Despite years of denying the existence of Area 51, the CIA, in response to a Freedom of Information Request from the National Security Archive has finally confirmed that the Nevada base exists and that it is, indeed, named Area 51.
This is welcome news, but I wanted to write about how the government’s lack of integrity and openness has hurt the public trust and cost lives.
Nearly 20 years ago, I received a call from Helen Frost claiming that the government killed her husband, Robert Frost. This wasn’t the first call I’d received claiming a government conspiracy and cover-up, but something told me Helen was telling the truth. Subsequently, Helen sent me bankers boxes of documents that confirmed her husband was a civilian employee at Area 51 and that he had worked downwind of open-air pits. Those pits were filled with the base’s trash and set on fire. Yes, our government was taking all of the base’s trash—as well as trash that was trucked in from other facilities—dousing it with jet fuel and torching it.
Unfortunately, Robert Frost and many of the other civilian workers at Area 51 who worked downwind of the burn pits were exposed to the smoke and all of its contaminants. Those were the likely cause of odd illnesses and, in some cases, eventual death.
POGO had only three staffers at the time, and none of us practiced law so we turned to The George Washington Law School and its Environmental Crimes Project directed by Jonathan Turley. Professor Turley took the case pro bono and POGO assisted in the investigation into the alleged burning of hazardous waste at Area 51. The case wasn’t about revealing alien technology or classified government weapons and projects. It was about the burning of potentially toxic waste, and whether any of that waste caused the workers’ illnesses and deaths.
We participated in some very interesting meetings with government (military and intelligence) officials and foreign governments (who owned 1990s satellite images of the facility near Groom Lake, Nevada) and conducted telling interviews with current and former Area 51 workers and self-proclaimed UFO watchers. As a result, a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Nevada. POGO put together an exhibit for the court detailing the numerous instances in which government, military, and Lockheed Martin officials described and named the facility in official government records or other publications.
Why the need for such an exhibit? First the government claimed that Area 51 did not exist. (Well, well Uncle Sam, that wasn’t entirely true, was it?) Second, after acknowledging Area 51’s existence, the government argued that the site did not have a name. In fact, we referred to Area 51 as the “operating location near Groom Lake” in all court pleadings. Our exhibit included references by members of Congress, military documents, copies of Nellis Air Force Base newsletters, and an Area 51 security manual that identified the base and many buildings as well as policies and procedures.
What happened then? Despite making valid claims and offering the court proof that Area 51 existed, had a name, and contained hazardous waste, the security manual and anything that referenced it were retroactively classified by the Air Force. As a result, the court ruled that the workers were unable to prove their case. Not on the merits mind you, but on the ridiculous claim that anything related to the base was classified, even its illegal burning of trash and hazardous waste. In addition, the Air Force invoked the State Secrets privilege on the theory that foreign governments could learn about government operations and programs if the contents of the burn pits were revealed. The court challenge pitting environmental compliance against secrecy was appealed and went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in 1998.
There was one minor victory. Area 51 was forced to comply with environmental laws. Very bitter sweet to say the least, especially for Helen Frost, Area 51 workers and their families. Adding insult to injury for the workers and their families, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush exempted Area 51 from publicly posting anything about Area 51’s environmental compliance.
Recently, we have witnessed government attempts to infringe on privacy in the name of national security. Area 51 highlights the government’s use of secrecy to avoid environmental standards that protect workers and the environment. It’s certainly one thing to have the government stalk your phone and internet usage, but it is another thing for the Area 51 workers to serve their country and die protecting government secrets, and in return have the government turn its back on them and their families.
The government release of Area 51 information was long-overdue.
Now it’s time for the government to admit that that it violated environmental laws and exposed Area 51 workers to hazardous waste. It might be too late for some workers, but it would be nice to see the government come completely out of the dark and accept responsibility for its actions.