4 July 2019

SEARCHING THE PAPERWORK

John Greenewald Jr. Inside The Black Vault; The Government's UFO Secrets Revealed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

First the good news. By today's standards this is both an inexpensive book and an easy one to read – telling the stories in short digestible chunks. The author runs popular US website 'The Black Vault' based on government files. It is also true that it does what it sets out to do – describe some well known UFO cases (mostly American for obvious reasons) in a way free of 'unverifiable' information'. In other words to present them as fully acknowledged documentation on offer from official government departments reveal.

Again this is admirable in its desire to refrain from speculation (though that is not always feasible in reality). It also has a hidden downside – since official documents only tell you what someone, somewhere is happy for you to know. Smoking guns are very unlikely to emerge through the wary eyes of legal eagles in the employ of the state.

The author got intrigued - as I imagine did many 30/40-somethings around today – by the truth that really might be 'out there' behind the popular TV drama series The X Files in the 1990s. He was then a teenager and chose not to just read books by UFO 'experts' but go to the horse's mouth and file freedom of information requests for all the official documentation the Federal Government was willing to provide.

25 years on and a million pieces of paper through his letter box later this book uses that official record to chart what is claimed to be the official story on key UFO events from Roswell in 1947 onward.

This is all good in so far as it takes us. But therein start the problems. The documents are a confusing mess of sometimes contradictory speculation, which you can maybe chart your way through if you understand the case in question. But is more difficult if you stand or fall by what has been released.

The opening chapter on Roswell shows this. A couple of well known teletype messages from around July 1947 and a 1995 summary of a GAO (General Acounting Office) search for old files. These try to resolve what really happened when a rancher found some debris in the New Mexico scrub. It was either an alien craft, or, according to the official story, a downed balloon, or just conceivably something else with elements of secrecy attached that led to the latter being invented as a way to demonstrate it was not the former without revealing exactly what because this was secret.

Such a synopsis could be reused quite a few times when dealing with cases involving the US military and labyrinthine paper trails cobbled together decades after the event rarely assist in making things much clearer. Still you do get the original data set out in front in simple chunks so you can give it a go to piece the jigsaw together. Just do not expect to find a 10,000 piece jigsaw here. More like those cut down versions designed for young children.

The author finds the official conclusion on Roswell 'laughable at best'. You may very well disagree but it is hard to be sure from a seven page chapter in a modest sized book. Best to regard it as a start point for deeper investigation.

Readers of the next few chapters about USAF projects like Blue Book collating the data for 22 years to 1969 may have also watched the – frankly jawdropping – hit US TV Series Project Blue Book made by the 'History Channel' (!) If so they might be baffled.




On TV, Irish actor Aiden Gillen plays the real 'godfather' of UFOlogy, Dr J Allen Hynek, who investigated many of these USAF cases and, as records in this book show, was initially sceptical as a young astronomer and concluded (rightly) that 95% of all sightings had explanations and only about 700 over those 22 years stayed unresolved. He did feel there was scientific merit in digging deeper and devoted the last 17 years of his life after Blue Book was shut to investigating privately. I knew him during that time and read his files at his home so believe official records in this book are accurate.

Yet on TV you will have seen 'action hero' Hynek meeting aliens, he and wife Mimi involved in Soviet plots, a UFO fleet dive bombing Washington DC with Hynek rushing to brief the President and witnessing about his tenth close encounter of the series alongside half the population of the USA. Then wonder where the files on all of this have gone.

What is the truth between these two extremes? I knew Allen and Mimi enough to be pretty sure. And it is not one that suggests the collated documents in this book need extensive reinterpretation. But instead that they reflect quite well the puzzlement, confusion, lack of tangible evidence and desire not to cause needless panic over something which was mostly explicable. And, even as time passed, things not yet clearly understood were obviously not thought to be an alien threat.

You conceivably might reach different conclusions from the same data, but his discussion of the 1980 incident in Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk reveals another problem. Here he reproduces the well known Halt memo twice in a mere two pages on the matter and concludes 'something physical was involved' as indentations in the ground feature in the memo. Yet unmentioned are other documents about those same marks from local foresters and UK police whose local knowledge suggested to them they were made by rabbits.

Primary documentary sources are always the place to start. However, they are also not usually the place to finish. – Jenny Randles.

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