Tomorrow, secrets of Area 51 will be revealed.
Okay, not quite all. But more than you’d expect. The International Spy Museum is hosting a special (and free!) documentary screening and author discussion tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. in conjunction with the National Geographic Channel. Annie Jacobsen is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and an investigative reporter whose work has also appeared in the National Review and the Dallas Morning News. Her two-part series “The Road to Area 51” in the Los Angeles Times Magazine broke online reader records and remained the “most popular/most emailed” story for ten consecutive days. Her findings resulted in both a new book, AREA 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, and a companion National Geographic special, Area 51 Declassified.
Jacobsen has been busy prepping for her book tour, which kicks off at the Spy Museum, but managed to squeeze off a few answers to WeLoveDC regarding Area 51, its purpose, and what really went on at America’s most well known Top Secret facility.
The idea for tackling the subject started innocuously enough. “In 2007 I was at a Christmas Eve dinner when an eighty-eight-year old scientist named Edward Lovick leaned over and said to me, ‘Have I got a good story for you.'” Jacobsen was surprised, as she had always known Lovick as a designer of airplane parts for most of his career. “As a national security reporter, I hear this line frequently—my work depends on it—but what Lovick told me ranked among the most tantalizing things I’d heard in a long time.”
What Lovick told her was that he wasn’t really an engineer but a physicist. More shockingly, he had been a physicist who had played a major role in helping the CIA develop in the area of aerial espionage. “The reason Lovick could suddenly divulge information that had been kept secret for fifty years was that the CIA had just declassified it,” she said. Why the secrecy? Lovick admitted that much of his secret work took place at Area 51. The top secret facility has gone by many names: Groom Lake, Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Home Base, Watertown Strip, and Homey Airport. Nonetheless, it was confirmation that the facility was indeed real.
The admission triggered Jacobsen’s investigative nose. “I wrote to the assistant secretary of defense requesting an official tour of the Groom Lake Area,” she said. Lovick had told her that the CIA had given up control of the place decades earlier. “My request was formally denied, on Department of Defense letterhead, but oddly with the words ‘the Groom Lake Area’ separated out in quotes attributed to me, so as to make clear the Pentagon’s official position regarding their Nevada base: that locale may be part of your lexicon, they seemed to be saying, but it’s most definitely not officially part of ours. When I learned that the name Area 51 was still classified, that the government has never officially admitted that it actually exists, I sought to learn why.”
What developed over the course of the next few years was an accumulation of over 50 Area 51 veterans, including scientists, pilots, and soldiers. “Each man came to me by referral, starting with Lovick,” she said. “They are a small fraternity of soldiers, spies, scientists, and engineers who before this book were known only among themselves because so much of what they did was classified. On average, the book’s characters are in their mid-eighties, making the present day the third and final act of their lives. That so many individuals opened up with me, relaying their triumphs and tragedies, their sorrows and joys, has been an experience of a lifetime. Why me remains somewhat of a mystery.”
The concept of a secret facility is not uniquely American. Every nation has at least one facility similar in nature, if not in scope or direction. The Soviet Union had its own copycat facility, NII-88, which was directly involved in the development and launch of the Sputnik satellite. Another Soviet facility, Novaya Zemlya, is suspected to be the site of full-scale underground nuclear testing. Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in North Korea is a suspected site furthering that country’s nuclear experimentation. And don’t forget Syria’s secret Al-Kibar site that was supposedly destroyed by Israel in 2007 in a nighttime aerial attack.
These days, the words “top secret facility” and “nuclear” go hand-in-hand. Area 51, as Jacobsen discovered, was no different, despite the facility’s place in conspiracy theories involving alien bodies and UFOs. “The truth is that America’s most famous secret federal facility was set up to advance military science and technology faster and further than any other foreign power in the world. And it still does that today,” said Jacobsen. One of the main thrusts of the facility’s purpose was harboring and developing nuclear technology, often under the oversight of the Department of Energy.
Contrary to popular thought, Area 51 was often the sight of multiple agencies conducting various technological experimentation. The projects were often compartmentalized through various systems of control. The CIA occupied and controlled a portion of Area 51 during the better part of the Cold War, developing their aerial reconnaissance programs like the U-2 and A-12 Oxcart. The Department of Defense uses it repeatedly for testing new aircraft and weapon designs, including the Have Blue (later the F-117 Stealth Fighter) and B-2 bomber programs.
But more sinister are the implications that other secret projects have occurred there. One of the agencies involved was the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy). The DOE has a different way of keeping secrets that runs completely contrary to standard governmental protocols. “In other words, the nuclear agency maintains a parallel body of secrets classified based on factors other than presidential executive orders. It is from the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 that the concept ‘born classified’ came to be,” said Jacobsen when asked to elaborate. “Even more terrifying is the Atomic Energy Commission’s ‘Restricted Data’ classification, which allows secrets to originate outside the government through the ‘thinking and research of private parties.’ The company’s ‘thinking and research’ would be ‘born classified,’ and even the President of the United States would not necessarily have a need-to-know about it.”
Jacobsen asserts that the DOE’s misdirection continues even today. “It is no coincidence that the agency behind some of the most nefarious and dangerous operations in U.S. history has changed its name four times. First it was called the Manhattan Project, then it changed its name to the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1975 it was renamed the Energy Research and Development Administration, or ERDA, and in 1977 it was renamed again, this time to the Department of Energy. Finally, in 2000, America’s nuclear weapons agency got a new name for the fourth time: the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, a department nestled away inside the Department of Energy,” she replied. “At the DOE website you will see that the organization prides itself as ‘the government department whose mission is to advance technology and promote related innovation in the United States,’ which makes it sound more like Apple Corporation than the federal agency that created 70,000 nuclear bombs, did untold damage to the environment, and conducted thousands of covert medical experiments on human beings without their consent.”
Jacobsen’s book goes into further detail regarding the medical experiments conducted at Area 51 and those done elsewhere by the AEC. These were uncovered by an advisory committee tasked by President Clinton in the 1990s after reporter Eileen Welsome exposed the agency’s plutonium experiments on children in Massachusetts.
Primarily, however, the collective public curiosity is more on the possibility of aliens and spacecraft housed at Area 51. It’s not a topic that Jacobsen shies away from, either. The short version? As far as she knows, there are no alien bodies or alien spacecraft at the Nevada facility. She explores the Roswell incident from a different perspective: the crash was most likely a Russian plane; the alien bodies, Russian pilots. “I can only tell you what was told to me by my source, a man who himself worked on this rogue program, under the direction of Vannevar Bush and the Atomic Energy Commission,” she replied. “My source is an eyewitness to the Roswell crash remains, which came from Russia. He received them at Area 51, with four other EG&G engineers, and he worked to reverse-engineer this craft—he took it apart and put it back together again. But my source also told me—with no room for misinterpretation—that at Area 51, at Area S-4, he worked on the experiments with the human beings who were the pilots inside Stalin’s craft.”
So how then did Robert Scott Lazar, a 29 year-old scientist, get it wrong? Lazar appeared on a Las Vegas news show in 1989 with an investigative reporter and told the world he was a former Area 51 employee. He admitted to working on an alien spacecraft and had been shown an autopsy photograph of the alien pilot. He had also apparently witnessed scientists examining a small, live being that could have been an alien. None of Jacobsen’s interviewees ever recalled meeting Lazar, and none of them verified Lazar’s claims.
Jacobsen poses a comprehensive answer to Lazar’s claims in the book, involving governmental deception campaigns and an example from the 1940s testing of jet aircraft and gorillas. “In 1942, when the jet engine was first being developed, the Army Air Corps wanted to keep it secret,” she said. Airplanes at this time flew strictly through propeller propulsion, so the concept of seeing a plane fly without one is a mind-boggling one. “Every time a test pilot took a Bell XP-59A jet aircraft out on a flight test over the Muroc dry lake bed in California’s Mojave Desert, the crew attached a dummy propeller to the airplane’s nose. The Bell pilots had a swath of airspace in which to perform flight tests, but every now and then a pilot training nearby on a P-38 Lightning would try to get a look.
“Rumors started to circulate at local bars and pilots wanted to know what was being hidden from them. According to my interview with Edwards Air Force Base, chief Bell test pilot Jack Woolams got an idea. He ordered a gorilla mask from a Hollywood prop house, removed the mock-up propeller from the nose of his jet airplane, put on the gorilla mask, and took to the skies,” she said. “When a P-38 Lightning came flying nearby for a look, Woolams maneuvered his airplane so that the Lightning pilot could look inside. Instead of seeing Woolams, the pilot saw a gorilla flying an airplane—an airplane that had no propeller. The stunned pilot landed and went straight to the local bar and ordered a stiff drink. He told the other pilots what he’d definitely seen with his own eyes. His colleagues told him he was drunk, that he was an embarrassment, and that he should go home. Meanwhile, the concept of the gorilla mask caught on among other Bell test pilots, and soon Woolams’s own colleagues joined the act. Over the course of the next few months, other P-38 Lightning pilots spotted the gorilla flying the propeller-less airplane.
“Some versions of the historical record have the psychiatrist for the Army Air Corps getting involved, helping the Lightning pilots to understand how a clear-thinking fighter pilot could become disoriented at altitude and believe he had seen something that clearly was not really there. No one dared go public because everyone knows that a gorilla can’t fly an airplane.”
Jacobsen posits that a similar situation happened with Lazar. “Perhaps Lazar drew the only conclusion he could draw based on the information he was given,” she said. Lazar had told the reporter he had been hired specifically to work on an outer-space craft at Area 51 and was shown the photo on purpose. “I believe Lazar may have been the subject of a deception campaign. Look what happened to him when he went public with his story. Lazar lost his job and was run out of town. In written correspondence with me, Lazar has stated very clearly that it’s been difficult for him to be taken seriously as a scientist because he is known as ‘the UFO guy.'”
According to Jacobsen, the UFO conspiracy, even today, still serves a viable function for the CIA. She states in the book that the CIA’s handling of UFO secrets is more a form of strategic deception than any type of coverup. “Look at the agency’s second director, General Walter Bedell Smith, who set UFO policy for the CIA in the early 1950s. Bedell Smith was an extraordinarily capable man, very powerful and trusted by the President. During World War II, Bedell Smith had been General Eisenhower’s chief of staff. After the war, he was Truman’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. Whatever the Russians were up to, Bedell Smith had access to it,” she said. “When he took over as director of the CIA, he told the National Security Council that the UFO craze sweeping the nation was a dangerous thing. That the American public was susceptible to ‘hysterical mass behavior’ as had happened in 1938 with the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
“Bedell Smith had to have known about Stalin’s hoax with the flying disc sent over New Mexico,” Jacobsen continued. “In declassified CIA papers, he expresses concern that the Russians could be planning another UFO hoax to cause panic, overload America’s early-warning air-defense system, and make room for a sneak nuclear attack. He put together a group called the Psychological Strategy Board to start a ‘debunking’ campaign meant to reduce the public’s interest in flying saucers. He even suggested getting the Disney Corporation involved. This backfired. People were far too interested in UFOs to disregard them; it’s the same today. Presently, it serves the CIA to allow the myth of UFOs and aliens to prosper because it keeps the proverbial eye off the ball: Stalin’s flying disc and the child-sized aviators who were inside.”
There’s a lot more within the pages of Jacobsen’s book than just top secret programs and UFO-like conspiracies. She forces the reader to look hard at the moral and ethical questions that arise from such secrecy. Ranging from the American use of Nazi scientists after World War II to the abuses of the AEC to nuclear proliferation, Jacobsen delves deeply into Area 51’s deceptions and power plays, examining its effect on the American psyche. Is Area 51 still needed today? It’s a tough question to answer, and one Jacobsen doesn’t try to resolve. Instead, she takes the information gained over the course of interviews and declassified documents and lays them out before us in all their ugly glory. While we may find some of the answers we’ve sought, the questions that arise from those answers force us to continue looking, both at and beyond Area 51.
The Area 51 Declassified screening takes place tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at the International Spy Museum, 800 F. Street NW. A roundtable discussion with the author and a few of her sources will occur after the screening. The museum is located one block from the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station on the Red, Green, and Yellow lines. The screening and discussion is free to the public. Copies of her book will be on sale after the program and a book signing is planned.