CIA finally acknowledges Area 51's existence

(CBS News) The CIA does not give up secrets easily, but it gave up a big one this week.

The spy agency acknowledged there IS an Area 51 in the Nevada desert. It did not say whether the test site houses space aliens or flying saucers -- that decades-old debate will continue. No president since the Cold War would confirm Area 51's existence. It took repeated requests from George Washington University to get the CIA to do it.

Located in the middle of nowhere, Area 51 has been at the center of some of this country's most closely guarded secrets going back to the U-2 spy plane. The world has known about the U-2 ever since 1960 when one was shot down over the Soviet Union. But only now has the government officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51 in Nevada.

Area 51's existence acknowledged by CIA in declassified documents

Only recently the CIA has confirmed the existence of top-secret test site Area 51. But that is all the spy agency is saying about it. CBS News

"I'm not holding my breath waiting for my invite to go to a media tour," said Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week. He has spent much of his career spying on Area 51 to find out what new aircraft -- like the F-117, the world's first stealth fighter -- were being tested there.

Back in 1985, when CBS News hired a small plane to go looking for the F-117, an Air Force jet suddenly came up to chase us away. But that was nearly 30 years ago.

"I'd be really interested to know what they were spending billions of dollars on at that base for the last 30 years," said Sweetman.

Jonathan Turley, an attorney, is representing workers who built secret planes and claim they were ill from the toxic fumes coming out of Area 51. CBS News

In the movie "Independence Day," Area 51 is where the U.S. stashed captured aliens, a notion that has attracted legions of UFO enthusiasts. Attorney Jonathan Turley found there really was something sinister going on there, although it had nothing to do with aliens.

"The government dug football-field-sized trenches," he said, "and would fill those trenches with all types of exotic and harmful chemicals and parts, and they would just pour jet fuel over it and torch it."

Turley sued on behalf of workers who helped build those secret planes and had since fallen ill, allegedly from inhaling those toxic fumes.

"I would have satellite photos available of the base," said Turley. "I had affidavits of people that worked at the base. And the government would deny the existence of the base."

So now the government has admitted Area 51 exists, but that's about all. The Air Force released a statement say specific activities and operations conducted there cannot be discussed.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.