Declassified: The CIA's Secret History of Area 51

Area 51 is a touchstone of America's cultural mythology. It rose to notoriety in 1989, when a Las Vegas man claimed he had worked at the secret facility to discover the secrets of crashed alien hardware, spawning two decades of conspiracy theories and speculation about little green men. But the facility's history -- and the history of the strange, secret aircraft that were developed there -- extends back to 1955. Since its inception, the government has obliquely acknowledged its existence only a handful of times, and even the CIA's 1996 declassified history of the OXCART program -- the development of the SR-71 Blackbird at the secret site -- refers only to tests conducted in "the Nevada desert." The government has never publicly discussed the specific facility ... until now.

On Thursday, the National Security Archive reported that it had gotten its hands on a newly declassified CIA history of the development of the U-2 spy plane. The report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, contains the CIA's secret record of how Area 51 came to be.

In 1955, CIA Special Assistant for Planning and Coordination Richard Bissell, Col. Osmund Ritland, an Air Force officer working on the U-2 project, and Lockheed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson began looking for a location in California or Nevada to test the U-2 prototype. The location had to be remote -- far from the view of the public (or potential Soviet spies). On April 12, 1955, they were scouting locations from the air with the help of Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier. While flying over the Groom Lake salt flat, they noticed an airstrip that had been abandoned after being used by the Army Air Corps during World War II. The CIA history describes their first encounter with the site:

After debating about landing on the old airstrip, LeVier set the plan down on the lakebed, and all four walked over to examine the strip.... From the air the strip appeared to be paved, but on closer inspection it turned out to have originally been fashioned from compacted earth that had turned into ankle-deep dust after more than a decade of disuse. If LeVier had attempted to land on the airstrip, the plane would probably have nosed over when the wheels sank into the loose soil, killing or injuring all of the key figures in the U-2 project.

The salt flat and old airstrip were added to the Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada Test Site, which the land abutted. On the AEC maps, like the one above, the area was designated "Area 51." For the U-2 developers, it went by a different name. Johnson, the plane's lead designer, called the facility Paradise Ranch, and it came to be informally know as "the Ranch" -- or "Watertown Strip," after bouts of flooding. The site became operational three months later, in July 1955, and testing of the spy plane was underway by the end of the month.

The UFO sightings began almost immediately. The U-2's operating altitude of 60,000 feet was higher than any other aircraft at the time -- higher than some people even thought possible. "[I]f a U-2 was airborne in the vicinity of the airliner [during twilight hours] ... its silver wings would catch and reflect the rays of the sun and appear to the airliner pilot, 40,000 feet below, to be fiery objects," the CIA history notes. These sightings were reported to air-traffic controllers and the Air Force, and were compiled in the Air Force's Operation BLUE BOOK, another subject of decades of alien conspiracy theories. "U-2 and later OXCART [the SR-71 development program] flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s," according to the CIA.

The Ranch was evacuated in June 1957 for a series of nuclear tests "whose fallout was expected to contaminate the Groom Lake facility," the report notes, but by September 1959 the CIA was back, using the site to develop the A-12, the forerunner to the SR-71. Over the next year, flights shuttled work crews to and from Area 51; the runway was lengthened, new hangars and 100 surplus Navy housing buildings were installed, and 18 miles of highway to the site were resurfaced. The facility seems to have remained in operation since.

The latest declassified documents aren't exactly new revelations for Area 51 scholars -- much of this is known from interviews and inferences. In researching this article, I spoke to Bill Sweetman, an expert on secret U.S. military projects, who recounted the story of Bissell, Ritland, Johnson, and LeVier finding the site in the same detail as the declassified history. Sweetman directed me to the work of Chris Pocock, who has been reading between the lines of the CIA's redactions for decades. But the new report, all 355 pages of which you can read here, does tell a fascinating story about the origins of one of America's great mysteries.

National Security Archive


Egyptian Ambassador: 'It Became Necessary to Finish This Thing Today'

On Aug. 14, Egyptian security forces violently disbanded sit-ins held by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsy. Hundreds of people died across the country in the ensuing clashes, and Egypt's interim president declared a state of emergency. Wednesday's chaotic events represent the "most serious juncture" Egypt has faced in at least 30 years, Mohamed Tawfik, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with Foreign Policy, in which he also blamed the Brotherhood for the latest wave of bloodshed and explained why he doesn't believe this is Egypt's Tiananmen Square moment. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: What was the plan to de-escalate this?

Mohamed TawfikThe plan was originally to clear the sit-ins gradually, in stages, in a way that would not cause casualties. However, when Muslim Brotherhood supporters started shooting at the police, and there were casualties on the police side, it became necessary to finish this thing today.

It's painful for every Egyptian that we have had these casualties, including 43 police officers killed by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, however the road plan that we have is still the same, it has not changed, we are determined to take the next steps towards democracy and we are not going to allow anyone to hinder these efforts.

FP: Do you blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence today?

MT: No doubt in my mind that the government did everything in their power to convince the Brotherhood that these sit-ins could not continue. There were serious reports of people abducted, people tortured, bodies left around the sit-ins. We found a mass grave inside, and they are still digging up the bodies. This stopped becoming an issue of freedom of expression, and became a locus of criminal behavior, and therefore it had to be cleared away. No doubt in my mind that it's the Brotherhood's fault.

FP: Isn't instating the emergency law going to evoke the Mubarak regime? Why take this approach?

MT: The Mubarak regime instituted it for 30 years, which is ridiculous, and at a time when life was perfectly normal. Today when you have 21 police stations attacked, seven churches burned, it's essential that you put in emergency laws for a temporary period of time, until you manage to restore security.

FP: You've been a diplomat for 30 years. Is this the worst crises you've seen?

MT: Where we are now is the most serious juncture that Egypt has been in in the last 30 years.  

FP: You were ambassador for a year under Morsy. How has your job changed from when the Muslim Brotherhood ruled to now?

MT: I think the year Morsy was in power started off with a lot of hope, and little by little that hope vanished. At the end it was very difficult to defend the Muslim Brotherhood's policies. Right now it is a more critical situation, but at the same time there is more hope for the future.

FP: What have you seen with Gen. al-Sisi's government that would give you hope?

MT: First of all this is not al-Sisi's government. There's the president and prime minister; al-Sisi is the minister of defense and deputy prime minister. They have taken serious steps towards freedom of the press, established rules for an independent board to oversee government media, they have started a process of national reconciliation. 

FP: When we spoke in July, you said this was not a coup. Is this still not a coup?

MT: My views have absolutely not changed.

FP: Why should Washington refrain from cutting ties with Egypt?

MT: It's obviously Washington's decision what they want to do, but the relations between Egypt and the United States are of vital importance to both countries, and it's a matter of mutual interest to preserve the relationship.

FP: Any plans to ban the Muslim Brotherhood?

MT: The issue has to be dealt with within the law and depends on what the competent legal authorities think. It depends on who broke the law and when. This cannot be a political issue.

FP: People have been comparing what's happening now to the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, where the government moved in to clear pro-democracy forces. Do you think that's accurate?

MT: Absolutely not. Most people don't realize that most casualties did not take place where they had the two sit-ins, but when Muslim Brotherhood attacked citizens, government buildings, churches. This general aggressive behavior led to a very large number of casualties. I don't recall that happening after Tiananmen Square.

FP: After Tiananmen Square the Chinese government said the same thing you're saying now, which was that the violence is the fault of a small group of armed people who are breaking the law.

MT: You didn't have 21 police stations attacked. You didn't have 43 police officers killed. You didn't have seven churches attacked and burned, nor police officers mutilated after they were killed. I think the comparison is totally invalid.

FP: What does ElBaradei's resignation mean for the transition?

MT: I read his move as a personal decision based on personal considerations.

FP: For you personally, what level of violence would need to occur for you to resign?

MT: It's very difficult to respond to hypothetical questions, but I think my government had no alternative but to take action. The government not only had the right to intervene but the legal obligation. We are certainly very sad that there were casualties, and we mourn all those who have been killed today. Having said that, I think it was the responsibility of the Muslim Brotherhood.