Last week, the United States government did something that millions of conspiracy theorists worldwide never imagined would happen. Unclassified documents obtained by George Washington University’s National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act disclosed, for the first time publicly, federal government acknowledgement of the remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base at Groom Lake, Nevada — also known as Area 51.
The files disclosed the existence of two unmanned CIA aerial reconnaissance programs — AQUILINE and AXILLARY — that were being developed at the Nevada black site in the early 1960s. The existence of unmanned drones 50 years before their publicized entrance into battlefield operations has nearly matched — in scope — the significance of the Area 51 revelation.
However, the most shocking aspect of this revelation may be the fact that there was a revelation in the first place.
A black site is a classified facility or installation where “black projects,” military or intelligence operations that are publicly disavowed by the government, are conducted. Since the establishment of Area 51 in the 1950s, speculations and innuendos concerning the activities of the classified airstrip have fueled countless books, movies and television series and have served as the backbone of an entire UFO conspiracy industry. The government’s secrecy about the site only exaggerated the rumors about the site.
According to the documentation, Area 51 was merely the testing site for the government’s U-2 and OXCART aerial surveillance projects. Other projects, such as the AQUILINE and AXILLARY were also revealed in the documentation to have been developed at the base, and while not explicitly disclosed in the nearly 400 pages brief, it is thought that most of the military’s special purpose aircraft, such as the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, were tested out of Groom Lake.
Genesis of the American drone program
In light of international embarrassment concerning the shooting down of U-2 spy planes in Soviet Union-controlled airspace — including the capture of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960, the CIA needed a surveillance vehicle that was unmanned and small enough not to be detected.
The first project, AQUILINE, was developed in 1965 from Douglas Aircraft’s response to a call for proposals for a small, unmanned drone. “The AQUILINE prototype developed by Douglas Aircraft . . . was essentially a powered glider with an 8.5-foot wingspan,” the disclosed documents read. “The aircraft weighed only 105 pounds. AQUILINE’s tail-mounted engine drove a two-bladed propeller.” A 3.5 horsepower chain saw engine powered the drone’s propellers.
The CIA developed the AXILLARY project in conjunction with the AQUILINE project. The design of AXILLARY made it too large and too loud for spy missions. However, the possibility of the project as an unmanned bombing platform kept the project funded.
“The radar homing system proved successful as AXILLARY sought out and destroyed a radar during testing at China Lake Naval Air Station,” the documents read. “However, the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in early 1973 led to the cancellation of DOD funding.”
Ultimately, the cost of the projects led to their failure. The difficulties in landing the drones — which was only recently resolved — made the drones a continuing headaches in repair costs. “One or more of the aircraft was always being repaired, and eventually three of the five AQUILINE prototypes were destroyed in testing,” said the documents. Despite this, one or both of the prototypes flew out of Area 51 more than 20 times.
This revelation about the nation’s drone program development underlies the seriousness involved in the recognition of the nation’s best known black site. Despite allegations that the federal government’s cover-up of aliens and UFOs is centered at the base, Area 51 is vitally important to the current discussion of national security in large part due to the extent the government protected its secret prior to disclosure. In litigations in the 1990s concerning the burning of discarded and classified equipment and hazardous waste at Area 51, which exposed workers to dangerous fumes, the government did everything within its power to deny existence of the Groom Lake facility.
“The first hurdle was the government’s refusal to acknowledge even the existence, let alone the name, of the facility,” wrote Jonathan Turley, the lead counsel in the Area 51 litigation, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “We supplied pictures of the base. We supplied affidavits from workers at the base. We even submitted pictures of planes taking off in Las Vegas and then the same planes landing at Area 51. At one point, I offered to drive the judge personally to the base and point at it from a mountaintop. (The government then acquired the mountaintop and barred the public.) Ultimately, the government confirmed the existence of the base only after we located Russian satellite pictures. It turned out that the Russians had a virtual catalog of pictures of Area 51 for public sale. You just needed a credit card.”
“In the end, we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base.”
Reasons for disclosure
Disclosure of Area 51 came after the statute of limitations for any acts of malfeasance that may have occurred there had expired. This begs an interesting question as to why exactly the federal government held on to what was basically an open secret for so long. This is compounded by speculation that Area 51 hasn’t hosted a “black project” in years.
“Area 51 has been in existence for over 50 years. A ‘secret’ can only stay a secret for so long. That being said, Area 51 is no longer a black site and understandably so,” said Jared Nichols, futurist and president of the Jared Nichols Group, in conversation with Mint Press News. “We have to consider the context before speculating on the ‘why.’ Area 51 was a top secret testing ground for gaining competitive advantage during the Cold War. The nature of warfare has drastically changed since then. In 2012, roughly 10 percent ($51 billion) of our total defense budget was allocated to black budget projects.“
“These projects are geared toward modern clandestine operations, cyber warfare and other forms of R&D such as genetic research and artificial intelligence, which by the way, require a lot less geographical space for testing. That being said, black sites like Area 51 are no longer necessary.”
However, it can be argued that the revelation concerning Area 51 came as the result of reform to the intelligence community. Starting in 2004, the Department of Defense started to implement procedures meant to codify the operation procedures of the nation’s black sites, or Special Access Programs, which, prior to this, operated at the discretion of the Pentagon. These reforms include the establishment of improved auditing and reporting systems, a new focus on budget adherence and regular classification reviews of controlled information and documentation. However, in light of criticism that the intelligence community is being allowed to skirt the law — particularly in light of the 2011 revelation that the CIA ran a network of black site prisons in Afghanistan or recent revelations that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on domestic communiqués, the Obama administration has embraced a policy of open disclosure of non-essential “secrets.”
“No one knows for sure why the US government admitted that Area 51 is real — the government’s motive is itself a matter of speculation,” said Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, to Mint Press News. “My own view is that the admission is part of a larger strategy by the Obama administration of trying to be less secretive, wherever possible. In view of leaks that the NSA has been secretly spying on Americans, the government wants to do whatever it can to show it is keeping as little as possible secret from Americans.”
Levinson pointed out that since Area 51 was an open secret, the government lost nothing in its disclosure.
Throwing the public a bone
This call for fewer secrets comes in the wake of admissions of gross intelligence overreaches and miscalculations. These include revelations that the NSA collected the text of non-terrorism related emails from Americans in 2008 and the publicized allegations that the Bush-era rendition program — which saw the abduction and detention of terrorist suspects outside and beyond American jurisdiction — has survived into the Obama administration and has been expanded to include 54 foreign governments and two high-profile national secrets leaks.
Considering all of this, there is the hope that the government may be turning a corner — walking away from the honeycomb of secrets and clandestine actions that defined the intelligence community during the Cold War toward a more open approach to international politics. However, taking into account increasing CIA involvement in foreign engagements — including the expanding use of drones — this hope seems far-fetched.
It is more reasonable to presume that the disclosure of Area 51 was diversionary — designed to take focus off an embarrassing issue, such as the continuing problems with the intelligence community, with something flashy but meaningless. In lights of recent failures to reform the USA PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act toward offering more privacy protection to American citizens — most recently, the defeat of Rep. Justin Amash’s (R – Cascade Township) amendment to the 2013 Defense Appropriations Bill — and a lack of motivation from Washington’s leadership to alleviate public concerns, ultimately, some token needed to be offered to the people.
“There is a key principle to keep in mind and that is the U.S. Government, like all entities, and the agencies that operate within it are driven by self preservation,” Nichols stated with regard to the nature of the Area 51 disclosure. “This is what you could call ‘throwing the public a bone.’”
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