Government acknowledges existence of already-acknowledged place

Marc Ambinder
The Week

Sometimes, the news isn't new.

Although the secret history of the U2 surveillance program adds plenty of significant detail to our knowledge of the spy plane, the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency decided not to redact the location established for testing the U2 — a dry lake bed known to the U.S. government in 1956 as Area 51 — has become an international news story. The U.S. Government Admits That Area 51 Exists! Alas, news managers have short memories. Or maybe the allure of the "Buried Aliens!" trope was irresistible.

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The CIA and the Air Force ran Area 51 jointly for decades, and the Air Force has declassified several formerly secret programs that were tested at the site, and has permitted those who participated in those operations to talk to the media. Generally, everything from 1980 until today remains a secret. The airspace (designated R-4808-N) is closed.

In 1998, in response to a lawsuit from Area 51 employees who claimed they were not properly protected from toxic chemicals, the Clinton administration asserted the State Secrets privilege to quash the suit. (Jon Podesta, the White House chief of staff and one of the authors of the Freedom of Information Act, told me that the decision to do so was one of the most difficult he participated in.) But the Air Force, in a declaration to the government, admitted to the "fact of an operating location near Groom Lake, Nev."

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You'd think that the U.S. would want to keep the location's activities a mystery from, say, the Russians, but as part of the Open Skies treaty, they've been required to identify the location in official correspondence about U.S. military operating locations.

In 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration released the airport designator for Groom Lake (KXTA), along with associated charts. The airport's name is "Homey." As you might expect, it's closed to public traffic. The Air Force's response to this: "We already know and it doesn't matter."

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The Air Force Flight Test Center's Detachment 3 still uses the Groom Lake location, but several other facilities in other states test just as much, if not more, secret stuff. Technically, I am not aware of any prior official acknowledgement from the CIA about its own role at the site, so the non-redaction does count for something.

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