Monday, Dec. 1, 1997 | 9:36 a.m.
The stretch of desert known as Area 51 remains so shrouded in secrecy the government is still reluctant to admit it exists.
U.S. taxpayers, who foot the massive bill for the base, are forbidden to know what goes on there. Curious onlookers caught wandering within its boundaries can be killed and left for buzzard bait. U.S. Air Force pilots who accidentally penetrate the base's airspace find themselves detained and interrogated -- and sometimes out of a job.
But under the Open Skies Treaty of 1992, pilots from 24 countries are free to fly over Area 51 and have a look.
It's a strange paradox -- one of many surrounding the base that author David Darlington ("The Mojave," "In Condor Country," and "Angels' Visits") explores in his newly released book, "Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles" (Henry Holt, $25).
One of the few books on the subject to hit the bookstores, "Area 51" traces the history of the base from its creation in the '50s to the present, and chronicles some of the wilder theories that have emerged about its activities.
Most of these center on the idea that the government is studying and trying to copy alien spacecraft alleged to have crashed in Roswell, N.M. in the '50s. As public interest in possible extraterrestrial life swells -- consider the huge success of "The X-Files" series, which will soon spawn a movie -- Area 51 has sparked a spate TV specials and even figured prominently in the recent alien invasion blockbuster "Independence Day."
Some suggest that government engineers are being aided in their spacecraft duplication efforts by reluctant extraterrestrials that survived the crash and now are being held captive in the Nevada desert.
Others believe we've been sold out by our government and are on the verge of being enslaved by visitors from outer space. A few believe we're merely being swindled out of billions of dollars and deliberately misled by a handful of individuals who have set up a satellite government outside the control of Congress.
A self-described "agnostic" on the subject of UFOs, Darlington carefully avoids making a personal judgment about the merits of such theories. Instead, he focusses on the theorists themselves -- a group of not-so-merry pranksters who continually test the limits of their freedom by prowling the base's perimeters in hopes of getting a good look at its activities.
"I think, here and there, people object to the fact that I'm not offering any new evidence that there are aliens at Area 51, (but) of course, that's not the point of the book," he says. "To me the subject was democracy" -- and the legacy of government secrecy.
"The most fascinating angle, what really lurks in the background of the story, is the Cold War. It is absolutely true that Area 51 is an artifact of the Cold War."
Talking to Rachel
A non-fiction writer with a passionate interest in "the landscape and how people relate to it," Darlington first learned of the existence of Area 51 several years ago while he was researching a chapter involving UFO folklore for his book "The Mojave."
In 1993 Darlington visited Rachel, a tiny hamlet at the edge of Area 51, which was becoming a mecca for UFO believers and conspiracy theorists. There, he encountered such characters as "Ambassador Merlyn Merlin II of Alpha Draconis" -- formerly known as David Solomon of Silver City -- who fervently expressed his belief that the "United Federation of Planets" would soon join forces with the United Nations and usher in a "Golden Age;" Funeral director Norio Hayakawa, who claimed that the U.S. government was in contact with extraterrestrials and looking for a way to break it to the public; and Glenn Campbell (not the singer), a former computer programmer from Boston and self-described "lobbyist for openness" who, from the trailer office of his "Area 51 Research Center" offered advice to visitors on how to deal with the "cammo dudes" -- camouflaged soldiers -- who patrol the base's borders.
"It seemed to me that there was something for everyone (in the mystery of Area 51)," Darlington says.
Much of the interest had been spurred by a claim by a man named Bob Lazar in 1989 that the government was harboring aliens and the wrecked remains of their spaceship at the base. Lazar said he had become privy to this information when he was hired to research the alien spacecraft's propulsion system. Aspects of the story failed to hold up to the scrutiny of those who later checked it out. But, emerging as it did in the wake of the Cold War, it fueled a surge of UFO and conspiracy theories about what was going on at Area 51.
"In the wake of the Cold War, people seem to still require some sort of outside threat," Darlington says. And now "UFOs and people from outer space were a sort of proxy, a stand-in for the Soviets."
Beginnings of 'The Box'
Known to insiders as "Watertown Strip" or "Paradise Ranch," and to military pilots as "Dreamland" or "The Box," Area 51 was created in the 1950s as a testing ground for the U-2 spy plane. Later, it served as the development site for the Stealth fighter, the A-12 and SR-71 Blackbirds, the rumored "Aurora" hypersonic spy plane, and other classified defense and intelligence projects funded by the government's secret "Black Budget."
During the Cold War, when the Soviets loomed menacingly on the horizon -- at least in the minds of many Americans -- the government had few problems justifying their secrets and their expenditures at the base.
And as time went on, both seemed to increase at alarming rates. During the 1980s, the Black Budget grew by an estimated 800 percent; And in 1984, the Air Force seized control of 89,000 acres of public land surrounding Area 51 -- without getting the required Congressional approval -- to provide for a "buffer zone" of security. Eleven years later, they took an additional 4,000 acres.
"There's always been government secrecy," Darlington says. "But I think it was magnified tremendously by the Cold War.
"The Cold War did two things: It justified the dangerous urge of a democratic government to hide its workings from the people, and it also convinced the people, the citizens, that the government was hiding things from them."
Paradox of 'The Box'
In recent years, however, many individuals have begun challenging the government's right to keep Area 51's workings and budget a secret.
In 1994, workers claiming to have been exposed to toxic waste at Area 51 filed a federal lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, putting the "base that doesn't exist" in the public spotlight. The case was dismissed after President Clinton exempted the base from complying with U.S. environmental laws, but that ruling is now being appealed. "It's probably going to go to the Supreme Court no matter which way (the appeal) goes," Darlington says.
The fact that workers from a base that doesn't officially exist are able to sue their alleged employers is just another example of Area 51's paradoxes.
Citizens like Campbell can freely dispense advice about peeking into the base without getting caught. The state government of Nevada and Hollywood filmmakers can boost their revenues by publicizing the top-secret facility -- as they did when they christened Route 375 "The Extraterrestrial Highway." Writers like Darlington can research and publish an extremely detailed book on the subject.
"It's a spectacular illustration of democracy in action," he says.
When Darlington first started the book, however, he wasn't sure how his inquiries would be received. But, in recent weeks, he hasn't noticed any "men in black or unmarked helicopters" or any other less conspicuous signs of surveillance.
"You can look at that in various ways," he says, laughing. "It could reassure you about our free society, which allows independent researchers to go about their business. Or you could surmise that they've had me under surveillance but they're satisfied with my conclusions."