The secret history of Area 51, explained by an expert

Written by on October 10, 2019

Annie Jacobsen spent years learning the secrets of Area 51. She told me some of them.

You may have heard about the viral meme that could lead to people to storming Nevada’s famed Area 51 later this week in order to uncover the secrets of the mysterious US Air Force base.

It’s an absurd (and incredibly dangerous) idea — the Air Force has warned that it will defend the facility vigorously — but the impulse behind it is perhaps understandable. For decades, the American imagination has run wild conjuring up all sorts of conspiracy theories about what is really going on at the site.

Is it a place where the US government is hiding UFOs and aliens? Or is it just a boring military base? And if it’s just a boring military base, why is the US government so obsessed with keeping everything about it a secret?

To get some answers without risking getting shot at by the US military, I called up Annie Jacobsen, author of the book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base.

To write the book, Jacobsen interviewed over 70 people who had first-hand knowledge of the secret facility, including 32 who lived and worked at Area 51. The result is basically the most comprehensive account of the history of Area 51 you can get without a super-high-level security clearance.

If anyone had answers for me, it was her. And boy did she. But she also left me with new mysteries I hadn’t even known to ask about.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Alex Ward

Okay, let’s get right to it: What is Area 51, really?

Annie Jacobsen

Area 51 was the birthplace of overhead espionage for the CIA. It’s where the U-2 spy plane was first built back in the 1950s, and it’s where the intelligence community has worked with its military partners and others to work on espionage platforms.

It’s also a place where all elements of the Defense Department work on some of their most classified programs along with members of the intelligence community, of which there are many.

There’s also an element of Area 51 where the CIA trains its foreign paramilitary partners in counterterrorism tactics. They do this out on the wilds of Area 51 because they can bring some foreign fighters there who would otherwise not be welcomed into the country.

So the US can fly them in a plane with the windows drawn, drop them off, train them, and neither the fighters nor the American public have any idea where they were or what was going on.

Alex Ward

How important has Area 51 been to developing America’s spying capabilities?

Annie Jacobsen

We would not have the kinds of incredible overhead espionage technology that we have today without the existence of Area 51. It allowed the different wings of the federal government to pursue technologies in a very large open area that they could otherwise not pursue.

The U-2 spy plane flew at 70,000 feet and 500 miles an hour. Think about how much work you would have to do to make something like that — it was this incredibly delicate plane. Pilots died out there testing it.

But it taught the powers that be that with this incredible effort of testing, you could achieve radical technologies.

Alex Ward

Why did this place become such a hotbed for spying technology and training? Is it just because it’s so remote and so big?

Annie Jacobsen

When the base was founded back in the early 1950s, President Eisenhower tasked a guy named Richard Bissell from the CIA to find the most remote, most secretive place in the United States where they could work on the U-2 spy plane away from any prying eyes — Soviet or otherwise.

So Bissell smartly flew around with another CIA fellow and found the perfect fulfillment of that presidential request: a secret base centered around a dry lakebed in the middle of Nevada, located inside an already classified facility where the government was exploding nuclear weapons.

There was no way, Bissell realized, that anyone was going to try to get into this facility. Why would they want to? There were bombs going off!

Alex Ward

Everything about Area 51 screams secrecy — not just the location, but those who work there are brought into a very secretive culture in which it’s extremely taboo to divulge anything. So how did the UFOs and aliens narrative come about?

Annie Jacobsen

Well, it remained obscured to the outside world until the late 1980s, when an engineer named Bob Lazar went on a local Nevada news program and stated that he had worked at Area 51 on a flying saucer that he believed had come from outer space. Bob Lazar also told the public he thought he saw an alien.

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That was the moment Area 51 became a public fascination. It had been completely cloaked in secrecy before that.

And in all the decades since, interest in the site has gained momentum around two ideas: the theory that the US military has been reverse-engineering UFOs and alien technology at the site, and the truth about the base that some of the most remarkably advanced technology platforms have been created and tested out there.

Alex Ward

Why haven’t any real secrets come out, though?

Annie Jacobsen

Bits and pieces of rumors would emerge over the decades, but the CIA had a very hefty disinformation and misinformation campaign going on out of Area 51.

The best example is in the 1950s when the U-2 spy plane was occasionally spotted. It basically looked like a flying cross way, way, way up high in the sky. And people would write to their Congressman and say, “I saw a UFO. Nothing flies this high.” They were right in that regard. Nothing did fly that high, as far as anyone knew.

And so the CIA, as we know from declassified documents now, used that misidentification to their advantage. It let the UFO mythology evolve because it served as a useful cover for the secret base.

Alex Ward

Did the CIA propagate the aliens story, too?

Annie Jacobsen

I don’t know of the CIA using the alien myth. I’ve never heard of it. But that’s a great question; no one’s actually ever asked me that.

Alex Ward

Okay, so we have this secretive testing site for overhead spy aircraft. What does this mysterious place actually look like?

Annie Jacobsen

Area 51 is part of the Nevada Test and Training Range, which is a large federal piece of property; it’s roughly the size of Connecticut. Area 51 is a tiny parcel of land in that area that surrounds this dry lakebed. The exact dimensions obviously have never been reported, but you can hazard a guess based on looking at the map.

Area 51.

We know what happened from the 1950s through the 1970s, which was basically work on advanced aircraft for spying. But what gets very mysterious is what was going on in the 1990s and the 2000s, and certainly ever since the War on Terror.

I have absolutely no information about that. It’s a jealously guarded secret, but you can be sure that whatever is being built and tested out there has evolved from the technology systems that were worked on before. We know the base is still flourishing despite people saying it’s not.

The first president to state the word or phrase “Area 51” publicly was President Obama during an awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center. And when he did that, in essence, the words “Area 51” became declassified.

Alex Ward

The secrecy around Area 51 is surely what is making thousands say they want to storm that region. What will they see on the very off chance they try and succeed?

Annie Jacobsen

I couldn’t even begin to speculate on whether or not anyone could get into Area 51 to see what’s going on because it’s fundamentally impossible. To think that the government isn’t uniquely aware of everyone who goes anywhere near that facility is naive. A group of people massing anywhere near that facility is not going to happen. Local law enforcement would step in in a preemptive manner far before that happened.

Alex Ward

When people ask you to divulge some of the secrets you learned from Area 51, what do you tell them?

Annie Jacobsen

Well, first I send them to my book, of course.

Separate from that, I have interviewed scores of very smart, very highly placed government personnel who visited the base and believe the technology they saw is so advanced that they question whether or not it’s manmade. That’s intriguing to me. I don’t report on that because there is no documentation to support that claim, but that is the opinion of many people that I know.

Alex Ward

To be clear, these are people who worked on these programs?

Annie Jacobsen

No, these are individuals who have visited the base and have been asked their expert opinion and analysis on classified programs.

Alex Ward

Just based on that, if someone were to ask you — and I guess that someone would be me — would you say with 100 percent confidence that there is no out-of-this-world technology being worked on at Area 51?

Annie Jacobsen

I report my books based on what qualified, competent, multi-sourced individuals tell me, and then I strive to back up information based on declassified documents that exist on the record. So I steer clear of reporting things that are observed but can’t be verified.

Alex Ward

Fair enough, though that’s fascinating to me.

What also intrigued me about what I learned from your book is that Area 51 seems like the quintessential Cold War location. Almost movie-like. It seems to have maintained that ethos, especially the drive to have the best technology and the guarded secrecy around such efforts.

Annie Jacobsen

That’s a great observation on your part, and I believe speaks to the broader secrecy campaign at work in Area 51’s favor. One could argue that all this business of captured UFOs from outer space and aliens is terrific chatter, right? “Look over here!” And people get to think, “Oh, Area 51 is just a Cold War relic.”

My suspicion, though, is that some of the most cutting-edge science and technology programs are being tested at Area 51 today. We won’t know about them for decades. But years from now the future technology that was being built there during the War on Terror will look quaint. Anachronistic. Outdated.

Alex Ward

That is my real fascination with Area 51. Yes, there’s the UFOs and alien stuff, but it’s possibly a very important epicenter for the future of American defense, of technological progress.

The life-or-death moments in America’s future are, if not being seeded at Area 51, they’re in a sense being decided there. To me, that’s a great story in and of itself.

Annie Jacobsen

That was beautifully said. There’s your closing paragraph. You don’t need me. That was perfect.


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