Too bad a declassified CIA report acknowledging the existence of Area 51 doesn’t explain anything about extraterrestrials, time travel, or just how Will Smith learned to pilot an alien space craft quickly enough to save the world in “Independence Day.”
But the United States’ most famous base does exist, according to documents obtained by George Washington University's National Security Archive. It was the Cold War home of the government’s spy plane program, an explanation that may satisfy some conspiracy theorists but reinvigorate others.
In 1955, the CIA pegged the Nevada site — about 90 miles north of Las Vegas — as a testing ground for the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which soon after gained fame for high-altitude missions over the Soviet Union. The dry bed of nearby Groom Lake provided a space where pilots could land from any direction. The CIA later used Area 51 to test the A-12 spy plane and its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest manned aircraft in the world.
The intelligence agency released 407 pages of such revelations this week in response to the university’s 2005 Freedom of Information request. Eight years may seem like a long time to get one report. But in the world of secret government programs, that’s a quick turnover.
So what about the UFOs? All those people who saw odd aircraft in the surrounding skies couldn’t be lying, could they? Did Nevada rename State Route 375 “Extraterrestrial Highway” for nothing?
Almost certainly. Those shiny flying objects traveling higher and faster than any normal, man-made plane weren’t alien visitors. They were what we used to snoop on communists.
Then again, maybe there’s more to Area 51. After all, the government that released this report is the same one that’s dribbling out information about a worldwide surveillance net that has the power to monitor and record every communication we make. I don’t buy that argument, but it’s easy fodder for conspiracy theorists who’ve been going at it for a half-century.
This week’s declassified report doesn’t close the door on that part of the American imagination, however. Indeed, we should keep the mythical idea of Area 51 alive.
What else could we call Las Vegas’ Triple-A baseball team, the 51s? Where else would Indiana Jones have stored the Ark of the Covenant? How else could humans, using bullets and rockets, exterminate far-superior alien invaders who traveled across the galaxy en masse to vaporize whole cities in “Independence Day”?
A few diehards will argue that there’s more Area 51 information on intergalactic visitors out there. Doubtful. But we can all agree on one thing: If aliens do exist, they probably have some sort of anti-virus software. Sorry, Will Smith.