As my car pulls up at the end of the small cul-de-sac in north-west Las Vegas, Fred Dunham is waiting for me. A balding, heavily overweight 56 year-old with a hangdog expression and a bushy moustache, he is wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt and knee-length towelling shorts, and smiles as he steps forward to greet me.
His bonhomie comes as a bit of a surprise. When we had arranged to meet, Dunham had sounded edgy and nervous, insisting I bring my passport so he knows I am who I’ve claimed to be. He doesn’t take chances. After fighting the United States government for the best part of two decades, and running up against a series of shadowy private companies and secretive governmental agencies, he’s convinced someone wants him to shut up, permanently.
After we’ve discussed his case and he’s leading me back to the car, I ask Dunham what he would have done had I turned out to be someone with darker motives. “Oh, I was prepared,” he says, before reaching his left hand into the pocket of his shorts and showing me a palm-sized silver handgun. Half an hour later he sends an email, apologising. “I did not intend to scare you,” he writes. “But better you be scared than me dead.”
On the face of it, Dunham’s case is a thorny but unremarkable claim for compensation. He has a chronic respiratory disease which he believes he contracted while working as a security guard in the Eighties. What makes his case different is the identity of his former employer. For Dunham did not work for a conventional firm at a run-of-the-mill site. He worked at Area 51.
From engrossing television hokum such as The X-Files to blockbuster films like Independence Day; from conspiracy tracts about the New World Order to fevered discussions on UFO websites, no other military installation can match Area 51’s pop-culture cachet. In the Nineties, Area 51 became the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction as people from around the world flocked to the base, on the southern shore of the dry Groom Lake in southern Nevada, hoping to catch a glimpse of something extraordinary.
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There had been rumours of weird things in the skies above Groom for years, but they reached a peak after Bob Lazar, who claimed to be a former employee of Area 51, went on television in 1989 with what he said was evidence that the US Air Force was conducting tests on flying saucers which could be observed from public land nearby. His claims were soon discredited, but mystery still surrounds the airbase.
And the classified status of its activities, which has fuelled the extraterrestrial rumour mill for so many years, has also helped ensure the real-life nightmares visited on some of those who worked at Area 51 have remained as intangible as the fictions that surround the place.
What is definitely known about Area 51 is that it’s used by the US government to develop and test experimental aircraft and weapons systems and that it’s been doing this since flight-testing of the U-2 spy plane began there in 1955. Designed by Lockheed, on behalf of the CIA, the U-2 was a high-altitude, long-range aircraft capable of flying over enemy territory and taking pictures, unobserved.
The U-2 needed only a short runway and would climb steeply, so within a couple of minutes of leaving the ground it was all but invisible to the naked eye. But so unusual a craft would have attracted unwanted attention had it been tested at Lockheed’s Californian plant, or at the nearby Edwards Air Force Base, home of the US Air Force’s Flight Test Center. So Lockheed commissioned the pilot Tony LeVier to find an alternative venue. He chose Groom.
The lake bed sits in a bowl, surrounded by mountains; aside from a couple of remote ranches and an abandoned mine, there was – and still is – no one to speak of for miles in any direction. Better still, the site is bordered to the west by the Nevada test site – a vast tract of desert sequestered by the Department of Energy, used for testing nuclear weapons in the Fifties and Sixties, and very much off-limits to the public. Area 51 was the perfect place to develop and test the “black projects” – military aircraft so vital to America’s national security that even most members of the government had no “need to know” that they even existed.
The U-2 remains in service, though its cover was blown somewhat spectacularly when one flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR in 1960. After that, the CIA returned to Lockheed with a new brief, and the company came up with the A-12, capable of flying at three times the speed of sound on the edge of space. (During development of the A-12, US intelligence provided engineers with a schedule of when Soviet spy satellites would be over the base and crews ensured planes were hidden in hangars at the relevant times. Engineers also constructed fake planes out of cardboard to create confusion.)
The A-12 remained a US state secret until the Eighties and its two-seat variant, the SR-71, still holds a number of records for speed and altitude, including a 1974 flight between New York and London timed at one hour and 54 minutes.
And then, in 1977, the first test flights took place of Lockheed’s prototype of the F-117A Nighthawk or “stealth fighter”. Until it was revealed to the media via a single grainy photograph in 1988, the sci-fi looking stealth fighter was perhaps America’s most closely guarded secret. Later stealth aircraft, including the B-2 bomber and the F-22 fighter, also flew test missions at Groom.
Dunham, who is now 60, was recruited to work at Area 51 in 1980, just as the stealth fighter programme was getting under way. (Dunham himself won’t directly name his former place of work; part of the contract of employment he signed swore him to a lifelong oath of silence. Instead, he refers to it as “up there”, “that place” or, more often than not, “the area”.)
A security guard at a Las Vegas casino, he was approached by a former colleague who told him about this great job out in the desert, with double the money and a lot less stress than frogmarching drunks out of bars. All he would have to do was sit in a small guard hut, either at one of the many checkpoints at the heart of the base or on the two dirt roads that cross its perimeter, and make sure that whoever came through had the relevant pass. He’d be paid $17 an hour.
By now, Groom was a significantly-sized airbase, with numerous permanent buildings staffed by employees of the US Air Force, the CIA and a raft of defence contractors. Occasionally there’d be an accident, and security would have to rush to the aid of a downed pilot. High spirits – especially after long, late-night sessions in Sam’s Place, the on-site watering hole – might occasionally call for a security presence to calm people down. Once or twice Dunham and his colleagues had to escort uncleared personnel off the site when a test flight was rescheduled. And every week, Dunham and his colleagues had to supervise the burn…
West of the base’s main living quarters, on a piece of ground slightly above the lake bed, a waste dump had been constructed. Vehicles with California license plates would head up to the dump to unload cargoes of waste too secret to dispose of normally.
Some of the trucks bore the markings of NDB – a company of which no records appear to exist; rumour on the base had it that it was a front for some department of the government, the initials apparently standing for None of your Damn Business.
Sensitivities were running high. The odd, angular shape which gave the stealth fighter its near-invisibility to radar had, ironically, been arrived at after Lockheed staff got the idea from reading some technical papers by Soviet scientists – but the Russians hadn’t understood the potential of the research, and it was vital to keep the secret from them. At an early stage of the project, Lockheed had produced a small number of coffee mugs carrying a drawing of the nose of the aircraft poking out of a cartoon cloud, which it gave to staff – but even these were classified and had to be locked away at the end of the working day, or when anyone from outside the project team was in the building.
Among the most sensitive of the secrets was the coating that was applied to the aircraft. The exact make-up of this radar-absorbent paint has still not been made public, even though the aircraft has been retired from active service, and pieces of one of them are on display in a museum in Serbia, where it was shot down in 1999. What is known is that it was considered toxic enough that safety instructions drawn up for first-responders – firemen and other emergency services who may have to attend a crash site – called for breathing apparatus to be used if an F-117A caught fire.
While a lot of waste material put into the pits was generated on-site, there were also the contents of those trucks that hauled up every week from California. Inside the locked and sealed containers there might be classified paperwork, sometimes shredded – and often there’d be 55-gallon chemical drums, containing remnants of the secret stealth paint. Every time a new part of the aircraft’s skin had to be manufactured, the coating would be applied, and if a whole barrel wasn’t used quickly, the rest of it was rendered useless and had to be disposed of.
By the time Dunham was supervising weekly trench burns, in the early and mid-Eighties, Area 51 was home to a selection of major aerospace companies, each with their own secret “black” projects: the security teams would be on hand while each company loaded their materials into the pit, to ensure nobody was sneaking a look at a rival’s classified waste products. By about 3pm on a Wednesday, the pit would be full, and the base security staff would supervise as a tanker from the on-site fuel depot squirted gallons of diesel into the pit. Then someone from the base’s fire department came up and threw a flare into the trench to start that week’s incineration of top-secret waste.
The burn, which lasted 24 hours, took place at least weekly; twice a week, Dunham says, for three years in the mid-Eighties. It was during this period that he first noticed something was wrong.
“I never smoked in my life, but I started coughing a lot,” he recalls. “It’s what they call a bronchial spastic cough – where you cough so much your vision would collapse. One time – my wife laughs at this – but I was sitting on the toilet at home and started coughing; I opened my eyes after having passed out, and all I could see was white. I’d fallen headfirst into the bathtub.”
In 1987, when things got so bad he daren’t drive, he went to his doctor. The diagnosis was pneumonia – coupled with the shocking news that his lungs looked like those of an 80 year-old who’d smoked 40 cigarettes a day for life. Afraid of the consequences both for his job and of breaching the contract he’d had to sign swearing him to secrecy, Dunham said “no” when his doctor asked if he’d been exposed to any toxic fumes.
He returned to work after two weeks, but the coughing continued. One day shortly after – a Saturday – he was posted at Area 51’s northern entrance when a crippling attack left him unable to breathe. He was assessed by the base medic but it wasn’t until after he was taken home on the Monday morning and saw his own doctor that he found out he’d coughed so hard he’d separated the floating ribs from his rib cage. Three days later he was told that the base medic’s assessment of his condition on the Saturday had deemed him no longer physically capable of doing his job, and his security clearance to access the base had been revoked. He was out of work. And so began a nightmare which Dunham has yet to wake up from.
Dunham had long-term disability cover, but that money ran out after two years. He found other bits-and-pieces jobs, but, a previously healthy man, he grew worried by his failure to recover. He was frequently short of breath; walking up a flight of stairs would leave him exhausted.
He still hadn’t connected his ongoing health problems with the coughing fit that forced him out of his desert security job: it was hearing about former colleagues that sparked his concern.
“I knew this guy named Robert Frost,” he recalls. “Frostie used to buy me drinks at the bar. He was a hell of a drinker. Nevertheless, he came down with a very strange disease, and he died.”
Dunham began asking around. “Guys I worked with would tell me, ‘Oh, did you know what’s-his-name?’ Yes. ‘Oh, he’s dead.’ ‘Did you know this other guy?’ Yes. ‘He’s dead.’ Or, ‘He’s had a stroke – he’s almost dead.’” Altogether, it was rumoured that more than 20 people had been affected.
Dunham connected the dots between his health, his dead friends and the weekly burn, and set out to see if he could get some compensation for what he and his doctor now believed was a work-related illness.
A series of claims and counter-claims between various private and government entities ensued, during which paperwork was repeatedly lost and even destroyed deliberately. Dunham would soon learn that the black-projects culture of state secrecy didn’t sit at all comfortably with America’s open system of government: when you fall victim to workplace illness at a place officialdom prefers to pretend doesn’t exist, your first problem is finding out who to make a claim against.
There may be few people who understand that better than Jonathan Turley. The George Washington University Law School professor and specialist in public-interest law brought a case against the United States Air Force and the US’s governmental watchdog for environmental law, the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1994 on behalf of five unnamed workers at Area 51 who had fallen ill, and the widows of two more who had died. The latter included Helen Frost, the widow of Dunham’s friend, Robert, though neither Dunham nor Turley will say whether Dunham was one of the five “John Doe” plaintiffs.
The case sought to obtain compensation for the sick and bereaved, as well as to allow them access to information about the materials they had been exposed to, to aid their ongoing treatments.
“The burning of hazardous waste in an open pit has long been a crime in the United States,” Turley explains. “It has to be burned in a facility that is usually five to six stories high, and costs hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate. The burning of these types of waste in an open trench is virtually prehistoric from an environmental law standpoint. The government did it at Area 51 because they believed that Area 51 was a legal nonentity.
“[The base] lived in flagrant violation of a dozen different laws. What was troubling is that we had evidence that military officials were fully aware that what they were doing was criminal. This issue had been raised with officials at the base, and they simply dismissed those objections, because they believed they were immune from any federal law.”
And in an environment effectively exempt from legal scrutiny and oversight, who knows how many other people’s lives might have been put at risk?
Over the course of two tortuous cases, Turley first had to prove that Area 51 existed and by what name it was officially known, before he could establish which entities were in ultimate charge of what went on there.
After months without making headway, he eventually introduced into evidence a manual for Area 51 security staff which detailed security procedures. It was unclear whether this was a current document or not, but it contained details that would allow an outsider to decode radio communications between base guards, and the fact that Turley had a copy of it caused a sensation.
“The government went absolutely berserk,” says Turley, “and classified the contents of my office. For four years nobody could enter my office, even to clean it – in the end it was literally dismantled; I think I had organisms living in there that science had never seen – and when I refused to turn over my files they asked the judge to put me in jail.”
Nevertheless, when the dust settled, Turley went on to score an important victory; the court agreed that environmental laws applied to Area 51. But the ruling made little difference after the then President, Bill Clinton, signed a document exempting base staff from having to testify about activities on the base.
“The tragedy is that these workers did prevail in establishing new law that will protect other workers,” says Turley. “But no one protected them, and the courts did not give them information that would help them deal with their illnesses.”
Any hope Dunham had of finding information his employers may have been keeping about his case was dashed last year, when he came across a report published in 2007 by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Audit Services, which pointed out that Bechtel, who took over running the test site in 1996, “destroyed supporting documentation from employee concern investigations” in apparent violation of federal law. No action was taken against Bechtel because the contract it had with the government permitted the destruction.
“There continues to be this use of national security laws and bureaucratic means to avoid any consideration of the case,” says Turley. “These men are dying off, and that clearly is part of the objective of the government. Every year, more of these individuals die, and with them die their cases.”
The irony is that while Dunham’s battle with state secrecy shows no sign of reaching a resolution, the fog of mystery that surrounds Area 51 is slowly lifting. Both people and planes are emerging from the shadows.
In fact, the secrets of the stealth fighter may have been in the hands of China, America’s highest-spending military rival, since 1999 when an F-117A was lost in Serbia. Reports at the time said Chinese agents had been spotted scouring the Serbian countryside for pieces of the plane. (China is currently test-flying its first stealth aircraft, the J-20.)
Meanwhile, following the almost complete declassification of the U-2 and A-12 programmes, the Roadrunners, a veterans’ association for people who worked at Area 51 on those two projects, have held their first public meetings. The airmen, radar specialists, technicians and other staff can finally tell the world – not to mention their wives and families – about their Cold War missions, creating aircraft so advanced many people still believe they were built by aliens, not mortal men.
But for Dunham, the pride he used to feel as a result of his work guarding one of America’s most prized military secrets has all but disappeared.
“I wish I’d never worked up there,” he says. “My doctor told me this has cut 20 years off my life. We could have been participating in genocide, for all anybody knew. But when it came down to it, we were the ones being exterminated.”