WASHINGTON—The story ends—for now, anyway—with a piece of paper dated September 20, quietly conveyed two weeks ago to the ‘Federal Register,’ where it was published as per the requirements of United States law, and where it went virtually unnoticed, as so many laws, regulations, and executive orders do. This order, however, was unique in that it spares the Pentagon from sharing secrets about what is arguably the world’s most mysterious military installation.
The secrets in question have to do with environmental matters, at a place the directive characterizes as “the Air Force’s operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada”—better known as Area 51.
It’s a popular culture phenomenon, Area 51, popping up in everything from the 1996 smash movie Independence Day to episodes of the X-Files to scores of Web sites. There’s even a book, Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles, that focuses on its “culture,” its status as a mecca for the parishioners of the modern-day church of ufology. As every possessor of The Truth About the Government knows, Area 51 is where the air force tests and tinkers with the alien technology it gets—by dint of either rapacious force or covert friendship with the grays from beyond.
Whether or not Area 51 is a haven for extraterrestrial mechanics and cross-planetary conspiracies isn’t likely to be quickly settled to anyone’s satisfaction. What seems beyond dispute is that, at the very least, the base is a testing site for aircraft systems funded and developed under spooky “black budget” programs. But as ongoing lawsuits filed on behalf of some of the site’s employees have shown, this work is considered to be so clandestine that workers adversely affected by toxic materials used and destroyed there cannot even be told what it was to which they were exposed. Two workers—Robert Frost and Wally Kasza—died wondering just what it was that had slowly and painfully done them in.
Any way you look at it, it’s a travesty: Sick people who’ve served their country’s government aren’t being told what’s tormenting them. Yet when most people hear “Area 51,” it goes to the “fringe” node of their brains, the part that looks at things with a more amused, entertained eye than a serious or critical one. Which is why legal scholar Jonathan Turley, director of the Environmental Crimes Project at George Washington University’s National Law Center, decries the way the forces behind popular culture have hyped and framed Area 51.
“Two good men died at Area 51.They weren’t killed by aliens. They may have been killed by the government, but through dangers that were distinctly earthbound, dangers that had nothing to do with extraterrestrial beings,” Turley quietly seethes. “I’ve long felt that the military has been delighted with the circus environment over aliens at Area 51, because it’s not only a welcome distraction, but it makes our entire litigation look ridiculous by association, when our litigation has nothing to do with aliens.” He pauses. “I wish people were as concerned about Wally Kasza as they seem to be titillated by some mythic alien presence.”
At 38, Turley is still idealistic, a high-profile Washington lawyer who relishes testifying before Congress as much as he revels in tending to his one-year-old son. Nonetheless, the lawsuits he filed against the government earlier this decade for the survivors of two dead Area 51 workers and a number of anonymous plaintiffs have made his life resemble something between A Civil Action and The X-Files. At the air force’s insistence, a federal judge has classified his entire office at GWU; if anyone else crosses the threshold, they are in violation of national security law and a court order, and can be arrested. Almost all of his interviews with clients have been conducted in dimly lit parking garages at night.
Which was where he last saw Wally Kasza, in 1995. A 69-year-old sheet metal worker from Area 51, Wally had replaced his friend Robert “Frosty” Frost as an industrial supervisor at the base after Frosty died in 1990. Frosty had been afflicted with illnesses that took the form of constant respiratory distress and a painful skin condition that he and other workers called, with no exaggeration, “fish scales.” The symptoms were manifesting in others, too. Which is why Kasza and his codefendants had sought out Turley.
For years, they explained, the military officers who run Area 51 had been taking advantage of its “black” status to get rid of toxic waste in the most expedient—and most illegal—way possible: burn it in open pits. (The legal logic at Area 51 was simple: How can any law apply to something that doesn’t officially exist?) After Frosty died, doctors determined his liver had failed thanks to high amounts of dioxin and dibenzofurans, plastic- and solvent-based chemicals taken into the body via smoke inhalation. Like Frosty, Kasza’s skin would crack and bleed; he’d hack up a lung every night; now kidney cancer was about to claim him. As they sat in the darkened garage, Kasza asked Turley: If he died, could his wife take his place in the lawsuit? “He really wanted to live long enough to see some justice at Area 51,” Turley sighs.
Prompted by the Washington watchdog Project on Government Oversight, Turley has taken point on two cases against the government: Frost v. Perry, directed at the Pentagon, and Kasza v. Browner, directed at the EPA. The case against the Pentagon has often resembled something out of Alice in Wonderland. For months, the air force argued that the plaintiffs had no case because Area 51 didn’t exist. When Turley would introduce evidence to debunk this claim, the government would promptly classify it. It was only after Turley threatened to put on the stand the Russian embassy’s military attaché—who would be more than happy to disclose under oath what years of Soviet-era intelligence gathering had revealed about Area 51—that the government agreed to refer to “an operating location near Groom Lake.”
The lawsuits have yielded mixed results: While the workers and survivors of workers at Area 51 still don’t know what they were exposed to (they’ve never sued seeking damages, just information), a judge has ordered the EPA to inspect the facility for compliance with federal environmental law. According to one law, the EPA has to make its findings public, something the government doesn’t want to do. And according to another law, the government doesn’t have to; under USC 6961, if the president says it’s “in the paramount interest” of the U.S. that such information be classified, that’s the way it is.
But in 1997 a judge determined that Area 51 requires an annual certification to exempt it from public environmental disclosure—a written confirmation that, despite all the years arguing otherwise, Area 51 does in fact exist. While this doesn’t do a lot to help the workers who were exposed to toxic waste, it’s a landmark in using the law to pierce the veil of government secrecy. Last year, Clinton issued his first annual directive exempting Area 51 from environmental disclosure; two months ago, he renewed it.
Even though Turley’s not privy to the EPA’s reports, his clients say that since the EPA has been allowed in, the methods by which Area 51 gets rid of hazardous waste have “dramatically changed.” The problem, says Turley, is the military’s other secret bases. “Area 51 was the crown jewel of black facilities—the military has fought hard to protect it as kind of an enclave of secrecy,” he says. “But there are other black facilities, and I’m not convinced the military has learned its lesson. The officers who committed these crimes have not been punished. And the president of the United States has intervened to protect them from [prosecution for] these criminal acts. That sends a message, and not the right one.”