Area 51 Declassified: What Do Newly Released Documents Reveal About The Secret Nevada Site?

By Josh Lieberman on November 14, 2013 7:00 PM EST

area 51
Alas, newly released Area 51 documents don't reveal any new information about UFOs. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Newly declassified documents shed some light on what exactly the government has been up to at Area 51 over the years, and it doesn't have anything to do with UFOs. In a   revelation that will likely disappoint the Kardashians, the declassified documents reveal a much less thrilling explanation for what the Nevada site is used for: military stuff. More specifically, Cold War-era, anti-Soviet military stuff.     

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Back in August, the CIA acknowledged the existence of Area 51 for the first time. In a batch of declassified documents, the agency reported that Area 51, a secret facility about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was created in the 1950s to test U-2 spy planes. But that report, titled "Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974," doesn't say what the site has been used for after 1974.

This newer batch of declassified documents answers some more questions about Area 51, which is officially known as Groom Lake or Homey Airport. The documents reveal what seem like fairly pedestrian military operations and concerns (well, they seem pedestrian compared to the potential of UFOs). 

In one secret memo from April 1962, the National Reconnaissance Office gives their reason for photographing Area 51 by using either an American spy plane or satellite: they wanted to see what the Soviet Union could see if they did their own flyover.

"Without advising the photographic interpreters of what the target is, ask them to determine what type of activity is being conducted at the site photographed," the memo reads.

In 1968, the Air Force used Area 51 to analyze a Soviet MiG-21 fighter jet which the Israelis had obtained in 1966. From January 1968 to April 1968, the Air Force examined the plane's capabilities, design and vulnerabilities as part of the oddly-named Have Doughnut program. The next year, the Air Force had the opportunity to study a MiG-17 at Area 51; similar examinations of Soviet jets are believed to have occurred, but those have not been declassified.

Aerial photography of Area 51 was once again part of the discussion in 1974, when NASA's Skylab inadvertently photographed the site, despite "specific instructions not to do this." A memo by Robert Singel, the deputy director of the National Reconnaisance Office, suggests that if Skylab's snapshot were put into the public domain, it "would almost certainly provide strong stimulus for media questioning and the potential near-term revelation of the missions of the installation." The photo ended up in NASA's cache of Skylab photos, but nobody noticed anyway.

As far as the existence of UFOs, the declassified documents have been quiet on that front. Maybe a little too quiet. 

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