“News organizations across the world were taken in — once again — by a hoax that was perpetrated more than 50 years ago….” Jesse Emspak, International Business Times
The silly season has arrived early this year. Either that or news desks are so desperate to publish UFO stories that any old rubbish will do, as the current fuss about FBI documents demonstrates.
According to the usual suspects (The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph) the US crime-busting agency has released a cache of new files, including a 1950 document relating to the infamous Roswell incident. The unclassified (not secret) note, written by agent Guy Hottel, refers to three “so-called flying saucers” that a third-hand source claimed had crash-landed in New Mexico.
Bonnie Malkin, of the Daily Telegraph, claimed this document was “one of thousands of previously unreleased files [my emphasis] that the FBI has made public in a new online resource called The Vault.”
In fact, no significant new files have been released. All that has happened is that FBI have re-jigged their existing online reading room to make it easier for visitors to search for information, most of which – and that includes the Hottel memo – has been in the public domain for decades.
As skeptic Ben Radford points out, the memo “is not secret, nor is it new, nor does it refer to anything that happened in Roswell”. The rumour referred to in the Hottel memo began as a hoax perpetrated by a confidence trickster, Silas Newton. The story became the central theme of Frank Scully’s book Behind the Flying Saucers, published in 1950. The saucer crash referred to in the book was in Aztec, New Mexico, not Roswell.
“This document has actually been discussed in UFO circles since the late 1990s, and a close reading reveals that [the FBI agent] is not endorsing or verifying any of the information presented in the memo; he’s merely reporting what an Air Force investigator said that someone else told him about the crashed saucers. It’s a third-hand report of a story.”
One factual piece of information from the FBI files picked out by The Guardian appears in a policy briefing sent to J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director, in August 1949. This note, sent by an agent in San Antonio, Texas, said their office regularly destroyed UFO reports on the grounds that they arrived “in great numbers” and contained “nothing of FBI interest.” It continues: “…it is pointed out that the filing of these [reports] would result in the rapid accumulation of very bulky files.”
Readers familiar with the British MoD ‘s UFO files, currently the subject of a disclosure programme at The National Archives, should find this statement familiar. That’s because until quite recently, equivalent British agencies – such as police forces, the Met Office, Air Ministry and the MoD – regularly destroyed UFO files for precisely the same reason: they were bulky, contained nothing of interest and took up too much space in an era before the invention of electronic data storage.
This topic was raised when I recorded an interview with Jeff Ritzman for his Paratopia paranormal radio show (you can download this 90 minute interview here). As I explained in the interview, back in March a fuss was made about the loss of some Defence Intelligence UFO files that covered 1980, when the infamous Rendlesham incident occurred. But as I pointed out, there was nothing particularly unusual or noteworthy about the practice of consigning UFO files to the incinerator. The files from 1980 joined whole swathes of earlier files covering reports received from 1950 to the mid-70s – for precisely the same reason given by the FBI.
Of course, in hindsight, the conspiracy theorists will use this admission as proof that the authorities had “something to hide”, but at the same time they will turn a blind eye to the mundane and tedious content of the files that have survived (and are now being disclosed). This is a convenient position because it is non-falsifiable.
We cannot bring back into existence files that were destroyed decades ago, so conspiracy theorists can continue to cogitate about what they may have contained until the cows come home. But any objective overview of the surviving evidence must lead to the conclusion that the missing files were disposed of because they contained nothing of interest to the agencies that created them. They may, again in hindsight, have contained material of interest to UFOlogists and the odd scientist or historian (such as myself), but at the time they were destroyed this was not a primary consideration – finding space in the filing cabinet was deemed more pressing.
You can bet that conclusion will not make headlines in The Sun or Daily Mail as stories saying Santa Claus doesn’t exist don’t sell. But to quote Daniel Webster, “there is nothing so powerful as the truth and often nothing as strange.”