Area 51’s boring reality

Area 51 — the secret government site in Nevada whose existence remained unconfirmed for decades — occupies such a fertile place in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists that the CIA’s admission last week that it actually exists came as an anticlimax. It turns out that the secret camp in the Mojave Desert was the test site of the U-2 spy plane, one of America’s most famous Cold War weapons. Also included in the newly declassified release were kernels of information regarding the site itself, such as how it was originally going to be named “Paradise Ranch,” presumably to make it seem more appealing to the grumbling operatives sent to the desert to work on the U-2 project.

The documents also revealed previously classified information about the U-2, such as the fact that Taiwanese pilots flew the spy planes for the CIA to gather intelligence on the Chinese, and that the U-2 was used to spy on French nuclear test sites in Polynesia.

Such revelations might have raised some ire in France and China a half century ago, but caused barely a ripple today. Less satisfied were those who believed the rumors that the secret site was home to an alien spaceship or even a living Martian. The government release, made in response to a request by Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, made no mention of space aliens or UFOs. But that’ll hardly appease the most hardcore conspiracy theorists — for whom the new release probably looks like more proof of a coverup.