It presumably does not house hideous squidlike ETs, but at least you can see the place on a map. Area 51 is confirmed in declassified CIA documents posted online Thursday by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. A dogged researcher pried from the CIA a report on the history of the U-2 spy plane, which was tested and operated at Area 51.
The military, which runs the base, always denied that Area 51 was called by its famous moniker, preferring a designation connected to the Groom Lake salt flat, a landing strip for the U-2 and other stealth aircraft.
“Your honor, there is no name,” an Air Force attorney told a federal judge in 1995. “There is no name for the operating location near Groom Lake.”
The hearing was part of an environmental poisoning case brought by Area 51 workers who said that they had been sickened by exposure to toxic chemicals — including anti-radar coatings and other classified materials — burned in open pits on the base.
For years, those workers commuted from Vegas to Area 51, also known as “the Ranch.” Some of them died after developing strange rashes and respiratory problems.
The men could tell no one what they did; they had signed national-security oaths barring any disclosures about the black-budget facility, where the stealth bomber also was tested. But some became plaintiffs in a case against the government brought by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.
That case brought me to Area 51 in 1997. I had hoped to see the base from afar. From certain vantage points, I’d heard that it might appear, suitably, like a mirage.
But I didn’t make it past the perimeter, where a sign warned that trespassers fell under the jurisdiction of military law. Too dangerous: “Use of Deadly Force Authorized,” the sign said, citing the Internal Security Act of 1950.
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower “approved the addition of this strip of wasteland, known by its map designation as Area 51, to the Nevada Test Site,” according to the declassified CIA history. The area was near the Atomic Energy Commission’s vast, desolate proving grounds.
The CIA internally published its official history of the U-2 program in 1992. It was released in heavily redacted form thereafter, and National Security Archive fellow Jeffrey Richelson reviewed a copy in 2002. He filed a new Freedom of Information Act request in 2005 and the documents arrived about a month ago, this time with fewer redactions. Therein, the first-ever reference to Area 51.
Why was the veil finally lifted?
“It is something we do not know the answer to,” Richelson said Friday. “One of the things I want to find out is the genesis of this decision: Why did they not redact it?”