The Truth Is Out There: The Real Cover-Up At Area 51

250px-Wfm_area_51_landsat_geocover_2000Below is my column today in the Los Angeles Times. The column follows the recognition of the name for Area 51, which produced a great deal of media coverage.

Last week, the U.S. government declassified a report about a secret facility in Nevada. Such declassifications are nothing new but, from the report’s 400 pages, two words immediately jumped out: Area 51. The government had finally acknowledged the name of a controversial base in the desert north of Las Vegas where it conducted top-secret research.

The document’s release will do little to quash the glut of Area 51 conspiracy theories about recovered alien spaceships and government cover-ups. But the real cover-up there has nothing to do with UFOs. Area 51 was more than a national security site; it was also an alleged crime scene, and at least two good men may have died from what occurred there. They were not hurt by aliens but by their own government, which refused to declassify information they needed to understand what had happened to them.

During the 1990s, I represented Area 51 workers in two lawsuits. The suits, which forced the first official recognition of the base — though not its name — were the first against a “black facility,” one whose very existence is denied by the government. Over the course of the litigation, the contents of my office were classified, I was threatened with arrest, workers and their families were threatened with prosecution and we had to go as far as Moscow to find images to prove the existence of the base.

Area 51, as the newly declassified material makes clear, was a test site for Cold War technology, including the U-2 spy plane. But it was also, according to people who worked there, a hazardous waste site, at which classified equipment and materials were disposed of in an illegal and extremely dangerous manner.

When workers at Area 51 first came to me in the 1990s, they described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as “London fog” by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care.

The first hurdle was the government’s refusal to acknowledge even the existence, let alone the name, of the facility. We supplied pictures of the base. We supplied affidavits from workers at the base. We even submitted pictures of planes taking off in Las Vegas and then the same planes landing at Area 51. At one point, I offered to drive the judge personally to the base and point at it from a mountaintop. (The government then acquired the mountaintop and barred the public.) Ultimately, the government confirmed the existence of the base only after we located Russian satellite pictures. It turned out that the Russians had a virtual catalog of pictures of Area 51 for public sale. You just needed a credit card.

That did not end the bizarre character of the litigation. My office was off-limits to anyone but myself. I was forced to meet with my clients in seedy motels and garages to avoid their being arrested. My last memory of one client, Wally Kasza, was of him sitting in a car in a Las Vegas garage with his oxygen tank and medications. He had only weeks to live but wanted me to promise to continue to fight to hold the government accountable.

In the end, we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base.

The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime. But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy: How could the law be applied at a place that did not exist for the burning of unknown things? Of course, Kasza did exist, as did his colleagues, including another worker who died, Bob Frost. But when they became sick — with rashes, racking coughs or dreadful skin conditions — they were barred from telling doctors where they worked or what they had been exposed to. After Frost’s death, an analysis of tissue samples from his body found unidentifiable and exotic substances that one of the nation’s premier scientists could not recognize.

The newly released report doesn’t clear up those questions, and it comes after the statute of limitations has passed for any crimes that may have been committed there. The report also contradicts statements given to the court in our case. Most notably, in 1995, the government’s lead counsel, Col. Richard Sarver, told Judge Philip Pro: “Your honor, there is no name. There is no name for the operating location near Groom Lake.” Hiding behind that fiction allowed government officials to avoid accountability for these unlawful operations.

The officials responsible for those alleged crimes have now retired. But the truth is still out there. The question is whether anyone really wants to know it.

Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, was lead counsel in the Area 51 litigation.

Los Angeles Times August 20, 2013

73 thoughts on “The Truth Is Out There: The Real Cover-Up At Area 51

  1. I also wanted to make the point that my take away on this post concerns the secrecy that surrounds much of the industrial process in this country. Right now, across the country there is a white hot debate taking place over the safety and effectiveness of fracking. Legislatures in state after state are taking up the issue on whether to allow it and how tightly it should be regulated. Watching some of these debates, you get a sense of why Republicans since the time of Reagan have been calling for small, localized governments.

    People have a right to clean air and water, they have right to know when and how their health is being affected by industry. Energy producers and manufacturers have as responsibility to limit the amount of pollutants they create and restrict the contamination of our natural resources. Fracking not only claims large amounts of ground water for use, it returns it an unusable condition. Not even Milton Friedman, vile as he was, countenanced that.

    To paraphrase Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in Vietnam, no alien ever poisoned me.

  2. RTC: Rachel Maddow made the point that when you continue that which everyone knows to be true, you lose credibility.

    ??? What does “continue that which everyone knows to be true” mean?

    How do you “continue” something? Why would you lose “credibility” by agreeing with what everybody else already knows to be true?

    If everyone knows the sky is blue today, and you claim it is red, wouldn’t “everyone” just think you are either delusional or a liar? Wouldn’t that cost you credibility?

    Perhaps you mean a different word than “continue,” but I can’t think of a word that would fix this sentence.

    As for the rest of your post, I agree to an extent; I do not think industry should be allowed to release material into the environment without us having some independent scientific evidence that it is no more harmful than anything else in the environment.

    I am not sure we have a “right” to laboratory quality distilled water and clean room quality scrubbed air. But, for example, I believe the atomic heavy metal content of air in an industrial city should be comparable to that in undeveloped land a hundred miles from the city.

  3. Sorry ’bout that Tony C. I was in a rush this morning That should have read “continue ‘to deny’ that which everyone knows to be true”. Denying the existence of Area 51, or NSA surveillance for that matter, just makes someone appear untrustworthy.

    Who said anything about lab quality distilled water? I didn’t. There aren’t many bodies of water in this world that you would want to drink out without prior treatment. Nevertheless, you don’t want people dumping paint thinner or motor oil in lakes and rivers. Municipal water treatment treats for a limited amount of contaminants. Many contaminants remain. Medications like acetaminophen, for instance. The same holds true for the chemicals used in fracking.

    I happen to think it’s unreasonable to expect urban air quality to good as rural areas; that’s just the nature of the beast. That said, independent scientific information is what we’re not getting in terms of energy production. The regulatory process in this country has always been “safe until proven harmful”. Our government has conspired with industry to help conceal any evidence that the chemicals and byproducts used in fracking are harmful. I’m not a lawyer who can do anything about it, I’m just a schmuck with a vote. I’ll do what I can, but my wish is that one of you lawyerly types would get involved in this issue in the great tradition of Ralph Nader and many others to figure out a way to bring greater accountability to industrial polluters.

    Wally Kasza, Bob Frost, Erin Brokovich. We ignore their legacy at our peril. Now what was it you were saying about “Star Trek”?

    ( Alright, that was snarky, I admit it. Sorry. Been one of those weeks.)

  4. RTC,

    Just because the conversation can wander, don’t mistake that for not having concern about the pollution going on out at Area 51. That case is what brought our host to my attention originally. The impunity and arrogance of the way the government treated the workers exposed to toxic chemicals on that site was both truly offensive and wrong as well as a preview of what was to come from a government out of control and lacking accountability.

    Yes. UFOs are a sparkly. And while not as of such immediate Earthly concern as burning Dog Knows What in open pits, the subject of ETIs touches on a concern that would literally change the course of human history if conclusively proven. That they come up on a thread about a base notoriously linked to the subject shouldn’t be surprising. That being said, I’m pretty sure that (absent proof of the so-called S4 facility) all that is going on out at Area 51 is top secret aeronautical testing. And EPA violations. And criminal negligence.

  5. RTC: I’m not a lawyer who can do anything about it, I’m just a schmuck with a vote.

    I am not a lawyer either, but if I were concerned I could hire one, I could recruit a group to contribute to hire one, and we might be able to recruit a lawyer that agrees with us and works without gouging us. We are not just schmucks with votes, we are schmucks with jobs and dollars and a voice. Diminishing your power to act is an excuse for not even trying.

    I’m not sure what you think I was saying about Star Trek that applies here. So I don’t understand why that was snarky, and it doesn’t bother me.

    RTC says: my wish is that one of you lawyerly types would get involved in this issue in the great tradition of Ralph Nader …

    Yes, I also fervently wish somebody else would feel driven to selflessly sacrifice all their time, their career, and the majority of their potential income to fight my battles, in return for my heartfelt applause.

    (Now that was snarky….)

  6. Tony C.: You must have a pretty low opinion of lawyers if you think it’d be difficult to find one who’d take on a good cause without “gouging” you. You may not believe this, but there are many in the legal profession who believe that public service is an obligation and, therefore, you can find powerhouse firms like Winston and Strawn and Mayer, Brown that will provide services pro bono. Fulfilling this duty seems to have rewarded Barry Schechter very well, as you would measure it.

    As I pointed out, the distraction was natural. The thread, however, didn’t just veer off into outer space; it took a major detour, completely bypassing Turley’s two clients in the process. Both of those men died agonizingly, and their suffering was magnified in knowing that the same fate could befall their children and grandchildren. My purpose was to refocus the discussion on the conditions that brought about their suffering and raise awareness about the danger that surround the secrecy in the fracking process. My sense of gratification is enhanced by addressing individuals who care about the law and justice, who may not have given the issue much thought. My challenge to you set aside the Easter Island replicas you’re planning for your backyard and get involved in holding government, industry, and energy producers more accountable. Calling for a cleaner environment, access to clean air and water, and the right to know isn’t just a civil right, it’s a civic duty.

    My career is focused on restoring and maintaining natural areas. I am often quite literally on the front lines, developing plans for turning degraded areas into functional ecosystems, wading through wetlands, or conducting prescribed burns. I advise garden clubs, and homeowners associations on the problems with invasive species, and try to convince landscapers, nursery managers, and landscape designers about the value of native plants. I am a subscribed member to five organizations that deal with the environmental issues, two of which litigate as a core mission. I am well aware of the value of concerted action. Yet, I try not to take myself so seriously that I can’t engage in a little self-deprecating humor.

    Perhaps aliens will arrive one day and change the course of human history but I doubt it. The course of human history could also be changed if I won the lottery. Guess which will happen first. I’ll give you a hint; it’ll happen sooner if I decide to actually buy a lottery ticket. But just in case you’re right, I’ll leave a note for the aliens, asking them to reanimate us. Then, I’ll sincerely apologize. Who knows, maybe by then the Cubs will have won the World Series.

    (BTW, you’ll have to really improve your snarkitude before you’re in Gene’s league.)

  7. Tony C.: You must have a pretty low opinion of lawyers if you think it’d be difficult to find one who’d take on a good cause without “gouging” you. You may not believe this, but there are many in the legal profession who believe that public service is an obligation and, therefore, you can find powerhouse firms like Winston and Strawn and Mayer, Brown that will provide services pro bono. Fulfilling this duty seems to have rewarded Barry Schechter very well, as you would measure it.

    As I pointed out, the distraction was natural. The thread, however, didn’t just veer off into outer space; it took a major detour, completely bypassing Turley’s two clients in the process. Both of those men died agonizingly, and their suffering was magnified in knowing that the same fate could befall their children and grandchildren. My purpose was to refocus the discussion on the conditions that brought about their suffering and raise awareness about the danger that surround the secrecy in the fracking process. My sense of gratification is enhanced by addressing individuals who care about the law and justice, who may not have given the issue much thought. My challenge to you set aside the Easter Island replicas you’re planning for your backyard and get involved in holding government, industry, and energy producers more accountable. Calling for a cleaner environment, access to clean air and water, and the right to know isn’t just a civil right, it’s a civic duty.

    My career is focused on restoring and maintaining natural areas. I am often quite literally on the front lines, developing plans for turning degraded areas into functional ecosystems, wading through wetlands, or conducting prescribed burns. I advise garden clubs, and homeowners associations on the problems with invasive species, and try to convince landscapers, nursery managers, and landscape designers about the value of native plants. I am a subscribed member to five organizations that deal with the environmental issues, two of which litigate as a core mission. I am well aware of the value of concerted action. Yet, I try not to take myself so seriously that I can’t engage in a little self-deprecating humor.

    Perhaps aliens will arrive one day and change the course of human history but I doubt it. The course of human history could also be changed if I won the lottery. Guess which will happen first. I’ll give you a hint; it’ll happen sooner if I decide to actually buy a lottery ticket. But just in case you’re right, I’ll leave a note for the aliens, asking them to reanimate us. Then, I’ll sincerely apologize. Who knows, maybe by then the Cubs will have won the World Series.

    (BTW, you’ll have to really improve your snarkitude before you’re in Gene’s league .)

  8. Tony C.: You must have a pretty low opinion of lawyers if you think it’d be difficult to find one who’d take on a good cause without “gouging” you. You may not believe this, but there are many in the legal profession who believe that public service is an obligation and, therefore, you can find powerhouse firms like Winston and Strawn and Mayer, Brown that will provide services pro bono. Fulfilling this duty seems to have rewarded Barry Schechter very well, as you would measure it.

    As I pointed out, the distraction was natural. The thread, however, didn’t just veer off into outer space; it took a major detour, completely bypassing Turley’s two clients in the process. Both of those men died agonizingly, and their suffering was magnified in knowing that the same fate could befall their children and grandchildren. My purpose was to refocus the discussion on the conditions that brought about their suffering and raise awareness about the danger that surround the secrecy in the fracking process. My sense of gratification is enhanced by addressing individuals who care about the law and justice, who may not have given the issue much thought. My challenge to you set aside the Easter Island replicas you’re planning for your backyard and get involved in holding government, industry, and energy producers more accountable. Calling for a cleaner environment, access to clean air and water, and the right to know isn’t just a civil right, it’s a civic duty.

    My career is focused on restoring and maintaining natural areas. I am often quite literally on the front lines, developing plans for turning degraded areas into functional ecosystems, wading through wetlands, or conducting prescribed burns. I advise garden clubs, and homeowners associations on the problems with invasive species, and try to convince landscapers, nursery managers, and landscape designers about the value of native plants. I am a subscribed member to five organizations that deal with the environmental issues, two of which litigate as a core mission. I am well aware of the value of concerted action. Yet, I try not to take myself so seriously that I can’t engage in a little self-deprecating humor.

    Perhaps aliens will arrive one day and change the course of human history but I doubt it. The course of human history could also be changed if I won the lottery. Guess which will happen first. I’ll give you a hint; it’ll happen sooner if I decide to actually buy a lottery ticket. But just in case you’re right, I’ll leave a note for the aliens, asking them to reanimate us. Then, I’ll sincerely apologize. Who knows, maybe by then the Cubs will have won the World Series.

    (BTW, you’ll have to really improve your snarkitude before you’re in league with many of the other participants here.)

  9. RTC: You must have a pretty low opinion of lawyers if you think it’d be difficult to find one who’d take on a good cause without “gouging” you.

    Actually I like lawyers, a lot. But I am a realist; and by “gouging” I mean charging the same mercenary rates they would charge wealthy corporations or businesses. So perhaps I used the wrong word; what I meant to say is that it might be possible to recruit a lawyer sympathetic to the cause that would offer a reduced rate in order to help the cause. Not a pro bono arrangement; but more of a “least rate” they know they would negotiate with any client, without the burden of actual negotiation being imposed upon the client.

    That idea comes from something I have seen in government contracts, in which the government gets “best pricing,” meaning the manufacturer cannot sell to anybody for less than they sell to the government. I have been told Walmart does a similar thing for their non-exclusive product contracts; i.e. their suppliers cannot sell to anybody for less than they sell to Walmart.

    So, I am not suggesting that be a contractual stipulation, but something similar to that in practice.

    As a professional I have done something similar for both a non-profit and a government welfare office; reduced my rate to 20% of the exorbitantly mercenary charges I demanded from for-profit clients. But I also do not see that as gouging the for-profit clients, I see it as taking my fair share of the profits I help them produce.

  10. I worked at Area 51 from June 1981 to June 1982 and was stationed at three classified burns and heavily exposed to horrible chemical smoke during two of those burns. I have had lung and breathing problems ever since and use cortocosterol inhalers just to survive. Even a whiff of cigarette smoke will send me into coughing spasms and I even taste blood sometimes. What should I do now that the Area 51 existence has been confirmed, no one would listen to my complaints before, thought I was nuts or a traitor.
    David M Robins, babadave@mail.com phone in Thailand +660872199699

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