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The Most Viewed File in the FBI's Vault Has Nothing to Do With Roswell

An early X-File? (Photo: NASA/Wikipedia)

Beginning January 24, we are going to be treated to another six episodes of The X-Files, one of the most enduring television series of all time.

In the world of the show, FBI agents Mulder and Scully clash with the federal government, which is overrun by byzantine conspiracies and hidden knowledge about extraterrestrial life (as well as genies, God, werewolves, and other mysterious and elusive creatures.).

Given the popularity of the series, and the tenacity of UFO conspiracy theorists in general, it’s unsurprising that the most viewed file in the FBI’s online FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) Library—also known as the Vault—is what some believe to be a real life X-File. Known in more paranoid circles as the “Hottel Memo,” this officially filed UFO report has been accessed and viewed over a million times since it was uploaded in 2011.

The memo dates back to March of 1950, three years after the much more famous Roswell incident, and is little more than a single page detailing a vague report about recovered UFOs. The memo was filed by FBI agent Guy Hottel, who was, at the time, the head of the Bureau’s Washington Field Office. His report relays an account said to have been given by an Air Force investigator who claimed to have recovered a trio of flying saucers, with crew intact.

The full Hottel Memo. (Photo: FBI)

Hottel’s memo says that the investigator told him that the ships had been salvaged in New Mexico, describing the craft like something out of a B-movie. They were “circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 meters in diameter,” reads the report.

The description of the UFOs’ crew members is no less retro science fictional, reading, “[The aliens had] bodies of human shape but only 3 feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of a very fine texture. Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed fliers and test pilots.” It is speculated in the memo that the craft were downed after high-powered military radar in the area interfered with the UFOs’ controls. How this conclusion was reached is unclear.

As with all FBI memos of the day, Hottel’s report was addressed directly to Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose own paranoia is well-documented. After the wild claims of the Air Force investigator, the memo merely ends with a curt line stating that the report was not even looked into. 

Despite the document originally being made available to the public in the 1970s, when Navy physicist Bruce Maccabee gained access to it via a Freedom of Information Act request, the Hottel Memo did not receive widespread attention until 2011, when it was added to the FBI’s new public online Vault archive. Once it was uploaded, eager media outlets jumped on the story of this seemingly damning evidence of the FBI being involved with UFOs.

The truth… might be out there. (Photo: CIA/Wikipedia)

After the memo was batted around for a couple of years, the FBI published an exasperated blog post to put an end to all of the speculation. In the post they note that not only is the memo simply “a second- or third-hand claim” but also that the Bureau never even bothered to investigate it. They also shoot down any connection to the previous Roswell incident. As they succinctly put it, “Sorry, no smoking gun on UFOs.”  

If the FBI’s dismissive explanations are to be believed, than what is the true origin of the Hottel Memo? According to some debunkers, the report, disseminated up the chain of command, originated from a mid-century con man named Silas Newton. Going by the FBI’s own files on Newton, he was behind various cons, such as claiming to have seen crashed UFOs, and peddling a contraption that could locate underground oil deposits (known as a “doodlebug”).

One story debunking the memo says that Newton told the story to a radio advertiser, who then related it to a pair of locals, who in turn told a used-car dealer, who relayed it to reporter, who ran the story in the Kansas City newspaper, the Wyandotte Echo. It was here that the Air Force investigator may have discovered the story, finally reporting it to Hottel. However, the Bureau itself does not make a direct connection between Newton and the Hottel Memo.

In retrospect, the Hottel Memo seems to be an interdepartmental memo that just happens to mention an already spurious story of downed aliens. As with other UFO reports, what may be billed as the true story of extraterrestrials on Earth would seem to be nothing more than the result of a giant game of Telephone.

Despite all this, the Hottel Memo continues to be the most viewed file in the Vault, even beating out the actual Roswell report, largely thanks to the media attention granted it by stories just like the one you are reading right now. It seems like Agent Mulder isn’t the only one who desperately wants to believe.