In her explosive new book, Area 51, investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen reveals top government secrets about what really happened at the site and how she first heard about it. She also reveals for the first time secret nuclear tests that the government has kept hidden for decades.
Imagine getting to tell the history of America’s most famous, most fabled secret, government facility—Area 51—through the biographies of the men who actually lived and worked there. This has been my experience over the past two and a half years, and it is why I wrote Area 51, The Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, which publishes next week.
How does such a thing come to pass? In 2007 I was at a Christmas Eve dinner when an 88-year-old scientist named Edward Lovick leaned over and said to me, “Have I got a good story for you.” As a national security reporter, I hear this line frequently—my work depends on it—but what Lovick told me ranked among the most tantalizing things I’d heard in a long time. Until then, I was under the impression that Lovick had spent his life designing airplane parts. Over dinner I learned that he was actually a physicist and that he’d played a major role in the development of stealth technology for the CIA. The reason Lovick could suddenly divulge information that had been kept secret for 50 years was that the CIA had just declassified it. When I learned much of Lovick’s secret work took place at Area 51, also called Groom Lake, I smiled. So, the place was real after all. I wrote to the assistant secretary of defense requesting an official tour of the Groom Lake Area; Lovick also told me that the CIA had given up control of the place in the 1970s. My request was formally denied, on Department of Defense letterhead, but oddly with the words “the Groom Lake Area” separated out in quotes attributed to me, so as to make clear the Pentagon’s official position regarding their Nevada base: that locale may be part of your lexicon, they seemed to be saying, but it’s most definitely not officially part of ours. When I learned that the name Area 51 was still classified, that the government has never officially admitted that Area 51 exists, I sought to learn why.
What I learned through the biographies of its Cold War heroes is nothing short of stunning. Beginning in the early 1950s, out in a desert enclave hidden from the rest of the world by a ring of mountains, a small fraternity of soldiers, spies, scientists, and engineers worked to advance military science and technology faster and further than any other foreign power in the world. They accomplished just that—setting the bar higher in terms of innovation on one secret project after the next. At Area 51, the CIA developed heroic, life-saving programs including the U-2 spy plane and the A-12 Oxcart—a Mach 3 spy plane that nearly 50 years later still holds records for piloted speed. Then there’s the captured MiG fighter jet, secretly gifted to the CIA by the Mossad in 1968, reverse engineered at Area 51, and flown in mock combat missions in the skies over Area 51. The result was the now famous Top Gun program.
But in my reporting I also uncovered a reckless and dangerous side of Area 51, not involving captured aliens and UFOs as so many Americans believe, but of actions far more of this earth. Area 51 sits inside America’s only domestic nuclear bombing range, called the Nevada Test Site, originally run by the iron fist of the Atomic Energy Commission, unregulated for its first 30 years. Through the eyes of the men who were there, I report stories of reckless atomic weapons tests including ones like “Project 57,” a dirty bomb test that spread weapons grade plutonium over 895 acres, and one of the NERVA tests, which allowed a Mars-bound nuclear rocket to overheat to 4,000+ degrees Celsius until it burst, sending radioactive chunks as large as 148 pounds into the atmosphere. Because all this occurred on a top secret base, no one in the public had a need-to-know about. And until this book, no one did. Which speaks to the nexus of the riddle that is Area 51—the reason the facility remains classified after all this time. Some of the things that happened out in the desert should never have happened at all.
Some of the things that happened out in the desert should never have happened at all.
Through biography, I present a secret chapter in American history. What exactly to make of that—of what the Cold Warriors tell us and why—I will let the reader decide.
Annie Jacobsen is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and an investigative reporter whose work has also appeared in The National Review and The Dallas Morning News. Her two-part series The Road to Area 51 was one of the most read in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. A graduate of Princeton University, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.