LAS VEGAS -- For decades, it was the U.S. government's Cold War-era secret that hid in plain sight, the 1,000-pound elephant in the Nevada desert that Washington continually denied -- "What test site?" -- and the rest of the country turned into a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Well, now it's official: Area 51 really does exist.
In newly declassified documents, the Central Intelligence Agency is acknowledging the existence of the mysterious war-test site in central Nevada that has spawned endless speculation about UFO landings and top-secret aliens. The site started as a testing ground for the infamous U-2 surveillance plane and went on to house other spy-versus-spy hardware.
On Thursday, George Washington University's National Security Archive released a copy of the CIA history of the U-2 spy plane program it had acquired through a public records request. The report officially places the site on a map of a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base on the Nevada Test and Training Range, about 144 km north of Las Vegas.
For all its intrigue, the 400-page report carries a rather pedestrian name: Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974.
The lengthy report contains no reference to little green men from outer space.
"There is a section on the relationship between the U-2 program being responsible for UFO sightings," said National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson. "But if people are looking for sections on dead aliens and interspecies contact, they'll be disappointed. It's just not there."
The U-2 planes fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet, which during the 1950s, when Area 51 first gained its notoriety, was higher than any other plane operating, according to the new CIA documents. When people saw the unfamiliar aircraft, many became suspicious and believed the crafts were piloted by aliens, the documents said.
Richelson's quest for answers goes back years. He first reviewed the CIA's history of the site in 2002 but found all mention of Area 51 apparently redacted. Three years later, he requested another version of the original 1992 report.
Last month he got his reply: a new copy of the report with all mentions of Area 51 restored.
Parts of the report read like a John le Carre thriller, detailing the first time CIA project director Richard Bissell and Air Force Col. Osmund Ritlandt spotted a possible site for their secret program, then an old airstrip next to a salt flat named Groom Lake.
They viewed it from a small Beechcraft plane piloted by Tony LeVier, Lockheed's chief test pilot. And they liked what they saw.
The CIA report says the group agreed that the location "would make an ideal site for testing the U-2 and training its pilots." The lightweight spy plane was being built by Lockheed at its top-secret "Skunk Works" plant in Burbank, Calif.
President Dwight Eisenhower later approved the addition of the strip of wasteland, known by its map designation as Area 51, to the Nevada Test site, according to the document.
-- The Los Angeles Times