[Last summer] the Central Intelligence Agency publicly acknowledged the existence of the Nevada Test and Training Centre, a large isolated airfield some 83 miles northwest of Las Vegas that is more commonly known by its designated Atomic Energy Commission grid number, Area 51. Despite the clear visibility of the complex on Google Maps, the detailed testimony of former employees and the embedded presence of the facility in popular media, the specific location and function of Area 51 have not previously been subject to any official confirmations. Since the establishment of the site at
Lake in 1955, the military and
the CIA have maintained a stubborn silence on the mater through a combination
of denial and redaction. However, following a series of freedom of information
requests made by the National Security Archive at George Washington University,
the CIA have for the first time made available a clear map of the base and
provided some details of the projects developed there. US
Area 51 has long been known as the site of cold-war era research into surveillance and stealth technologies. The expanse of
provided the space
and isolation necessary for the development of sensitive prototype aircraft.
However, this combination of security, obscurity and experimentation also
caused the base to become one of modern ufology’s most glamorous sites of
attention. Often seen shimmering in photographs like a distant mirage, Area 51
stands as a physical crucible of post-war conspiratorial thinking, associated
with everything from UFO recovery and reverse engineering to research into time
travel and teleportation. There is no other Air Force location that so
immediately signifies the apparent actuality of government funded black
Like a modern day Alamut, Area 51 seems to hold the most glittering prizes relating to the grandest of conspiracies. And yet it’s this impossible prestige that points to another kind of glamour, glamour in the sense of spell or charm; that which is used to project a particular belief or perception of reality. A glamour is a type of smokescreen and the ‘disinformation’ school of ufology would say the same thing about Area 51. Its status as ‘Dreamland’, the HQ of the unexplained, is a constructed reputation. Its strange combination of visible invisibility and badly kept secrets have been used as decoys that have allowed something else and somewhere else to hide in plain sight.
Both of these perspectives are active in the media response to news of the CIA disclosure. On August 16th, The Telegraph carried a story headed “Area 51 does exist and there were strange goings on admit CIA”. ‘Admit’ is the key word here. In contrast to ‘disclose’ in which the possessor of information allows it to be seen, ‘admit’ relates to a confession, a process of conceding to the truth of that which is already known by others. By tying this word to “Area 51” and “strange goings on” the implication is created of a revelation worthy of Deep Throat; a confirmation that everything associated with Dreamland is true. This is reiterated in the story’s subhead:
The existence of Area 51, the
airbase rumored to house UFOs, along with details of some strange activities
that went on there have been officially acknowledged in newly released CIA
Here, a clausal phrase is used to describe Area 51 as “the
airbase rumored to house UFOs”. Although the contentious word ‘UFO’ is clearly
tied to ‘rumor’, by using this as the point of definition in the sentence, the
suggestion is created that by acknowledging the “existence of Area 51”, the CIA
have simultaneously confirmed the rumor.
However, the reality of the ‘admission’ is somewhat more prosaic. The story emerged from a post on the National Security Archive blog (dated 15th August) written by their Senior Research Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson. He explains that the information released is specifically linked to the history of the U-2 spy plane. In 1992 the CIA issued an account of the U-2 programme and the later OXCART project by their official historians Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach. This study, The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance remained an exclusively internal document until it was published in 1998 as The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974, a volume that contained what Richelson called “a heavily redacted version of the U-2 portion”. The FOIA request, made in 2005, related directly to this volume and what the NSA announced was the appearance of a “substantially less redacted version” of the text.
For Richelson and aviation historians like Chris Pocock, the main value of the new text lies with the information it provides with respect to the previously unknown minutiae of the U-2 project:
names of pilots, code names and cryptonymes, locations, funding and cover arrangements, electronic countermeasures equipment, organization, co-operation with foreign governments and operations, particularly in
The references to
and Area 51 appear
as part of the contextual background to this new data. As a result, whilst
these geographical references are symbolically important for the historical
report, they are comparatively less useful than the details listed above as
their declassification merely confirms facts that have been known – and
verifiable – for decades. Groom
However, what is significant about the acknowledgement of Area 51 is the light it sheds on the politics of governmental transparency. As Richelson explained to the BBC, the “long period of secrecy was notable because of the extent people across the world were already aware of Area 51’s existence.” These recent disclosures must then have emerged from a “conscious, deliberate decision” having first reached a “high-enough level” of discussion.
Although the wave of news stories each reported on the details of Richelson’s blog post, the latter implication was largely obscured beneath the kind of admissive implications used in The Telegraph. The recapitulation of this myth of absolute revelation, central to what could be termed ‘epiphanic’ ufology, essentially puts into operation the kind of smokescreen decried by critics of disinformation. It avoids the key issue that pinballs between paranormal speculation and official declassification: the political economy of information.
This is the concern of Area 51 researchers such as David Darlington, whose book The Dreamland Chronicles (1998) reads conspiracy theory as a critique of political obfuscation within an apparent democracy. As the Snowden case continues to prove, the ethics of disclosure in a security context are difficult to unravel. However in order to effectively question the policies that govern knowledge, it’s important to understand their internal mechanisms. So, while those termed ‘UFO hunters’ by the media may indeed be disappointed that the contents of Area 51’s underground tunnels have still not be revealed and that the Men in Black remain in the shadows, there is much to be welcomed in the recent U-2 papers. Although they may actually disclose little, they have much to say about the strategies that make disclosure possible.