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Secrets of Area 51: History, technology, and controversy

In this three-part video series, Molly Wood pays a visit to the edge of Area 51, explores the history and technology of the top-secret military base, and interviews the author of a controversial new book about explosive allegations that have even her sources in full denial mode.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood

Area 51 is one of the most enduring mysteries and sources of speculation in American history.

Located inside the Nevada Test and Training Range, the flat, dry lake bed known as Groom Lake has been the home to some of the nation's most advanced espionage and weapons technology, hair-raising tales of Cold War brinksmanship, and possibly much worse, according to a new book about the top-secret military base.

In writing 's="" top="" secret="" military="" base,""="">"Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base," Annie Jacobsen combed through thousands of pages of declassified material on American spy plane development, nuclear testing at Area 51, and the history of the CIA and Air Force's control of the base.

In the course of her research, she interviewed dozens of men who worked or lived at Area 51 and are only now talking to one another and the public about their time there. She also interviewed one anonymous source who suggested a deeply dark side of the research conducted at Area 51: human experimentation and psychological warfare (and, of course, a high-level cover-up).

I interviewed Jacobsen, along with Jim Friedman, who was a senior field administrator at Area 51 for 13 years, and TD Barnes, a radar specialist who lived and worked at Area 51, in Nevada near the edge of the enormous testing range and base. We drove up to the gate at Area 51, talked at length about the planes and other technologies developed there and dug into the controversy surrounding the most shocking parts of Jacobsen's book.

The interviews and footage originally aired on CBS' "The Early Show," and these three videos are extra footage and longer interviews about the topics covered in the book. First, a journey down the long Nevada highway and desolate dirt road that leads to the back gate at Area 51: the most intimidating gate you've ever seen. When we got there, there was broken glass on the ground, an ominous camera gazing down at us, and absolutely no one in sight. But I could feel the weight of eyes on me with every moment we were there (and I expected a blow-dart in the back at any second!).

The next video in our series is a deeper dive into the major technologies developed at Area 51. The base was formed as a home for development of the now-famous U-2 spy plane. Over time, it would also be the building and testing ground for the unbelievably top-secret A-12 Oxcart spy plane--which, in Air Force hands, became the radar-invisible SR-71 "Blackbird" stealth plane. I can't even imagine what tech they're using now--but I certainly speculated that spy satellites were watching us drive toward that back gate in high-definition, and probably using facial recognition to identify us as we drove.

Finally, the most controversial part of Jacobsen's book: the story of Area 51's most enduring conspiracy theory, the Roswell UFO. The only anonymous source in her book delivered still-classified details, if you can believe them, about a disc-shaped aircraft engineered by Nazi scientists and sent by Josef Stalin as part of a psychological warfare campaign--and worse.

As I mentioned in this piece, TD Barnes and other members of the "Roadrunners," a group of mostly retired Area 51 alums, have been increasingly vehement in their denials of this particular part of Jacobsen's book--which I admit, I find particularly interesting. In my interviews with him, Barnes was respectful of Jacobsen and gave high praise to her research and journalism--despite being clearly disappointed in the allegations in the book. Since then, the disagreement between Jacobsen and her sources has grown more intense in the media and in our follow-up e-mails with the Roadrunners.

For my part, I hope the controversial last chapter doesn't overshadow the book in its entirety--although it's clearly the headline. The book is absolutely fascinating. It's a story of, as Jacobsen says, men pushing the limits of oversight and responsibility, highly skilled technologists developing futuristic spying tools and weaponry, and an unparalleled time of paranoia, fear, suspicion, and warfare in our nation's history. At an absolute minimum, it's worth a read.

What do you think? Do you believe it's possible the U.S. government engaged in human experimentation at Area 51? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.