>> Monday, September 09, 2013
So why are we not more outraged that for half a century our government has been feeding misinformation to its citizens? Why are we not demanding an explanation? Why are we not furious that official reports and spokespeople are merely phantoms, figments of the imagination, ghosts in a collective machine?- Joseph Lapin, "The Area 51 truthers were right",Salon, September 9th, 2013.
And more along those lines at the link, wherein Lapin rants for fifteen paragraphs about the recent declassification of Area 51's existence and tries to piggyback it with a general rant about governmental secrecy and lies.
There's a conversation to be had about governmental secrecy and the balance to be struck between a society that aspires to be a democratic republic (a system in which transparency is essential, since citizens need to be able to make informed choices at the ballot box) and a society that desires to exist at all (since the fact of the matter is that any country, and not just the United States, is liable to be faced by outsiders who may not have the country's best interests in mind). There's quite a lot that remains classified that almost certainly shouldn't be; e.g. there was at least one point in time back in the '80s or '90s when the government was clinging to wartime military secrets from World War I in spite of the improbability of maintaining the secrecy of the data or the methods used to gather it being in any way essential to contemporary security interests, and the near certainty that the information would be put to good use by historians and other scholars.
But the problem--the first problem--with attempting to use Area 51 as a case study in democracy versus security is that the capabilities of the aircraft we used to surveil the Soviet Union during the Cold War and continue to use to gather intelligence to this day is exactly the kind of need-to-know information that almost any rational mind would conclude is a necessary state secret, as are the capabilities of combat aircraft also tested at Area 51 and Groom Lake. Knowing how these aircraft take off and land and something about their flight profiles happens to be useful if you want to shoot these birds down, and these are craft necessarily flying through airspaces someone might not want them in. I can't imagine reasonable people have a problem with keeping that information confidential.
Ironically, though, having written that, the second problem with attempting to use Area 51 as a case study in democracy versus security is that the secret ultimately wasn't all that well-kept anyway. For the last twenty or thirty years, maybe even longer, everyone has known Area 51 was involved in the testing of advanced military aircraft and spyplanes, and the only people who didn't believe that were already convinced beyond all reason that the place was hosting extraterrestrial landings and that the military and intelligence programs were either cover for that kind of thing or were in some way related (i.e. the military was testing aircraft, but were testing antigravity vehicles or somesuch instead of something as prosaic as minimized radar profiles). For decades now, aircraft aficionados have been making pilgrimages out to the "nonexistent" airbase and taking pictures of themselves posing with the "no trespassing or we will kill you on sight" signs on the vast fence enclosing the nowhere before making their way to the surrounding ridges to set themselves up with lawn furniture and binoculars and coolers of beer to get a brief glance at some super-beyond-top-secret plane; and for decades the United States government has been futilely attempting to use eminent domain to lengthen those fences-around-nowhere and put up more of the "seriously, we will murder you without even thinking about it" signs; all part of a fun little game the government and its sky-nerd citizens have been playing that I suspect the intelligence community just got tired of, and so the declassification really represents a forfeit ("Fine, you win, we quit.") as much as anything.
A key thing worth mentioning here is that part of the reason Area 51 was a poorly-kept secret is that the secret was always in plain sight to start with. I mean, you have mysterious flying things whizzing about out there, that anyone can see, and you have a couple of possibilities. It might be the weather, it might be alien spacebeings, it might be top-secret fancy American aircraft being tested; there might be a few other possibilities, but the thing is that all of them except "top-secret fancy American aircraft" end up being so improbable or implausible or just complete off-the-hinge to such an extent that you don't really need anyone to tell you Area 51 was testing ultra-top-secret aircraft to say, "Yeah, well, I mean, that's kind of what I reasonably assumed, but thanks for clarifying."
And these are the reasons nobody is getting angry at decades of secrecy and Joseph Lapin comes off as foolish. To the extent these were secrets, everybody except the nutters grokked they were necessary secrets, and besides they weren't all that secret. Which sounds like a contradiction, but is actually a self-reinforcing loop: "Look, we all know that there's stuff going on out there that nobody is supposed to know about, which is why we're okay not knowing about it. We know why we're not supposed to know about it, and cool beans, y'know?"
I think the funniest thing about Lapin's piece--and by "funny", I mean infuriatingly and insufferably irritating and maybe a little sad--is that there actually is one reason to be annoyed about Area 51 secrecy, and that's the fact the government kind of fucked-over some civilian employees who may have been injured by insufficient safety precautions while serving their country. Several former government contractors and/or their families filed a lawsuit in Federal court claiming they were injured at Area 51 while handling extremely nasty toxic substances (dioxin being the most-easily spelled and most notorious) involved in various aerospace experiments, in violation of various workplace safety and Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Then-President Clinton made a determination that what was happening at Area 51 was so super-top-secret that the government couldn't even respond to a lawsuit and therefore shouldn't have to, and the Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals agreed. If you don't already know about this, you can get a quick primer from Wikipedia, here. My thoughts on this are that this is bullshit: not that the United States should necessarily be divulging necessary state secrets in open court (though there are ways around this), but that it seems to me like the kind of thing we ought to settle even if we're not completely sure we did anything wrong and don't acknowledge wrongdoing; I mean, hey, if you're handling Warren Zevon's shopping list of unpronounceable evil and you end up with cancer of the cancer and there's even a whiff of doubt about EPA compliance, it seems reasonable for the rest of us to pony up and buy you some painkillers and your widow a new car. I suppose it's possible the plaintiffs were lying about their exposure to the extent that nobody never had no polysyllboxin out at that hypothetical Air Force Base we're not saying was or wasn't there, but then it seems there's a less-shitty response to that, too, than the State Secrets Privilege, which the government does tend to use as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, much to the national shame.
Talking about that, and about whether it's too-little-too-late to cut some nice "Thank-you-for-getting-cancer-for-your-country" checks or whether we can now determine the merits of the plaintiffs' case, anyway, seems to me a reasonable angry response to the declassification. That isn't the piece Lapin wrote, obviously, and I suppose the critique that he didn't write a different essay is a bit lacking in merit even if he could have and should have written something else. But the piece he did write is kind of dumb. There are problems with the modern Security State. That the Air Force spent a couple of decades claiming extended-range CIA spyplanes were swamp gas to try to keep the Russians from blowing up the pilots isn't really one of them.
A POSTSCRIPT: It doesn't really tie in to the above but nevertheless seems worth mentioning: I have no doubt there are already people who will say the declassification of Area 51 is nothing more than the latest disinformation campaign to hide the existence of space aliens from the American public. And I imagine Lapin might be capable of calling these twerps justified insofar as the government has been lying about Area 51. But not all lies are made equal, and the fact the government fibbed about the existence and purpose of Area 51 and what was flying out of there in order to conceal or at least obscure the existence of experimental aircraft doesn't demonstrate that they're also (or in the alternative) lying about alien spaceships. And the general lack of credible evidence of alien visitors isn't convincing to the Area 51-UFO people regarding the improbability of alien visitations, so what else would be? I.e. the government could have announced in 1955, "Yeah, we're going to build and test a ginormous-winged spyplane that can fly over the USSR and take huge pictures of their missile silos and call it a U-2 and we don't want anyone looking at it," and some people would have still said that was a big fat lie because aliens crashed in Roswell in 1947, so there; because the critical line for Fox Mulders then-and-always, here-and-everywhere, is, "I want to believe". For some, evidence will always take a backseat to desire.