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. Gene: Did you ever watch “Babylon 5″?

    Nearly every episode. That is probably for sale on Amazon, I should buy it and watch it again. Michael Straczynski is great.

    I am a fan of Brin, too.

  2. You’re welcome, nick.

    And another thing to consider when pondering alien life and communications. We are all somewhat slaves to our sensory input. We can technologically enhance them, but are nonetheless constrained by them as physical beings.

    How would you go about communicating the beauty of a sunset to a creature that only sees in ultraviolet? Doesn’t see at all as we think of it but rather senses their environment through smell combined with an electro-magnetic sense not unlike what a shark has?

    We can’t even communicate (well) with dolphins yet and we know they are probably as intelligent as we are albeit in a totally different way that is in part influenced by their heavy reliance on acoustical information processing. I don’t know if you have any interest in reading science fiction or not, but if you do, you can’t go wrong starting with David Brin’s Uplift series. In it, Earth is discovered by a galactic civilization composed of many species who practice what is called Uplift. Patron races take younger fledgling technological species and shepherd them into being good galactic citizens in a kind of indentured servitude that eventually ends when the client species is sufficiently socially and technologically mature. Earth is what is called a Wolfling species. We’ve developed technology on our own and started space travel even though we don’t have a Patron or our Patron abandoned us. The SOP when finding a Wolfling civilization is to destroy them. They are inherently dangerous and destabilizing to galactic civilization. The only thing that saves us is that we managed to do some Uplift on our own initiative before we were discovered by “Uplifting” dolphins and chimps so the powers that be decide not to destroy us (although not all of them are happy about it) and give Earth a chance. Well written, well thought out universe and his science is top shelf.

  3. Tony,

    The “immortal introverts” scenario could be as likely an explanation of the Fermi Paradox as any.

    Did you ever watch “Babylon 5”? I always liked that there were some species that were just so far beyond even the Shadows and the Vorlons that interacting with them was basically impossible. They’d occasionally show up someplace, sometimes on a regular basis, do whatever it was they were doing and leave with nary a word. To them, we were as consequential as ants (including the nearly “magical” Shadow and Vorlon cultures).

    I also like David Brin’s Zang, the assorted hydrogen breathing cultures that were more than a little xenophobic and wanted nothing to do with any oxygen breathing species despite being technological contemporaries (maybe even a little more advanced) than any of the Library cultures. They’d make treaties and the odd trade here or there if it was in their interests, but other than that, they wanted to be left alone.

  4. Gene: They could probably make us destroy ourselves.

    Hmmmm…… Maybe they are here, after all! And sneakily sabotaging any efforts we make to get global warming under control.

    I have heard the “out of phase” argument before, and I don’t think it requires them dying out: If our own species is any indication, they could easily “migrate” inward, ignore the universe, become effectively immortal and live forever in simulations with robots taking care of any physical needs in the real world. Kind of like the Matrix without the (ridiculous) evil enslavement component or any trickery necessary. So, after a few thousand years of exponential scientific advancement, they just drop out of the universe and do what we do: Engage with each other, ad infinitum.

    I do agree, if they arrived and were hostile, we’d be screwed.

    As South Park once claimed, maybe we are just the hot reality series for a bunch of aliens; something on their “Discovery Channel.”

  5. I know Professor Turley doesn’t typically respond in the comment threads, but there is something about this case that always baffled me.

    Ok, so the government is doing super secret research there and understandably protected its work fiercely, including the materials used and disposed. They can’t tell these guys’ doctors what happened without giving away that information.

    So why didn’t (couldn’t?) the government have handled the treatment of these men? That would have solved everyone’s problem. Hell, take the necessary equipment and personnel to Area 51 and treat the men there. The men would have got their treatment with doctors who had proper clearance and the knowledge of the materials involved required to treat them. Those men wouldn’t have given any secrets away, they just didn’t want to die. If their government had taken care of them, I’m sure they would have been happy to keep the specifics of their medical treatment secret.

  6. nick,

    Mostly what Tony said, however, there is a scenario where aliens could see something of value here that they could not get elsewhere with less effort. Raw materials are in abundance in space if you can get to them. The one scenario I can think of is tactical position in a conflict. That too, however, is unlikely. We’re kind of out in the boondocks in the context of the galaxy – midway out on the Orion arm and far from the core and halo with the highest density of stars. Any interest they’d have in us would simply be academic/pure curiosity.

    That being said, their motives for either contacting us or not might be entirely inscrutable. They may think in ways too alien from ours for cross-species understanding to be possible.

    ______________

    Tony,

    I’ll go through this by dissection:

    “Gene: The problem with such hypotheticals is that this intellectually advanced alien with science and technology incomprehensible to us then chooses to

    A) Conceal itself from us to the point there is apparently no hard or unambiguous evidence anywhere, and”

    That we know of. While in general I agree with the proposition that coverup would require fantastical effort, obscuring and/or obfuscating the truth with propaganda would be no trouble at all.

    “B) Crashes its ships and lets our government recover them, examine their technology and replicate it, and”

    Accident happen. Randomness is built in to the very fabric of reality. That being said, the notion that we are replicating alien technology is probably 99% far fetched. If it’s advanced enough to get here, it’s probably so far past our understanding – even in the simple terms of materials science alone – to make reverse engineering possible. It’d be like giving a Neanderthal a Macintosh and asking him to build one by reverse engineering, i.e. not going to happen. He might *might* figure out how to make glass if you’re talking an older Mac.

    “C) Our government (and all the other governments in the world) are so fantastically competent at concealment none of the hard and indisputable evidence found is ever made public.”

    If anyone has anything, there are some countries that based on how they handle the true UFO phenomena that would come right out with it. However, based on both geographical size and technological sophistication, the three leading contenders to have anything would be the US, the Russians and the Chinese. I don’t think their ability to suppress or otherwise distort information is in question making any real inadvertent revelation subject to almost certain and immediate attacks on the veracity of any claim.

    “I might understand (A), that could be accomplished by sufficient scientific knowledge.”

    True, and in fact likely.

    “But I think the tech to do (A) precludes allowing (B) to happen;”

    As stated above, random happens.

    “if the aliens want to conceal themselves, what stops them from doing it?”

    Nothing. But perhaps they are no more concerned we’d be able to reverse engineer an interstellar craft based on wreckage than we would be about a Neanderthal building a reverse engineered computer.

    “I threw in (C) just because I think the conspiracy required is fantastical.”

    In general, I agree, but a conspiracy to conceal need not be perfect to be effective so long as you can manufacture doubt (either reasonable or not).

    “As for the Drake equation; I’m not so sure. From a biological perspective and a statistical perspective, we had “life” on this planet three billion years ago, and we had “brains” on this planet half a billion years ago, and we may have had “tool users” on this planet for many tens of millions of years before a technological race developed in the last 50,000 years or so (my best guess).”

    The Drake Equation does take into account the amount of time it takes for technological civilization to arise, but since that is a speculative number, that is one of the reasons N cannot be calculated with precision. I did note that it is a speculative tool. That imprecision is rooted in nebulous or unknown variable parameters.

    “Our galaxy may be littered with life, but it may be the equivalent of bacterial, worms, plants, and perhaps fish, reptilian and dinosaurian. Such life systems as we have seen here on Earth seem remarkably stable; and we would probably still be in that mode if not for the Chicxulub asteroid, which wiped out just enough large animals to give mammals the chance to take over their niches and dominate.”

    True enough.

    “Drake doesn’t know the probability of intelligent, technological life developing. Perhaps it is one in a trillion.”

    Possibly. As noted above, that’s why the Drake Equation is a great framework for speculation but until we have a better grasp on the reality surrounding some of those variables, its use as a predictive equation is limited.

    “With 400 billion stars in our galaxy, we may be the only technological life in our galaxy.”

    Possible, but I think unlikely. There is another explanation of Fermi’s Paradox that addresses this in a somewhat novel but obvious manner. We may be out of phase with other technological civilizations in time. They may have died out before we arose to sufficient technological sophistication to even rationally speculate on their existence much less contact them. Or their technology (unless they are something like a Kardeshev level III, IV or above may have practical limitations. The galaxy is so huge that maybe we just live too far apart to ever be in contact. However, something in the high III to IV range is capable of harnessing energy at levels that are almost impossible to comprehend. Building stable wormholes from scratch might be routine for them and thus they would be able to go literally anywhere/anywhen. That kind of science would be what Clarke was talking about when he said “At a certain level, science becomes indistinguishable from magic.”

    But one thing remains a certainty in this conversation. If aliens have the power and technological sophistication to get here? If they are/were/turn out to be hostile, we’d simply be screwed. They’d have ways of destroying us we can’t even imagine. They could probably make us destroy ourselves. Not an especially difficult task considering our natural proclivities as a species.

  7. Jonathan, Your editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times is a breath of fresh air on a very sordid subject. After losing my day job, and watching the Las Vegas Sun spiral into a black hole, I have not forgotten the time, energy and effort you gave to the Area 51 workers, their families, and the public to bring the truth out of the darkness. If there is anything I can do to help you pursue more knowledge, I’m here.

  8. Nick: I will provide my take: Zero. Any alien race advanced enough to visit us will have such technological control that they need nothing but “entertainment,” by which I mean novelty and the chance to see something new.

    They will need from us what a rich American needs from, say, birds in some remote forest. They might be interesting to study and fun to watch, but nothing is actually needed from them; they aren’t even food and we don’t covet their space. Anything they “need” they will build from scratch without harming anything but rocks in the Oort cloud that nobody will miss.

  9. Gene: The problem with such hypotheticals is that this intellectually advanced alien with science and technology incomprehensible to us then chooses to

    A) Conceal itself from us to the point there is apparently no hard or unambiguous evidence anywhere, and

    B) Crashes its ships and lets our government recover them, examine their technology and replicate it, and

    C) Our government (and all the other governments in the world) are so fantastically competent at concealment none of the hard and indisputable evidence found is ever made public.

    I might understand (A), that could be accomplished by sufficient scientific knowledge. But I think the tech to do (A) precludes allowing (B) to happen; if the aliens want to conceal themselves, what stops them from doing it?

    I threw in (C) just because I think the conspiracy required is fantastical.

    As for the Drake equation; I’m not so sure. From a biological perspective and a statistical perspective, we had “life” on this planet three billion years ago, and we had “brains” on this planet half a billion years ago, and we may have had “tool users” on this planet for many tens of millions of years before a technological race developed in the last 50,000 years or so (my best guess).

    Our galaxy may be littered with life, but it may be the equivalent of bacterial, worms, plants, and perhaps fish, reptilian and dinosaurian. Such life systems as we have seen here on Earth seem remarkably stable; and we would probably still be in that mode if not for the Chicxulub asteroid, which wiped out just enough large animals to give mammals the chance to take over their niches and dominate.

    Drake doesn’t know the probability of intelligent, technological life developing. Perhaps it is one in a trillion. With 400 billion stars in our galaxy, we may be the only technological life in our galaxy.

  10. Gene, What’s your take on the theory that if aliens do make contact w/ us they are probably intent on destroying us for their needs?

  11. In re: UFOs.

    What Tony said with the caveat that even by their own reports and the reports of other governments, there are a small percentage of cases that do defy explanation. Interstellar travel is not impossible, just very difficult. To discount that a civilization that has existed far longer than ours may have mastered it is a bit . . . shortsighted. It all has to do with the ability to harness energy. Are you familiar with the Kardashev Scale? Proposed in 1964 by the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, it is a way to methodically and scientifically speculate about the nature of technological alien civilizations. The above Wiki link provides a very nice concise summary. What is impossible or difficult for our primitive species entering its technological adolescence may be child’s play for a civilization with a billion year head start on us. When combined with the Drake Equation, the existence of a substantially more advanced alien species existing out there is practically certain even though N cannot be calculated with precision. This I think holds true even given the Fermi Paradox (summed up in the question “Where is everybody?”) simply because such advanced civilizations might not make direct contact with us for a large number of reasons (xenophobia, some kind of anthropological “Prime Directive” or other cultural prohibition, they might see us as too primitive to open a dialog with, etc.).

    An open mind is the most valuable commodity in scientific inquiry.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

  12. One wonders why the government is admitting this at this time. Could it be that the Obama administration promised a more “Open” government, and failed to deliver? As with the CIA’s “Family Jewels,” there is still much redacted (left out) of the story. Kecksburg, PA, and Greenham Common in England, are just a couple of unexplained UFO stories that have eyewitness validity. Then there was Shag Harbor, and Gulf Breeze, not to mention the original Roswell.

    Like the Kennedy assassination, the government likes to keep its secrets close to its chest, and divulge only those necessary to placate the public. In many cases it amounts to disinformation or half-truths. It is so far from an open system, that it makes the GESTAPO and KGB pale in comparison. They use the term “National Security” anytime they want to classify something away from the eyes of the public. In fact the reason should be “National Embarrassment” as they would have to explain why they did what they did.

    If it weren’t for investigative journalists like Matt Taibi, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, etc., the truth would remain hidden from the public. The government is counting on a complacent public, too interested in reality TV, and their high tech toys to concern themselves with serious issues.

  13. “But the truth is still out there. The question is whether anyone really wants to know it.”

    I’ve learned the hard way, over the years, that many Americans aren’t really interested in the truth. Or so it seems.

    And piggybacking on Blouise’s comment: What Tony said.

  14. Hmmmm…. Well does it exist or doesn’t it….. It’s not clear that the government wants you to know….

  15. I remember this case from when you were my Torts prof as a 1L and they sealed your office. We were advised the dean would take over your class if you were held in contempt for failure to turn over documents. If I recall correctly, there was an X Files episode loosely based on the skin conditions your clients suffered.

  16. There is a “Porking Lot” there where CIA agents and/or NSA agents pork their girlfriends.

  17. Decades ago my enlisted son told me that any American soldier knew of the government’s amazing test craft, including the use of self-healing materials and stealth technology before these things were widely known publicly. It seems to me that it is quite plausible to expect that the whole UFO/abduction scenario is a very earthly program designed to be pulled out when the threat of demon Islamists (or the next foreign culture to be exploited) no longer works to control the masses. They had to give up the demon Communist threat because it no longer scares us. But we will be very afraid of an alien takeover and willing to give up the last shred of our privacy or individuality or humanity in exchange for the appearance of protection. Some people seem willing already, holding onto the fallacy that they might be protected by their government against the possibility that a dark-skinned man with a different religion might be lurking in their future.

  18. Mr. Turley, Big kudos to you for taking on a case like this. You learned what I did early in my career, that being cloak and dagger stuff is not like on TV or movies. It can be pretty unseemly. Folks like your clients need good representation from an attorney who puts them first, and not their own careers or publicity. They got that and more.

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