Adventures in dreamland: What goes on inside Area 51?

The US Air Force installation has provided grist for the conspiracy theorists’ mill for decades. Will we ever know the truth?

Gareth Rees April 3, 2017

It’s dark. Two people, a man and a woman, are in a car travelling through a desert landscape on a long, straight road. The man is driving; he is excited, eager to reach their destination. The woman is sitting stiffly in the passenger seat. She has a resigned, ‘here we go again’ look on her face. The pair know each other well, but they aren’t husband and wife, and this is no romantic road trip – they are partners and they have some serious business to attend to. 

They are heading down Groom Lake Road, and their destination is Area 51, the clandestine military facility deep in the Nevada desert where the CIA and the US Air Force have been conducting so called ‘black projects’ since the 1950s. They are going to meet a ‘clandestine source’ who just might be able to provide the evidence to link Area 51 with extra terrestrial activity. The woman, a born skeptic, hopes it is “not just another crackpot”. The man replies, “It’s all our questions, the proof that we’ve suspected but never been able to hold in our hands – that proof is here.”

Suddenly, a dozen headlights light up the night. A squad of military Jeeps appears, filled with men dressed in black who are accompanied by soldiers carrying automatic weapons. The man and woman exit the car, and approach the welcoming committee. One of the men in black says, “I’ve got a secret for you, there’s no such thing as UFOs.” Right on cue, an alien craft appears in the sky in a burst of light. 

None of this really happened, of course. It is the opening scene from Dreamland, an episode from season six of popular sci-fi show The X-Files, which aired in 1998. The man is Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), the woman is Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and the man in black is Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean). There’s no such thing as UFOs. Or is there?

Cold War

In 2013, the CIA released a report entitled The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974. It was the first time the existence of Area 51 had been officially acknowledged.

The content of the report represents the ‘official’ history of Area 51. The story goes like this. In 1955, with the Cold War with the Soviet Union in full swing, the CIA initiated Project Aquatone, designating Area 51’s Groom Lake salt flat as the testing sight for the Lockheed U-2 spy plane. In 1959, Project OXCART was born, and development of the Lockheed A-12 stealth reconnaissance aircraft began.

“The A-12, Project OXCART, turned Area 51, which was essentially a temporary facility, into a permanent one,” aerospace historian Peter Merlin told the makers of the National Geographic Channel documentary Area 51: The CIA’s Secret Files. In 1966 the US Air Force acquired a MiG-21, the aircraft that the Soviet Union had been using to devastating effect against its McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber in Vietnam and in 1968 began testing at Groom Lake. The project was named Have Doughnut.

In 1979 the CIA handed over control of Area 51 to the US Air Force and throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was used to develop stealth aircraft, including the F-117 Nighthawk. “Every US stealth aircraft has been tested at Area 51 in one way or another,” according to Peter Merlin.

So that’s that. Fascinating, but not shocking. If UFOs were spotted near Area 51, they were most likely experimental aircraft being tested by the CIA and the US Air Force. Considering the threat posed to national security if its activities were made public, it is no surprise that the CIA wanted to keep the existence of Area 51 out of the public domain.

But the CIA’s 2013 report was not Area 51’s debut on the world stage. In 1989, Area 51 hit the headlines when Las Vegas resident Bob Lazar claimed in an interview with investigative reporter George Knapp for Las Vegas TV station KLAS-TV to have worked at a facility near Area 51 named S-4 as a physicist reverse-engineering extraterrestrial craft. “There are several, actually nine, flying saucers, flying discs, that are out there of extraterrestrial origin,” said Lazar, speaking under the pseudonym Dennis.

Lazar’s claims inspired conspiracy theorists, but have been widely rubbished. He has said he regrets speaking out but remains defiant. “Look, I know what happened is true. There’s no doubt. Period,” he told KLAS-TV in 2014.

George Knapp is a Peabody Award-winning journalist, and he has continued to report on UFOs despite being mocked by fellow reporters. “I don’t write stories for them to be read by other journalists, I write them for the public to read, and this is a subject that the public is interested in,” he told an audience at the Exopolitics Denmark conference in 2014. 

Space crafts

Annie Jacobsen, an investigative journalist and author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, is on the fence as to whether there are extra-terrestrial flying machines n Area 51. “I cannot answer that question, but there are lots of very informed people who tell me yes, and there are lots of very informed people who tell me no,” she says.

Jacobsen doesn’t believe the CIA is overly concerned that the public’s hunger for conspiracy theories about Area 51 seems to be insatiable. As long as the people associate Area 51 with stories that would traditionally belong in the realm of sci-fi, they won’t look too closely at what’s really going on there. “But remember, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to them. You can cover up a lie with a lie,” says Jacobsen, adding that there is not one single truth to be uncovered but many. Due to the nature of black projects, where information is shared on a need to know basis and people might not know what is happening in the next room to them, there are innumerable layers of the Area 51 onion to peel back yet.

“What’s fascinating is that everyone always asks me, ‘Who knows? Who is the Wizard of Oz?’,” says Jacobsen. “That’s the quest that keeps me super interested in journalism, because just when you think you know who the Wizard is you find out that the Wizard is fallible and that the Wizard is reporting to someone else.”

Defeated presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shares Jacobsen’s interest in pulling back the Area 51 curtain and finding out who the wizard is. “I would like us to go into those files and hopefully make as much of that public as possible,” she told US talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel in March 2016. “If there’s nothing there then let’s let people know there’s nothing there. If there is something there, unless it’s a threat to national security, I think we ought to share it with the public.” Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, had previously told Jimmy Kimmel in 2014 that he had checked whether aliens were being kept at Area 51. No, was the answer President Clinton received, but Hillary Clinton obviously isn’t satisfied.

“When you first become President, one of the questions that people ask you is, ‘What’s really going on in Area 51?’,” Barack Obama famously joked during his Kennedy Center Honours speech in December 2013. He later added, “I think I just became the first President to ever publicly mention Area 51.”

With Hillary missing out on the White House, Area 51’s gates may remain locked for a while yet. Jacobsen says, “Hillary Clinton’s discussion of the issues raised it to the level of legitimacy that it deserves as opposed to marginalising the subject and making fun of it, which to me has all the clear hallmarks of a disinformation campaign.”

Fox Mulder didn’t discover the truth about Area 51. His source, the (fictional) head honcho of Area 51 General Wegman turns out to be clueless. “Do aliens really exist, Agent Mulder?” he asks. Let’s see if Donald Trump believes that the truth is out there.