Flashback Friday: Secrets of Area 51

In the August, 1995 issue of High Times, reporter Max Powers journeyed to the deserts of Nevada to probe the inner secrets of an ultra-secret military base.
Flashback Friday: Secrets of Area 51
From “Secrets of Dreamland”/ Courtesy Norio Hayakawa

An August, 1995 feature in High Times explored the mysterious Area 51.

Glenn Campbell stands atop a remote ridge in the desert of south-central Nevada. He peers through a high-powered telescope at a vast, dry lake bed in the distance below.

Through waves of heat distortion, Campbell’s telescope picks up an airfield. There are several large hangars, radar dishes, scattered warehouse-sized buildings, five 747s and what is believed to be the longest runway in the world.

To get to his remote perch, Campbell evaded electronic road sensors, which detect vehicles driving up to the ridge. He snuck by a Blackhawk helicopter and was followed by men in unmarked white jeeps who trained high-powered telephoto video cameras on his every move.

To Campbell, it’s all in a day’s work. A self-described “anti-PR person” who agitates against government secrecy, Campbell hopes to unveil the mysteries behind this distant airstrip, nestled just inside a restricted Air Force bombing range north of Las Vegas.

The 35-year-old retired software designer has authored a guide on how to outwit Air Force countersurveillance. Among his weapons is a portable radio scanner that picks up communications between the control tower and pilots. The pocket gizmo crackles with garbled aerospeak: altimeter readings, bearings, wind direction. “…Wind is out of the northwest, Watchdog is in effect.”

“The tower referred to Watchdog,” Campbell notes with glee. “That means they know there’s someone up here on the ridge, watching the airfield. All pilots going in and out of the base have to know they’re being watched.”

For 40 years, the dehydrated alkali basin known as Groom Lake has been the key test site for the war machine’s most secret airborne weapons. In this forgotten corner, the CIA and Air Force tested their most sensitive planes—from the U-2 spy plane, first flown over the USSR in the ’50s, to the F-117 “stealth” fighter, unveiled in the invasion of Panama.

But if you believe the official government line, there’s nothing to see in this barren lakebed. Though the Air Force occasionally admits there’s an “operation location in the area,” everything that happens at the base—even its name and the fact that it exists—is classified. Officially, everything Campbell sees through the desert haze is strictly a mirage.

But some, like Campbell, who hike to this remote hilltop see it differently. They call their scruffy knoll of sagebrush and Joshua trees “Freedom Ridge,” because it lies on public land outside the restricted bombing range and boasts a perfectly legal view of the secret base. To them, Groom Lake has become a symbol of excessive and outdated government paranoia.

“It’s fundamental that democracy is an open institution,” says Campbell. “The military is the only branch of government permitted to keep things secret.”

The Dreamland Nightmare

In the lore of “black budget” operations—tales pieced together from government sources, former workers and military contractors—this somewhat unspectacular airfield is unofficially dubbed “Dreamland,” or “Paradise Ranch.” Officially, the activists and conspiracy theorists obsessed with the mysterious base believe, it is called Area 51. The secrecy around it has bred amazing stories—such as the rumor that the Air Force is hiding alien UFOs at the base.

Behind closed doors, brass and fighter jocks are afforded lavish dining, a swimming pool, a bowling alley, X-rated movies and several bars. The facility also gives test pilots and engineers total freedom to tweak the Pentagon’s most futuristic warfare technology.

But all is not well in Dreamland.

As the Air Force moved to restrict public access to the land around Campbell’s perch, military buffs, journalists and UFO watchers flocked to the ridge to get a last glimpse of Groom Lake. The increased attention has made a mockery of military secrecy as the facility becomes, in Campbell’s words, “the most popular secret Air Force base in the world.”

And if the spotlight weren’t enough, Groom Lake is now perched atop a long list of scandals—including the Aldrich Ames spy case— that have tarnished the cloak-and-dagger crowd in recent years.

Two lawsuits filed by former workers at the facility allege that the Air Force used the veil of secrecy to cover up environmental crimes. According to the suits, the Air Force trucked toxic waste to the base, where workers were told to burn the materials in open pits and trenches the size of football fields.

“The military and its contractors would load up trenches and fill them with 55-gallon drums,” says Jonathan Turley, an attorney for the workers. “The drums would then be covered with paper and other materials, doused with jet fuel and lit with a flare or torch.”

The suits name the Defense Department, the Air Force and the National Security Agency as allowing the burning to continue. And it blames the Environmental Protection Agency for not monitoring the secret base. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act requires the EPA to inventory toxic waste at federal facilities.

“It really is Dreamland,” notes Turley, who works for the Washington-based Environmental Crimes Project. “What corporation doesn’t dream of a place to dump its waste completely outside the purview of civil law?”

Because the plaintiffs swore secrecy when they began working al Groom Lake, they fear recrimination. A federal judge, therefore, has allowed the workers to sue as “John Does,” so the government can’t learn their identities. The threat of Leavenworth kept workers silent for years and made medical care near impossible.

“The first problem was, when he went to the doctor, he couldn’t say where he worked or what he might have been exposed to,” recalls Helen Frost, referring to her late husband, Robert, who she believes died from exposure to the burning.

Robert Frost was a sheet-metal worker at the secret facility for 10 years. “Then one day, he came home screaming,” his widow says. “His face was burning, his eyes were burning and he ran to the bathroom and was pouring water on his face, which was bright red and swollen up like a basketball.”

Then Robert Frost got three-inch sores on his back and eventually became too weak to walk, says Helen Frost. A year later, in 1989, he died of cirrhosis of the liver. By that time, a sample of his tissue had been sent to Dr. Peter Kahn, a biochemist at Rutgers University and a former member of the Agent Orange Commission.

Kahn found high levels of lethal toxins in Frost’s fatty tissue. Those chemicals, Kahn said, likely worsened his liver ailment and hastened his death. As to where the toxins came from, Kahn wrote: “Continued exposure to the smoke from the incineration of these materials could result in above-normal levels of dioxins and dibenzofurans found in the tissue samples of Robert Frost.”

Enraged by the government’s refusal to take responsibility for her husband’s death, Helen Frost began a one-woman crusade. “They’re murdering people out there, and I want it to stop,” she says.

For its part, the Air Force refuses to comment on the lawsuit, only giving the sketchiest admission that a facility even exists at Groom Lake—a restricted bombing area known as the Nellis Air Force Gunnery Range. “There is an operating location near Groom Dry Lake,” an Air Force spokesperson reads from a script. “Some specific activities and operations conducted on the Nellis Range remain classified and can’t be discussed.”

The Pentagon has tried and failed to use the military and state-secrets privilege to get the workers’ case thrown out of court. Meanwhile, EPA lawyers will also not comment, except to point out that the agency has, since the lawsuit, inventoried the Groom Lake facility.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Closet

If the allegations are true, then all the secrecy surrounding Groom Lake may have more to do with covering asses than protecting national security. First used as a weapon to outpace the Soviets, secrecy has become a tool to cut costs as regulators and citizens become more aware of the dangers of toxic waste.

Critics of closed-door government, meanwhile, have added the Groom Lake debacle to their list of “black budget” misdeeds that prove the government can’t be trusted with secrecy. The Aldrich Ames spy case revealed gross neglect within the CIA. The National Reconnaissance Office, which develops the government’s spy satellites, erected a $300 million building inside the Washington Beltway without the go-ahead of congressional overseers.

Critics say these episodes prove that intelligence oversight by civilians is lax at best. They say the Pentagon should declassify thousands of Cold War secrets, just as the Energy Department recently fessed up about human radiation experiments.

“If you believe, as I do, that there may be some legitimate secrets worth protecting, then the credibility of the classification system is extremely important,” says Steve Aftergood, who runs a government-secrecy project for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. “But if the system is seen as arbitrary, that it’s used to cover up crimes, then people will lose faith. The technology they’re working on out at Groom Lake may be sensitive; the fact that there’s a facility out there somewhere isn’t.” Aftergood adds that how much the government spends on secret weapons programs should be public.

Usually, the total amount of the intelligence budget—believed to be roughly $38 billion—is a state secret. Last year, however, the House defense appropriations subcommittee mistakenly published the 1995 budget requests for the CIA and various Defense Department intelligence programs. In a nutshell, here it is:

  • The total Pentagon request tor what’s called command, control, communication and intelligence (C3I) programs was $50.6 billion. This included $14.9 billion for the command, control and communication bit, $2 billion for security activities and an estimated $5 billion for information technology programs. Originally designed to coordinate nuclear weapons, the C3I system is increasingly being used to track drug smugglers.
  • The DOD also requested $16.3 billion for the National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP). This doesn’t count several billion thrown into NFIP via the DEA, the FBI and the State, Treasury and Energy departments.
  • For tactical intelligence and related activities, the Pentagon asked for $10.4 billion. The budget request for the CIA was $3.1 billion.

What you don’t know…

Though the congressional goof sheds some light, it gives taxpayers little insight into what’s being done with their dough. Is it funding weapons programs now being tested in Western deserts? Is it spent on overseas intelligence gathering or covert operations? Satellites or stealth spy planes? All of the above?

One thing is clear: In the absence of a single global bogeyman like the USSR, there’s considerable debate as to whether or not continued secrecy is good, even for national security.

In his book Skunk Works, the former head of Lockheed’s elite production group, called the Skunk Works, argues that secrecy did ease development of the F-117 fighter. As it was designed to thwart Soviet radar, the element of surprise was crucial, he says.

However, even Rich is far from dogmatic: “I would strongly advocate reviews every two years of existing so-called black programs, either to declassify them or eliminate them entirely.”

Throughout the book, Rich complains of draconian secrecy provisions, of government inspectors sifting through garbage looking for mistakenly discarded secrets. Blueprints and even coffee mugs with pictures of secret planes had to be locked inside safes each night. When Rich was a Skunk Works rookie, he invented a urine tube that wouldn’t freeze to a pilot’s pecker at freezing-cold high altitudes. The gizmo was classified top-secret. Classification is time-consuming and drives up costs, Rich laments, adding that “once a program is classified, it takes an act of God to declassify it.”

…Can Cost You

Indeed, excessive Cold War secrecy is partly to blame for some of the most expensive defense boondoggles of the century. During the Reagan years, for example, reigning doctrine made openness with Congress nearly synonymous with advertising state secrets in Pravda.

In the mid-’80s, for example, government investigators discovered that military officials misled Congress about the costs, performance and the necessity of many of the most expensive weapons systems built for nuclear war against the Soviet Union.

In fact, the General Accounting Office concluded that Congress decided to spend $350 billion on new nuclear-weapons systems, including the B-1B and B-2 stealth bombers, partly on the basis of inflated assessments, inaccurate testimony and misleading reports, according to The New York Times.

To take one example, the Air Force told Congress that a B-1B’s radar cross-section (the amount of radar energy an aircraft reflects) was 1/100 that of a B-52, a statement later determined to be false. The correct figure remains secret.

And though the B-1 is now touted as an effective bomber, it was plagued for years by cost overruns, delays and technical problems that cost taxpayers billions and kept the fleet grounded for two years after the planes were introduced.

Then there was the ill-fated A-12. Designers of this super-secret Navy attack plane spent billions before top brass realized it was flawed. Because of secrecy provisions, government auditors and even high-ranking officials were kept in the dark long after the program was internally shot down. Realizing this, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney angrily canceled the program.

Flashback Friday: Secrets of Area 51
What Lies Beyond?/ Courtesy Glenn Campbell

See no evil…

Proponents of continued classification and big intelligence budgets say the Skunk Works and Groom Lake kept America ahead in the Cold War. But why all this secrecy in the post-Cold War world?

Established by the CIA in the 1950s to develop the U-2, Groom Lake has been the testing ground for a series of Skunk Works projects. The next big Cold War weapon to roll down its runway was the SR-71 Blackbird. Skunk Works engineers designed the Blackbird to travel three times the speed of sound and reach 90,000 feet, to outpace enemy jets and ground-to-air missiles. Perhaps the most famous plane to graduate from Groom Lakes hangars, however, is the F-117.

What is the Air Force up to now? Some of the military-hardware hounds say the blue-suiters are now developing a line of supersonic reconnaissance aircraft—a successor to the SR-71. A videographer in New Mexico may have captured just that—the grainy image of a batlike black plane being called the Black Manta, or TR-3A tactical reconnaissance spy plane.

Since then, Popular Science has reported sightings of a new supersonic attack plane being called the A-17, which also employs stealth technology. Still others say the Air Force uses Groom Lake to take apart and test stolen enemy—and ally—aircraft in an attempt to dissect their secrets. And, of course, the rumors persist of alien spacecraft.

Stealth-seekers throughout the Southwest have spotted odd contrails in the sky: donut-shaped smoke rings on a rope of white smoke. Some think the Air Force has built a hypersonic spy plane that can travel at six times the speed of sound. The alleged craft accelerates using a series of explosions. It’s called “Aurora.”

Many are skeptical. “There’s the general impression that in the black world, they can work miracles,” says Aftergood. “But I don’t believe that’s true in this case. Traveling at six times the speed of sound places extreme thermal stress on the outer surface of the airplane. It gets incredibly hot, and the development of suitable materials to withstand that kind of heat has not been done.”

Defense Secretary William Perry has flat-out denied the Aurora story, and Ben Rich is also incredulous. Rich says the rumor started when a young colonel at the Pentagon used “Aurora” as code in the defense budget for the B-2 bomber. “Somehow this name leaked out during congressional appropriations hearings,” Rich writes. “The media picked up the Aurora item in the budget and the rumor surfaced that it was a top-secret project assigned to the Skunk Works—to build America’s first hypersonic air plane.”

Rich is dubious about manned hypersonic planes, but he’s long advocated missile-like drones, which could be launched from bombers and fly much faster, farther and higher than manned flights. At this point, this much is known: The Pentagon is pursuing spy drones, but it’s focusing on stealth and endurance, not speed.

The DOD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency has requested bids for a high-altitude endurance unmanned air vehicle. There are two planes in the scheme. Tier II would soar at 65,000 feet nonstop for 30 hours. The second, Tier Ill-minus, is a smaller, stealthier version. The planes would feed real-time battlefield information back to command posts. Five rival designs were submitted for Tier II, while Boeing and Lockheed are developing Tier III.

Rich also forecasts remote control and robotics as the future of warfare, as the public and politicians get more squeamish about American casualties. Rich also sees a future in technologies to disable enemy armies without killing them: a piercing wall of sound that would stop advancing armies, lasers that would cause temporary blindness…

…Hear No Evil

But even if the Air Force is using Groom Lake to develop the Aurora or some high-tech stereo system that curdles the milk in the teats of cattle, is all the secrecy necessary? After all, photos of Area 51 are widely available—even Russian satellite photos. And under the “open skies” treaty, ratified by Congress and signed by George Bush, even former Warsaw Pact nations now fly over the facility and snap away.

“So it’s a secret only to the American public,” Aftergood notes.

But all this just makes the Air Force more determined. On the road to Freedom Ridge, for example, hikers eventually meet a row of fence poles and a sign that reads: “Warning. Restricted Area. Use of Deadly Force Authorized. Photography is Prohibited.”

And the lid is only getting tighter. In April the Air Force seized roughly 4,000 acres of public land, including Freedom Ridge, where views of the base are clearest. Though there are dozens of military ranges—even bombing ranges—that lack even the most basic warning signs, the Air Force says it needs the additional land around Groom Lake as a safety buffer. No bombs are dropped within 50 miles of the ridge, but the Air Force says it needs to “insure public safety.”

This statement from an Interior Department document, however, is perhaps more on target: “Public viewing of military activities (which has often included illegal photography of range activities) has increased during the past few years, necessitating the diversion, postponement or cancellation of missions.”

Others sense a more sinister scheme. “I think the Air Force wants more land so it can continue the burning of toxic wastes without people looking in from Freedom Ridge,” says Danielle Brian, who directs the Project on Government Oversight in Washington.

Freedom Ridge fans are skeptical of the military’s motives for good reason. In 1984, the Air Force seized its first buffer zone around the base in order to pull Bald Mountain, then a prime (though rarely used) viewing location, from the public domain. The Air Force took no legal steps to obtain control of the land it wanted. It simply set up a guard shack adorned with a sign: “Warning. US Government Property. No Trespassing Allowed. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Even those who ran cattle and were working mining claims on the land were turned away by heavily armed guards. “Many people equate this to an armed invasion by our own military,” says Glenn Campbell.

At first, the Air Force denied it had anything to do with the guards. Only later, after it officially applied for the land, did an Air Force spokesperson admit his employer had illegally seized the land. “We had no legal authority, but we asserted the right to request that people not enter,” the spokesman told Congress.

But even that hearing would not have occurred if legislators hadn’t noticed that the Air Force had quietly slipped an additional 4,680 acres into its routine request for reauthorization for the Nellis Air Force Gunnery Range. Despite the foul play, Congress ultimately approved the 1984 land-grab, and Bald Mountain is now well within the restricted area.

But what concerns Campbell is that the Air Force is not doing the job right. “They forgot Tikaboo Peak, where you’ll still be able to see the base, although from further away,” he says.

Many speculate that the Air Force isn’t taking the more distant peak because if it did, the total expansion would exceed 5,000 acres. Under federal law, all expansions over 5,000 acres require congressional approval. “And there’s nothing more terrifying to the military than having to deal directly with Congress,” Campbell notes.

In its final days, Freedom Ridge became more popular than ever with tourists who came from as far away as Australia to get a last glimpse. The Swiss Mountain Bat, a self-described UFO- and aero-nut, traveled from Switzerland. “I felt like I was standing next to the Berlin Wall in the ’60s,” he said. “You’re standing there on this beautiful mountain and all of a sudden, there’s this white jeep and two guys watching you with huge binoculars. It’s creepy.”

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