Area 51 declassified: Freedom of Information Act to the rescue

Though we've seen our fair share of Area 51 documents in the past, we're headed for the mother-load with a newly declassified "less redacted" CIA history this week. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the efforts of Jeffrey T. Richelson, senior fellow at the National Security Archives. Back in 2005, Richelson submitted a FOIA request which has just now been answered with not only a packet of information, but a new map of Area 51 – aka Groom Lake.

This map shows the exact location – not that we didn't know where it was before – of Groom Lake with an official reference to the spot as "Area 51". Also included in the extended report is the affirmation that the government was using the site for US spy planes for several overseas missions. Perhaps a bit disappointing for those hoping for confirmation of years of faithful believe that we'd had our hands and eyes on real alien spacecraft.

"What the CIA released in response to a 2005 Freedom of Information Act request is a substantially less redacted version of a history of two key aerial reconnaissance programs. Written by agency historians Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach, and titled The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974, the study was published in classified channels in 1992.

Subsequently, a heavily redacted version of the U-2 portion was published, in 1998, by the agency's Center for the Study of Intelligence as a book, The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974, in conjunction with a CIA conference on the U-2. The full study, in redacted form, had been released in response to FOIA requests.

What may still be of interest to those hoping to hear about never-before-seen efforts in flight are newly declassified releases on one manned and two unmanned "aerial reconnaissance efforts". While these are based essentially in the USA's U-2 program, information is also included on President Dwight Eisenhower's thoughts on British involvement.

Apparently Eisenhower felt that British participation in the USA's U-2 program would help "as a way to confuse the Soviets as to sponsorship of particular overflights". He also suggested that British involvement would spread the risk of failure – good on him.

Other bits and pieces sprung up that'd not been available before this report:

• FISH HAWK – (pp. 249-251) photographing a French nuclear test site in the Pacific in 1964.• STPOLLY – low-altitude reconnaissance flights over China for the USA by Chinese nationalists in the 1960s.• AQUILINE and AXILLARY – two unmanned aerial reconnaissance programs. (more on this by U-2 history author Chris Podock).• HBJARGON – U-2 bast in Pakistan.• MUDLARK – gathering information on Francis Gary Powers' downed U-2.

Speaking with CNN this week, Richelson suggested that this release may be a signal of "a dramatic change int he government's willingness to declassify information about the famed base". You can bet your lunch that the most hardcore believers won't let a little thing like a government report dampen their faith – keep on searching!