back with me to those heady times of conspiratorial intrigue in British UFOlogy—specifically, to 1999, when the seventeen-year-old me had more balls than sense and decided it would be a good idea to give the real men in black a call…
I stared hard at the telephone numbers in front of me. I’d received them upon request from a leading British UFO researcher. How he came to acquire them he wouldn’t say, but he assured me they were genuine and suggested I exercise caution should I ever decide to use them. With this in mind, I picked up the phone, attached a small recording device to its receiver, and dialled the first number…
“Hi, is that DI55,” I enquired, confidently. “It is,” came the immediate response. It was a woman with a strong, South London accent. I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. Then, trying my best to sound older than my seventeen years, I asked the question: “I was wondering if you could give me some information on a UFO sighting that occurred back in 1988.” The phone went silent for a moment before she replied: “No, I think you’ve got the wrong department.”
“Wrong department?” The leaked UFO case reports in front of me suggested otherwise. I’d received them from the same researcher who’d supplied me with the phone numbers. They had DI55 written all over them—quite literally. I knew for a fact that someone in this department had the answers I was looking for. “I don’t think so,” I countered. “Yes, I think so,” she snapped back. I sensed from her pointed tone that I should desist from my line of questioning, but I had no intention of doing so: “Are you sure… DI55?”
“Yes,” she said, “But I don’t know anything about any UFOs.” Her voice seemed to waver a little. She seemed nervous. “Well, could you put me through to someone who does?” I asked, politely. She replied: “I don’t think there’s anybody here that does now.” Her last word—“now”—sent a jolt straight through me—I understood its implications, and I jumped on it… “Now?” I echoed.
“Err, um, wwww… I’ve not been down here long,” she stuttered, “I can’t help you.” But she’d said too much already, as far as I was concerned, and I wasn’t about to give up now. “I don’t suppose you could give me another number?”
“No!” she snapped. “I don’t know of any other number, alright?” It wasn’t alright. I wanted answers: “Is this DI55 B? What section is this?” She’d had enough of this cocky kid: “It’s just in the Ministry; I can’t tell you what section it is. Alright? Bye.”
And that was that. The phone went dead.
I should note at this point that my real objective in phoning DI55 was not to learn about a dusty UFO case file, but to elicit an acknowledgement from the Ministry of Defence of their ongoing covert role in British UFO investigations. Shady, yes, and probably more than a little foolish, but I was bestowed back then with a youthful arrogance and a hopeless naivety to boot. This was 1999 and I was still a teenager—one who had yet to fully comprehend the seriousness with which our government, behind closed doors, had long regarded the subject of UFOs.
Since my first conversation hadn’t gone as smoothly as planned, the following day I decided to try my luck with the next number on my list. This time, a man answered. He was well spoken, with a soft, Southern accent. Once more, I took a deep breath, cleared my throat and tried my best to sound mature: “Hi, have I called the right number for DI55?”
“Who are you after?” replied the man, taking care not to reveal the name of his section to an unknown caller. “Just someone who can help me out… I’m trying to get some information,” I said. “On?” he enquired. I stated plainly: “UFOs.” He responded to the subject matter with immediate familiarity and not a hint of surprise: “No, it’s erm…” But just as I thought I was about to be passed over to someone who could help me, he appeared to stop himself and asked in a tone of exaggerated surprise, “UFOs?”
“Yes, I told him.” He responded with a nervous chuckle: “You certainly haven’t come through to the right number for UFOs.” But I wasn’t in the mood for games… “I think I have,” I said. He countered: “I know there’s an MoD number for UFO reports…” He was, of course, referring to the MoD’s “official” UFO desk at which Nick Pope used to work and which was long regarded within the British UFO community as nothing more than a smokescreen for the government’s wider and entirely secretive investigations into the UFO phenomenon. I refused to be fobbed off though…
“I know of that one,” I informed him, “but I was told this was the right number for UFO calls.”
“No. No, no,” he muttered. “We don’t deal with UFOs in here.” I pushed further: “Really? Is that DI55?” I asked. “Well,” he responded, “If you’re a member of the public, we don’t tend to discuss the MoD organisation.” Fair enough: “But if this is DI55, I can assure you, you do deal with UFOs.” He responded simply, “no.”
I felt now was the time to confront him with some facts. “Well, that’s quite strange,” I told him. “I know that DI55 do have a lot of case reports on UFOs…” There was no response, so I continued… “So I’m assuming you’re interested.” His response to this was carefully worded: “Well, that depends. Some of the things we’re interested in here, erm, are to do with… aircraft, erm, so I suppose if we thought it was an aircraft that had been spotted and there might be something peculiar about the aircraft then the report might come in here, yes.”
It almost sounded like an admission. Almost. He continued: “But, I mean, as to UFOs, the MoD certainly, as far as I’m aware—and I’ve been working here for a while—doesn’t have, erm, you know, a UFO branch or anything like that.”
This intrigued me. I never suggested to him that the MoD had a “UFO branch,” as he termed it. His voice was now sounding shaky… “There is an organisation that takes reports, I know [perhaps he was referring to BUFORA, the British UFO Research Association?]… It’s probably a very interesting subject to look at, but the things we deal with here are a little more factual.”
“Factual?” Now, that just annoyed me. “Well,” I replied, “DI55 seem to take it very seriously, along with DSTI, because they receive more copies of UFO reports than do Air Staff 2A [Nick Pope’s former desk].” There was no response, so I continued: “I’m looking at some documents in front of me here from 1988 which say that DGSTI and DI55 received more copies than Air Staff 2A concerning very strange UFO sightings.”
I assumed from the silence that followed that he was now at a loss for words. Eventually, though, he responded: “Well, I, I… unfortunately, I don’t know about those.” Yet more silence. “Do you know of anyone who does?” I asked, insistently. “No. I don’t, no.” I suggested to him that this was “quite strange,” to which he replied: “We’re not being secretive by not telling you. It’s just, I mean, I don’t know who the hell you are. It’s MoD policy that we don’t discuss…”
“I’m aware of that, yes,” I interjected. In hindsight, perhaps I should have let him finish his sentence: “Don’t discuss…” What? UFOs? But I didn’t have time to backtrack as the very next second he suggested something that left me momentarily dumbstruck: “But if you leave your number, I can ask around; there are people who have been here longer than I have…”
Hold on a second. Had this man from one of the UK’s most covert defence intelligence divisions just offered to ask around his office about UFOs and then ring me back at my home to update me? This seemed extraordinarily odd, but hey, why not? I’d got nothing to lose. Surely this phone call was being monitored anyway, and I knew that if the MoD did want my phone number and personal details, retrieving them would be a ridiculously simple task. And so I agreed: “Well, if you could ask around, and if I could leave my number?” But not for one second did I expect to hear from him again.
It was to my great surprise, then, that around 15 minutes later I received a phone call from my friend at DI55! Rather less surprising, however, was that he continued to profess his ignorance of DI55’s involvement in UFO investigations.
These discussions, though hardly revelatory, were interesting for a number of reasons. Take, for example, DI55’s strong assertions during both phone calls that I had “got the wrong department” for UFO-related matters, and that I “Certainly hadn’t come through to the right number for UFOs.” Time has revealed these statements to be false. In 2006, due to public pressure exerted through the freedom of information act, the MoD reluctantly admitted that DI55 had in fact been collating and investigating UFO reports since 1967. Not only that, but, between the years 1996 and 2000, DI55 had spearheaded an extensive investigation in the UK UFO phenomenon, called Project Condign. The resulting 400 page report, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) In the UK Air Defence Region, was immediately classified Secret by the MoD but was duly released six years later. Its conclusions were that UFOs (or UAPs as it calls them) “certainly exist,” but are “still barely understood.” In the report, the UK Defence Intelligence Staff acknowledge of UFOs that:
“The phenomena occur on a daily, world-wide basis. That UAP exist is indisputable. Credited with the ability to hover, land, take-off, accelerate to exceptional velocities, and vanish, they can reportedly alter their direction of flight suddenly and clearly can exhibit aerodynamic characteristics well beyond those of any known aircraft or missile—either manned or unmanned.”
Thus, at those very moments DI55 was assuring me they had no interest or involvement in the subject, the division was actively compiling a massive computer database as part of its secret UFO study, Project Condign.
So, had I been lied to? Not necessarily. It has always been standard practice for military and intelligence divisions to compartmentalise classified information. Therefore it is entirely possible (probable, even), that the people with whom I spoke in 1999 were genuinely unaware of Project Condign’s existence , or even that DI55 took more than a passing interest in UFOs. It is my feeling, though, based on the consistently aggravated, nervous, and even startled tones of those with whom I spoke at the very mention of the term “UFO,” that most if not all employees are at least aware of the subject’s sensitivity.
It has been almost 20 years now since I plucked up the courage to hassle DI55, and Britain is now a startlingly different place. Post 9/11 and 7/7, the UK’s security apparatus has grown exponentially. The UK is now among the most surveilled countries on Earth. With this in mind, it is hard to imagine myself ever being so foolish again as to brazenly pester a covert intelligence division about what, despite its statements to the contrary, is undoubtedly one of the most sensitive subjects in Britain’s corridors of power.