What the Area 51 Reveal Tells Us About Government Secrecy


Flickr user billy liar

The big headline today is the report showing thousands of privacy-rules violations in the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. But that's not the only surveillance revelation in the news today. A newly declassified Central Intelligence Agency report finally cops to the existence of the secretive Nevada test facility known as Area 51, and admits to many previously previously reported details about the site's purpose, which centered on the U-2 spy plane.  

Conspiracy theorists have long pointed to Area 51 as a possible location for super-secret extraterrestrial contact, but anyone hoping to find evidence of little green men is likely to come away disappointed. Instead, the report, "Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974," which was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by researchers at George Washington University's National Security Archive, explains how the facility was originally picked, and how it became used as a training ground for pilots in the U-2 spy plane program during the middle part of the 20th century. 

The 400 page report was previously released in a much more heavily redacted version in 2002. This new release contains the first official public references the existence of the site, including the names of pilots who flew U-2 missions outlined in the report, various codewords used to describe parts of the project (including HBJARGON, the secret name of the U.S. U-2 base in Pakistan), discussion of British participation in spy plane surveillance, and details of U-2 operations in China, India, and France. It also contains a map of the site, which you can see after the jump.

Even without any aliens, it's all pretty interesting. It's also more than a little revealing about the government's approach to secrecy when it comes to spying and surveillance. The first U-2 spy plane launched from Area 51 in 1955. Reporters and researchers, not to mention conspiracy buffs, have been looking into activities at the site for decades. And little of the information in the report is new. According to a statement by British author Chris Pocock, who wrote a history of the U-2 spy plane, released by the National Security Archive along with the report, "Nearly all of the newly released information is already in my books." 

In other words, this is pretty much all old news, well established by credible reporting from experts. And yet it took almost six decades from the time of the first U-2 spy plane's launch at the facility for the government to admit its existence, and confirm, in a report that still contains some redactions, broad details about the spy plane program's activities. And this revelation only came in response to a FOIA request that was made in 2005. 

This a pretty extreme commitment to secrecy. And it shows how unwilling the government is to reveal anything at all, even information that is obvious and already known, about its surveillance activities. And it's why the other, bigger spying revelations today, especially when coupled with the White House's hamfisted, after-the-fact attempts to rewrite inconvenient interviews with sources, are so important. 

See the Area 51 map after the jump. 

GWU National Security Archive

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  1. But what does Bono think about all this?

    1. I’m sure he thinks it’s alright, alright, alright. The government moves in mysterious ways, after all.

  2. and admits to many previously previously reported details

    Let’s do the time-warp again!

    1. Got to keep the cover story straight.

  3. So Area 51 is where the government secretly developed the Edge’s soaring guitar licks?

    1. Documentary Announcer: After a whirlwind fling with Icelandic supermodel Nj?rd, Fry scored a sting of top 10 hits with his rock band Leaf Seven, known for their hypnotic rhythms, driving baselines and memorable hooks.

      Fry: That’s what I’m known for!

    2. There ought to be a law that an Explorer can only be played through a Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ with an Aphex parametric EQ.

  4. Was so disappointed Area 51 was not incuded in Fallout New Vegas. Big MT was just not the same.

    1. The war was in 2077, by then A51 was old news.

  5. And it shows how unwilling the government is to reveal anything at all, even information that is obvious and already known, about its surveillance activities.

    How many times do I have to say this: it’s 100 times worse than you think it is. That’s why they don’t want to reveal anything. Because it’s so utterly egregious.

    With the government, it’s always vastly worse than you think it is, because it’s the government and there is no accountability.

    1. You’re wrong as usual, Epi. Democracy is the ultimate accountability. If you don’t like what the current administration is doing, you can just vote for a different candidate in the next election, and everything will get better.

      1. You’re right, Hugh. And you know what? Since they’ve now admitted that Area 51 is real, I’m voting for Kodos. No wait, Kang. Uh…how are they different again?

        President Truman: Whistling Dixie! I want this sent to Area 51 for study.

        General: But sir, that’s where we’re building the fake moon landing set.

        President Truman: Then we’ll have to really land on the moon. Invent NASA and tell them to get off their fannies.

      2. In a democracy, the government is us. So in a deeper sense, you’re spying on yourself and covering up the evidence by prosecuting whistleblowers.

        1. So I’m putting myself in prison for asking myself too many questions!

          1. That’s what my 10th grade civics teacher said, and he should know because he’d been a democracy for years.

          2. Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!

      3. What if the candidate I vote for never wins?

  6. Amnesty?

    What does American think about the Greys?

    1. Not much. American serves the reptilians.

  7. Er, where’s my flashy, memory-eraser. It’s around here somewhere.

  8. The big headline today is the report showing thousands of privacy-rules violations in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.

    Funny that. CNN makes no mention of it.



        1. They haven’t even started the submission process with the Scandal Certification Board.

        2. ASTROTURF

  9. One of the few reasons I might want to be president is to find out some of those big secrets that the public knows nothing about.

    1. And are they so disturbing you are shocked into dropping all your civil liberties nonsense and becoming another Fascist douche?

      1. Who here hasn’t wondered that?

        “Mr. Libertate, congratulations on being elected president. The president has named me as the liaison to your transition team. However, the first thing you should know is that we were enslaved by the Sirian Patriarchy back in the mid 1950s. If you don’t do exactly what they say, they’ll send a hurricane or other seeming natural disaster. As you can see, they are very, very precise in what they see as an error in obedience. Yeah, sorry, they aren’t interested in human liberty or limiting their absolute power.”

    2. You could just watch National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Much less effort.

      1. Are you sure about that, Hugh?

        1. Hey that movie is brilliant, Epi.

          1. Having only forced myself to watch the first one to know what I was dealing with, I’ll have to take your word for it, Hugh.

          2. That’s how nick cage became a national treasure….too.

          3. Schlepping around the Black Hills with Diane Kruger doesn’t sound so bad.

    3. One of the few reasons I might want to be president is to find out some of those big secrets that the public knows nothing about.

      Uh, Pro Lib: The POTUS is allowed to know nothing about anything. This gives him deniability.

      You have to read the supermarket tabloids if you really want to know what is going on.

      1. Best investigative reporting on the planet. But go ahead, read the New York Times if you want. They get lucky sometimes.

      2. The government has the secret to generating INFINITE ENERGY with Nikola Tesla’s designs, but they have systematically suppressed all evidence of it. The only places their Information Control teams missed were web pages formatted with HTML tables and tiled JPG backgrounds.

        1. Your ideas intrigue me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

          1. I’m pretty sure I already do.

        2. web pages formatted with HTML tables and tiled JPG backgrounds

          Ahh the mimeographs of the internet…sometimes I do miss the smell from my elementary school quiz days.

          1. The blue ink, the memory fog inducing solvent, the ilegible text that gets cut off a few characters from the side margins… Brings back memories – from 1997 of all years.

            1. no way you were using one in 1997…1988 was probably the last time I saw one. If you were using one in 1997 then you must have been in some third world part of ‘Merica.

              1. City School district, sat in the back of the chem lab, made our handouts.

            2. Oh wait, that was a Spirit Duplicatior not a mimeograph, sorry.

              1. Yeah Mimeographs had that purple ink that was ohh so psychedelic…especially for a child.

                1. I think the chem teacher kept the machine because the secretary in charge of the xerox machines was a rabid fascist about not letting people use them. Despite the fact that the only purpose they had was to make copies for classes. So even on the verge of the turn of the millenium we were still getting handouts in faded blue ink with intoxicating solvents wafting off the pages.

                  1. outstanding

                    1. I’ve told this story before but it bears repeating for humor’s sake. 100 years ago when I started at ATT I needed graphite (fake lead) for my mechanical pencil (I am a uniball, Lance Armstrong, kinda guy now). I went to the admin desk and my second level was standing there. I asked for some lead and he tells her “I’ll get it” the proceeds to open the little container and hand me 1 piece of lead. I was stunned into silence, and if you know me that is truly something.

                    2. Uniball used to make the best pens on Earth, the old 0.2 and 0.3 mm plain black ones. Now they make 0.5 mm junk that the ball keeps falling out of.

                      If I had only known, I would have stocked up on a few thousand boxes. And Cool Ranch Doritos before they bastardized the formula (I foolishly trusted Jay Leno when he said “crunch all you want, we’ll make more”, though they did send a free bag of the new ones when I complained.) And Cinnamon Toast Crunch before they ruined that too.

            3. That’s a spirit duplicator or Ditto Machine, not a mimeograph.

      3. That’s occurred to me, too. How much do our intelligence agencies not tell the president?

      4. The purpose of the presidency isn’t to govern, it’s to distract attention from those who actually rule. That’s why the Beeblebrox administration was considered one of the most effective in galactic history.

    4. “You don’t actually think they spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?”

      1. Knowing government procurement processes – yes, if and only if the vendor was owned by a crony.

      2. Actually, Mr. President, that’s not entirely accurate.

    5. The Secret Service was designed to keep men like you in line.

    6. In an article on it that I read last night, it said the President doesn’t have a high enough security clearance to visit.

      I wonder if Area 51 was an inspiration for Seven Days in May

  10. Last time I checked, the Groom Lake facility was still up and running doing government only knows what.

    So at this rate, they’ll admit to what they’re doing there now in what, 2072?

    1. #not_in_your_lifetime

    2. Groom Lake is part of Area 51. And yes, it is still active. Large new buildings have been constructed in the past few years, and unmarked 727’s still fly in and out of Las Vegas airport.
      Oxcart was the code name for the family of planes that culminated in the SR-71 Blackbird. Also the F-117 Stealth fighter was first flown there.
      None of this is secret, of course (I’m kind of an SR-71 geek).
      God only knows what they’re developing there now, but given what they’ve kept secret about NSA activities, and the fact that the runway was recently lengthened (see Wikipedia article on Area 51) suggests that further aircraft development is ongoing.
      You don’t have to believe in dead aliens to be skeptical and nervous.

      1. Also tested captured Russia fighter planes at Area 51.

        1. For the record, the US bought most of those.

          1. I’m talking about the Cold War-era stuff.

            In August 1966, Iraqi Air Force fighter pilot Captain Munir Redfa defected, flying his MiG-21 to Israel after being ordered to attack Iraqi Kurd villages with napalm. His aircraft was transferred to the Groom Lake within a month to study. In 1968 the US Air Force and Navy jointly formed a project known as Have Doughnut in which Air Force Systems Command, Tactical Air Command, and the U.S. Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Four (VX-4) flew this acquired Soviet made aircraft in simulated air combat training. Because U.S. possession of the Soviet MiG-21 was, itself, secret, it was tested at Groom Lake.

  11. “There are those who say you can’t fingerbang an alien being back to life. Step aside, gentlemen, and I will show you just how wrong you are!”

    1. Finger? Hell, I had to use a fist to get ET up and about. Phone home indeed.

  12. Everyone knows that the transistor came from aliens Bell Labs.

    1. “Bell”, short for Xrengdbelamngorz, the Space-Alien-in-Charge at Area 51.

  13. Art Bell?

    1. He’s coming back! Series XM Indie Talk station in a month.

      1. Sirius, sheesh.

    2. I am sorry but there are DAMN few interviewers even remotely close to the skill of Art Bell. He was always a pleasure to listen to regardless of the crazy topic. And subtle…so so subtle.

      1. Yeah, you never knew if he was serious and on to something, or secretly mocking his guests, or just part of the CIA disinformation/cover up/propaganda machine like all the other mass media celebrities.

  14. Epic Alt Text as usual.

    I vote Suderman for President of the Interwebs

    1. Credit where it’s due: KMW helped out with this one.

  15. Any of you familiar with Paul Bennewitz and what the Air Force Office of Special Investigations put him through? Even if the guy was nuts, there was no reason for the government to abuse him.

    1. But that’s what makes it both easy & FUN!!

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