Is Obama really the first president to publicly mention Area 51?
By Mark Knoller
/ CBS News
WASHINGTON -- President Obama was right Sunday when he said he
was likely the first U.S. president ever to make public mention of Area
51 - the off-limits military base near Groom Lake, Nev., at which top
secret and sometimes mysterious and suspicious activities are carried
The president made the unusual reference in his remarks Sunday at a reception saluting the five performers bestowed this year's Kennedy Center Honors.
The mention of Area 51 came in Mr. Obama's tribute to actress Shirley
MacLaine, known for her interest in reincarnation and other occult
He joked that when he became president, "one of the questions that people ask you is, what's really going on in Area 51?"
"When I wanted to know, I'd call Shirley MacLaine, " he kidded.
"I think I just became the first President to ever publicly mention Area
51. How's that, Shirley?" asked the president facetiously.
First ever president? Could that be?
I searched my records along with
those of the American Presidency Project database of presidential
speeches and turned up no prior spoken references to Area 51.
However, on 10 occasions between 1996 and 2004, then-Presidents Bill
Clinton and George W. Bush issued written statements making reference to
"the United States Air Force's operating location near Groom Lake,
Nevada," which has always been taken to be a veiled reference to Area
In 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000, Mr. Clinton notified Congress in
writing of a presidential determination that exempted the Groom Lake
installation from "any Federal, State, interstate, or local hazardous or
solid waste laws that might require the disclosure of classified
information concerning that operating location to unauthorized persons."
In 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004, Mr. Bush sent Congress nearly
identical notifications. Like Mr. Clinton before him, Mr. Bush
included the admonition that "information concerning activities at the
operating location near Groom Lake has been properly determined to be
classified, and its disclosure would be harmful to national security.
Continued protection of this information, he stated, is therefore in
the paramount interest of the United States."
In addition, in 2002 and 2003, Mr. Bush also issued official notices
of Presidential Determinations that stated it was "in the paramount
interest of the United States" that the Groom Lake operating location be
exempted from civilian lawsuits filed against it alleging violations of
hazardous waste regulations that would require "the disclosure to
unauthorized persons of classified information concerning that operating
On one occasion in 1997, a reporter - I think it was me - asked then-White House press secretary Mike McCurry about the presidential exemptions for the
Air Force base at Groom Lake.
He confirmed what was made public in the presidential messages to
Congress and memoranda, but said "beyond that, I can't comment further."
And since then, neither "Area 51" nor "Groom Lake" was mentioned by the
president or his spokesman in public. At least not until yesterday at
the Kennedy Center Honors reception in presidential remarks about
Mr. Obama did mention Area 51 - but said not a word about the kind of
work that goes on there. It's still highly classified. Maybe Shirley