The secret C.I.A. base, which has long been a feature of both conspiracy theories and popular media, was in fact used to test the U-2 spy plane.
A dirt road off of Nevada Route 375 leads to the restricted area known as Area 51 on June 27, 2010. (Photo by Jon Elswick/AP)
The Nevada C.I.A. base known as Area 51 exists, according to recently released documentation obtained by national security researcher Jeffrey T. Richelson. The Central Intelligence Agency has even released a map, showing the once-apocryphal government facility’s location in the Mojave desert.
While the government has spent more than half a century officially denying the existence of Area 51, the secret base has long played a central role in American folklore and popular media. For decades, conspiracy theorists would claim that it was the site of top-secret experimentation on extra-terrestrials or U.F.O.s. Popular works of science fiction such as the television show The X-Files and Roswell have exploited and dramatized some of these conspiracy theories.
But the reality of Area 51, at least according to these declassified documents, is decidedly less exciting. Instead of housing life from elsewhere in the galaxy, Area 51 apparently operated as a test site for the U-2 spy plane throughout the Cold War. Other secret craft were also tested there, many under a series of projects called the OXCART programs.
All of this new information about Area 51 comes from The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance, a secret account of the U-2′s development and the OXCART programs written by two members of the C.I.A.’s history staff. Writing for Foreign Policy, Richelson suggested that it was unnecessary to keep the full history classified for so long.
“The final take-away, after 355 pages of inside history, is to wonder why the government kept all of this secret for so long,” wrote Richelson. “For example, what was the point of keeping secret the CIA’s assessment that British author Chris Pocock’s book, , is ‘by far the most accurate unclassified account of the U-2 program?’”
UPDATE, 4:24 p.m.: A C.I.A. spokesperson sent MSNBC the following statement:
What readers of the C.I.A. study will find is that C.I.A. tested its U-2 and A-12 reconnaissance aircraft at a site in Nevada sometimes referred to as “Area 51.” What readers won’t find are any references to aliens or other conspiracy theories best left to the realm of science fiction.