LAS VEGAS - A veil of secrecy is being lifted from the world's best-known military facilities. The CIA has okayed a three-volume book project all about Area 51, located about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
These days, it's an air force facility, but it began as a CIA outpost and was home to all manner of classified projects.
The I-Team's George Knapp spoke to the long-time CIA electronics specialist who led the effort to declassify what were once deep, dark secrets.
"We were doing a presentation in the bubble at CIA when they declassified us using the name Area 51," said T.D. Barnes, former CIA specialist.
The images on the walls of his home office were once so sensitive they could have landed T.D. Barnes behind bars if he had made them public, but times have changed. During his years as president of an organization called Roadrunners Internationale, Barnes led the effort to tell the real story about what is today the best-known secret base in history.
His members, pilots and engineers, who had worked on classified programs, shared bits and pieces, including photos.
Barnes would then ask CIA for permission to post them on the group's website. Until a few years ago, CIA would never even acknowledge the name Area 51, though it was known worldwide, but the Roadrunners helped change all that.
"In fact, they almost shoved it at us, the information for these books they send me. They said, 'we just declassified 25,000 pages,'" Barnes said.
Reporter George Knapp: "They declassified it so you can have it."
TD Barnes: "Exactly, they want the story out."
One reason for the change of heart is the CIA lost the records of its own programs. All photos and files regarding Project Oxcart -- the U-2 spy plane -- were lost by the air force. So, CIA historian Dr. David Robarge hoped the Roadrunners could help reconstruct that history, which is what happened.
The U-2 was built during the darkest days of the Cold War, a time when we were actually in a hot war with Russia. American lives were being lost, though the public never knew about it.
"The air force, at that point, before they decided to go with the U-2, we had already lost 10 flights with over 75 crewmen killed in Russia, trying to do what the U-2 eventually did. They were going in with planes that could not get above the missiles. They called them ferret flights. They would dart in to get what they could and they'd get shot down," Barnes said.
Barnes solicited input from his members, not only about the U-2 but also the programs that followed including the so-called Blackbirds. He obtained so much material including photos taken inside Area 51, of planes and programs and everyday life at Groom Lake, that his plan to compile one book became three volumes instead -- The CIA Area 51 Chronicles.
Among the many surprises? Barnes says the famed SR-71 Blackbird, officially the fastest plane in history, never flew out of Groom Lake. Other planes in the Blackbird family were flown there, including the A-12, which flew higher and faster than any plane ever built by humans, Barnes says, though its accomplishments remain classified.
"Yeah, we called the SR 71 the family model. It's the cheap model. The A-12 flew 5,000 feet higher and it flew faster," he said.
The CIA employees bonded, on and off the base, in part because Nevada was infested with Russian spies trying to find out what was going on. Cover stories were told and secrets were kept within the base itself to the point that few knew their true employer.
"Less than five percent of the people working at Area 51 had any inkling that they were working for the CIA," Barnes said.
Today, Area 51 is an air force facility, but is CIA still there? Barnes smiles and then answers -- he can't really say.
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