March 27, 2013 at 5:06 PM ET
The FBI says it never followed up on the most popular file in its online reading room — a one-page UFO memo that passes along a second- or third-hand report about flying saucers and alien passengers that were supposedly recovered in New Mexico.
The memo, dated March 22, 1950, has been viewed almost a million times over the past two years, the FBI said this week in a blog posting. It was written by Guy Hottel, who was the head of the FBI's field office in Washington at the time, and addressed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
In the memo, Hottel discusses an account provided to an FBI agent ... that was attributed to an informant ... who purportedly heard from an Air Force investigator ... that "three so-called flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico."
"They were described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter," the memo read. "Each one was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only three 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."
Hottel said he was told that the saucers' control systems might have been disrupted by interference from "a very high-powered radar set-up" that the government had in the area. But he admitted in the memo that "no further evaluation was attempted" by the informant, whose name is blacked out in the online document.
The Hottel memo has been in the public record since the 1970s, but it created a huge splash in 2011 when it was added to the FBI Vault, an online repository of public records. Here's how The Sun, a British tabloid, characterized the memo in a headline from those days: "Aliens Exist, Say Real-Life X-Files."
Monday's posting was written to counter such characterizations. The FBI denied that the memo constituted evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial spacecraft — and said Hottel's report was never taken all that seriously. Instead, it was considered "an unconfirmed report that the FBI never even followed up on."
The FBI said there was no reason to believe that the memo referred to another famous UFO saga, the purported discovery of a crashed alien spaceship in Roswell, N.M., in 1947. "The Hottel memo is dated nearly three years after the infamous events in Roswell," it said.
The bureau acknowledged that for a few years after the Roswell incident, Hoover followed up on an Air Force request by ordering his agents to verify any UFO sightings. "That practice ended in July 1950, four months after the Hottel memo, suggesting that our Washington Field Office didn't think enough of that flying saucer story to look into it," the posting said.
There's an alternate explanation for the Hottel memo that makes a lot more sense. Two years ago, when the memo was added to the Vault, paranormal investigator Ben Radford noted that the informant's story matched the description of a UFO hoax that was concocted by a man named Silas Newton. In 1950, Newton was telling tales about flying saucers that had crashed at a radar station near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Newton was later convicted of fraud, and died in 1972.
Ironically, there's a whole different section of the FBI Vault that's devoted to Newton, whom the bureau described as "a wealthy oil producer and con man." To get the story about the connections between Newton's tales and the Hottel memos, check out this thorough debunking on the Above Top Secret forum.
Even though the FBI says the memo "does not prove the existence of UFOs," it's not confirming the Silas Newton story, either. "Some people believe the memo repeats a hoax that was circulating at that time, but the Bureau's files have no information to verify that story," it said.
What do you think FBI Agent Fox Mulder would say? "The truth is out there"? Or "Trust no one"? Feel free to weigh in with your own verdict in the comment section below.
Update for 6:35 p.m.: Mark Allin, chief operating officer for The Above Network, says the truth is out there, in the form of the Above Top Secret analysis that I mentioned earlier. "The short story is, without a doubt, 'Case Closed,'" Allin said today in an email. "The memo is based on a hoax that was carried out by a convicted con man named Silas Newton, and it was debunked years ago. It's a pretty good and interesting hoax story, to be certain, but there is no value in it beyond that."
More about UFOs:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.