Future Tense

Why Would the Government Lie About Aliens?

Because there are so many potential answers, believers can choose the one that makes most sense to them.

Caution tape reading "You are the creator of your own reality." blocking an irate alien from view.
Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Danique Dohmen/Unsplash.

The author of They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers responds to Max Barry’s “It Came From Cruden Farm.”

If you think the government has more information about UFOs than it’s letting on, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority. A 2019 Gallup poll revealed 68 percent of people feel that way. Thirty-three percent of all respondents said that they believe UFOs were built by aliens from outer space.

The Venn diagram center of those two groups clings to one of the most enduring conspiracy theories: The Government (it’s always with a capital G for believers) is squirreling away information about alien spacecraft. This idea appears, and has for years, on internet forums, social media, TV shows, memes, movies, and, of course, fiction, like Max Barry’s “It Came From Cruden Farm.”

Almost as interesting as any government secret is why it’s kept secret. And for alien UFOs, the conspiratorial answers span a whole spectrum: They’d cause too much peace, make too much chaos, give too many people too much technology, or, maybe—as is the case in Barry’s story—just be a real disappointment. Because the why here has so many potential answers, believers can choose the one that makes most sense to them or tick off “all of the above.”

Even powerful politicians, it turns out, think there may be more to the saucer story than meets the public eye. That’s why, when presidents become presidents, sometimes they, too, take an interest in the extraterrestrial. On Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2014, for instance, Bill Clinton revealed that during his time in office, he’d asked his people to look into both the Area 51 and Roswell files. “If you saw that there were aliens there, would you tell us?” Kimmel asked.

“Yeah,” said Clinton. (But if you’re inclined to believe in a cover-up, isn’t this affirmative just further evidence of disinformation?)

The president in Max Barry’s story similarly uses his power to seek out ufological secrets—immediately after his inauguration. The Air Force chief of staff, to the president’s surprise but perhaps not the reader’s, confesses that, yes, there is a specimen from space. It is, just as last year’s would-be raiders suspected, tucked away inside Area 51, a notoriously secretive Air Force installation in Nevada, whose existence wasn’t officially acknowledged till 2013 (although, you know, we knew).

It makes a certain sense that in this story, and in popular consciousness, the government holds these celestial secrets. After all, it alone meets the classic criteria of guilt: Means. Motive. Opportunity. Those elements make the conspiratorial conviction feel juuuust plausible enough. And if a hypothetical narrative is juuuust plausible enough, adherents have juuuust enough ground to remain standing on it—which is part of why this conspiracy theory has long, sturdy legs.

First of all, the government has the means to pull off an alien cover-up. Unlike individual humans or companies attempting to enforce dubious nondisclosure agreements, the military and intelligence communities have the authority to classify information, making it an actual crime to spill the secrets. This confidential information, sequestered in a limited number of brains, can also be geographically sequestered: Military installations take up millions and millions of acres across the U.S. That’s a lot of land to hide behind.

Area 51 is the most famous home of aliens-on-Earth conspiracies. Together, this base and the “secret squirrel” spots it abuts span 2.9 million acres, which is nearly twice the size of Delaware. Guards can put a halt to curious civilians’ trespassing by using “deadly force,” also known as “killing them.” The public doesn’t know what goes on inside Area 51 today, and we probably won’t for decades to come. To think that there must be something truly incredible inside—that has the mouthfeel of truth.

The government is also generally better at cover-ups than your average Fortune 500 company or UFO-hunting individual. Take the real-world 1947 events in Roswell: After a rancher found crash debris on his land, the military first said it came from a flying saucer, then reversed course and called it a weather balloon. That wasn’t true, and officials knew it: The wreckage was from a classified project called Mogul, a high-altitude nuclear-test detector. The government wasn’t covering up aliens, but it did prove itself able to keep the truth hidden for decades.

Information stays shhh within government if it would damage national security. But some scientists have suggested that contact with ETs would actually increase the likelihood of peace on Earth: The existence of extraterrestrials could bring us all together as Earthlings—united not by nationality but by planetarity. We could connect with the cosmos, look at it with a new sort of wonder, and a gratitude that we are not—that none of us are—alone. Plus, whether they’re beaming blueprints through space or propelling their bodies through it, the others certainly have better tech than we do. They could teach us how they built warp drives, or developed self-contained life-support systems, or reined in their social media giants. And if they didn’t teach us, we could strip their spaceship to pieces, figure out how it worked, and reverse-engineer our own—kind of like pre-engineer children deconstruct the electronics in their houses for fun. It could be a renaissance, a high-tech respite from international conflict.

That’s a nice idea. But researchers don’t agree on how people would react to such a revelation. More importantly, no one really has any idea what would happen with the body politic, just as you can guess at how you’d behave if you met Bigfoot, but you don’t actually know. And besides, maybe it’s not in a government’s best interest to unite the people: After all, wars always balloon someone’s bank accounts, and a truly global society could topple country-level leaders. You could see a rationale behind keeping the cosmic visits quiet even if they’d ultimately be good for the little guy.

In the universe of Barry’s story, federal studies suggested that an alien visit wouldn’t swing positive or neutral but ultranegative. Researchers predict conflicts between the great powers, more spying, more assassinations, the dissolution of moderate religion, the blowup of radicalism, immigration issues, etc. These hypothetical woes have the same tenor as the government’s true fears about UFOs, at least in the past, according to a document called the Robertson Panel report. In 1953, the CIA sponsored a small group of scientists and military personnel to evaluate the national security risks UFOs did or did not pose and what to do about it. “The group believed that the Soviets could use UFO reports to touch off mass hysteria and panic in the United States,” National Reconnaissance Office Historian Gerald Haines wrote of the report. Governments don’t, in general, want any sort of hysteria or panic within their borders. Ergo, maybe they’d hide, cover up, lie about the potential source of that potential panic. Especially if—as in movies like War of the Worlds, Independence Day, and The Day the Earth Stood Still—the extraterrestrial visitors put forth an apocalyptic threat, rather than a peaceful “How do you do, cosmic cousins?”

Some, though, believe the government is hiding the greatest discovery in human history because its people want to hang on to those spoils. Maybe military engineers are reverse-engineering the saucer (or whatever) in secret. That would keep the technology hidden from foreign nations, giving the U.S. an unbeatable advantage.

Defensive or offensive alien innovation isn’t the only stuff conspiracists think the government might keep from us. Go on the right forums, or WikiLeaks databases, and you can find the idea that ETs have shown us how to get virtually free energy—by harnessing “zero-point energy,” or basically pulling power out of the ether. A government might hide that so it can keep its people poor and dependent, keep big companies in business, and keep the ultimate source of power (literal and figurative) for itself.

In Barry’s story, the motivation for secrecy overturns these tropes, which position the alien as competent and powerful. Instead, Barry’s ET, which the president calls a “sentient sofa,” is the extraplanetary version of an alt-right troll that failed to launch from its parents’ basement. Upon learning this, the president decides to keep the talking couch locked in Area 51. Regardless of the motive, though, the outcome is the same: A high-level politician chooses, as Barry’s does, to keep keeping secrets. “Bury it,” he says.

But if the government says it doesn’t have aliens, believers can say that’s just a lie, further proof of a cover-up. And let’s say 2 million people do one day raid Area 51, and they fail to find anything. Maybe they just didn’t see the secret basement door whose seams are so tight they don’t show up at all. Maybe the Air Force moved the sentient sofa as soon as rumors of a raid spun up. And if a president, like the one in Barry’s story, doesn’t speak of the alien secrets, maybe he just found the truth—and decided it didn’t deserve to be out there.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.