A U-2 spy plane is tested at an airstrip about 80 miles north of Las Vegas that became known as Area 51 in this undated archive photo provided by the CIA.AP Photo/CIA
After decades of extreme secrecy surrounding the mysterious aviation test site known as Area 51 — stoking conspiracy theories about UFOs and aliens — the government acknowledged in a newly declassified CIA history of its U-2 spy-plane program that the base does exist.
The history released Thursday not only refers to Area 51 by name and describes some of the aviation activities that took place there but also locates the Air Force base on a map, along the dry bed of Groom Lake, about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The document has set conspiracy theorists abuzz, though there's no mention in it of UFO crashes, black-eyed extraterrestrials or staged moon landings.
George Washington University's National Security Archive used a public-records request to obtain the CIA history of one of Area 51's most secret Cold War projects, the U-2 spy-plane program.
National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson first reviewed the history in 2002, but all mentions of the country's most mysterious military base had been redacted. So he requested it again in 2005, hoping for more information. A few weeks ago, he received a version with references to Area 51 restored.
The 400-page document contains the first deliberate official references to Area 51 as a site developed by the intelligence agency in the 1950s to test-fly the high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance plane.
"It's the first time that there must have been a senior-level decision to acknowledge the term 'Area 51' and its specific location," he told Reuters on Friday.
The report is unlikely to stop conspiracy theorists. The document still contains many redactions, and who's to say those missing parts don't discuss little green men?
It's not the first time the government has made mention of the supersecret, 8,000-square-mile installation. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush referred to the "location near Groom Lake" in insisting on continued secrecy, and other government references date to the 1960s.
But Richelson, as well as those who are convinced the truth is out there, is taking the document as a sign of loosening secrecy about the government's activities in the Nevada desert.
The site is known as Area 51 among UFO aficionados because that was the base's designation on old Nevada test-site maps. The CIA history reveals that officials renamed it Paradise Ranch to try to lure skilled workers, who still fly to and from the site on unmarked planes.
Beginning with the U-2 in the 1950s, the base has been the testing ground for a host of top-secret aircraft, including the supersonic reconnaissance A-12 Oxcart, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117A Stealth fighter and the B-2 stealth bomber. Some believe the base's Strangelovian hangars also contain alien vehicles, evidence from the Roswell incident — the alleged 1947 crash of a UFO in New Mexico — and extraterrestrial corpses.
The CIA history mentions an "unexpected side effect" of the high-flying planes: "a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects." The report notes that the U-2 and Oxcart planes, which flew higher than civilians believed possible, accounted for half the UFO sightings during the 1950s and '60s.
A likely story, said Stanton Friedman, a self-described ufologist from Canada.
"The notion that the U-2 explains most sightings at that time is utter rot and baloney," he said. "Can the U-2 sit still in the sky? Make right-angle turns in the middle of the sky? Take off from nothing? The U-2 can't do any of those things."
Al Jazeera and wire services