Aug 19 2013

Area 51 Revealed

Area 51 is more than just a subject of UFO conspiracy mongering, it has graduated to a fixture in pop culture. Everyone knows what Area 51 is, or at least what it’s supposed to be. Mention crops up in movies, such as Independence Day.

According to the CIA this facility’s official name is the much less alluring, Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake, a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base. It is part of a 23 x 25 mile area of restricted air space. For decades there have rumors that Area 51 is a secret base where the US government has recovered alien spacecraft and conducts research on those craft.

The government denies these claims, but has never said what Area 51 is really for. It has never been mentioned in any public document, and documents obtained through any freedom of information act (FOI) request have never mentioned Area 51 (any possible mention being redacted).

George Washington University’s National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson made a FOI request in 2005 for information on┬áthe U-2 spy plane program. He received a 400 page reports entitled, “”Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974.” In this document the name Area 51 is no longer redacted – it is mentioned as the base at which the U2 was developed and tested.

The document confirms what UFO skeptics have been saying for decades – sure, Area 51 exists and it is shrouded in government secrecy. However, the US must have some secret air bases where they test new aircraft and from which they launch their spy planes. There has never been any evidence of alien spacecraft or advanced technology emerging from the study of alien artifacts. Lacking any evidence for an alien phenomenon, mundane government spying is the more likely explanation.

Of course, this will not end UFO conspiracy theories, involving Area 51 or otherwise. If you believe the government is covering up aliens then no government explanation will convince you otherwise. This in itself is reasonable, once you buy the conspiracy, of course.

The need for government secrecy surrounding spy programs has likely generated a great deal of UFO and conspiracy belief. In the early days of the U2 program, this high-flying spy plane was responsible for a sharp increase in UFO sightings. The government, of course, could not explain what the sightings actually were. At times they tried to explain them away as natural phenomena – transparently implausible explanations that just lent more credence to the conspiracy theories.

At other times they allowed belief in aliens to provide the cover for their secret programs. They likely have had different feeling about this strategy over the years. I can imagine that some argued this strategy backfired when belief in UFOs became a huge phenomenon, driving thousands of curious UFO investigators to probe even further into the government’s secrets.

For example, Area 51 is a popular destination for UFO seekers. They cannot get into the restricted base itself, but they hover on the fringe taking pictures and videos, hoping to catch a glimpse of a flying saucer.

Another example of a secret government program being mistaken for a UFO cover up is Roswell. To quickly summarize this long and now famous story, in 1947 a Rancher found debris from an unusual crashed object. The government recovered all the debris and tried to cover up the incident, however an inexperienced press officer released a statement that a “flying saucer” was recovered, before the big boys showed up.

For years the Air Force had no good explanation for what they found, leading to the huge Roswell crashed saucer cover up phenomenon. In 1994, however, the Air Force finally fessed up – the crashed object was part of a secret spy program, Project Mogul, in which the Air Force was using weather balloons and modified corner reflectors to spy on Soviet nuclear testing.

The reaction to this revelation was predictable – skeptics said, “Of course,” while conspiracy theorists scoffed.


For the foreseeable future there is going to be government secrecy. They will need to keep military secrets and there will always be a shroud of secrecy surrounding their espionage and intelligence activity.

Secrecy, of course, is the enemy of science and open inquiry. I can sympathize with those who are uneasy with such high levels of government secrecy, and I can understand how it breeds suspicion.

We therefore have to keep a delicate balance between necessary secrecy and the need for proper oversight and public trust. We do have mechanisms for oversight by elected officials, and the public also has some rights, such as those spelled out in the Freedom of Information Act. But as long as the government is allowed to keep secrets, there will be conspiracy theorists imaginatively filling in the gaps.

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