As noted in today’s Campus Chatter, on July 14, 2003 the U.S. government finally admitted the existence of a military test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada commonly known as “Area 51.” Gee thanks.

“Area 51” had been an open secret for decades. Until its borders were expanded in 1984, civilians could climb nearby mountains and look down at the base. A bombing and artillery test range during World War II, it was abandoned until 1955 when the Lockheed Advanced Development Team – codenamed Skunk Works – chose the site to test and refine the U2 reconnaissance jet. Since then, “Area 51” has been a prime test center for cutting-edge aircraft technology, including early versions of the SR-71 and the F-117 stealth fighter.

What else happens at “Area 51?” My guess is probably not much.

While they can be entertaining as contemporary mythology, I don’t put much stock in stories of reverse-engineered alien spacecraft. Neither stealth technology nor Velcro required alien inspiration.

Stealth technology traces to equations developed in the early 1960s by Soviet physicist Petr Ufimstev. Ironically, the Soviet government saw no value in his work on the reflective properties of different shapes, so he was told to drop the project and allowed to publish his equations internationally. Velcro was invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral after a hunting trip where he became fascinated by how burrs stuck to his dog’s fur. He spent 10 years experimenting with fibers and weaving machines before submitting his patent application in 1951. His invention lay largely unwanted until the mid-60s, when NASA tests showed it was easier for astronauts to use while wearing bulky space suits.

At least those are the official stories. Many UFO and conspiracy theorists insist that both stealth technology and Velcro were reverse-engineered from crashed alien spacecraft at “Area 51.” Or maybe at the secret base beneath Archuleta Mesa near Dulce, New Mexico. Pardon me, but puh-leeze.

Yes, our government keeps secrets. Some are kept for legitimate reasons. Others are kept to avoid embarrassment or accountability. Many secrets leak almost immediately. Others – such as MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s mind-control research – remain hidden for decades. That program leaked only because employees missed a few boxes of accounting records while destroying the evidence.

According to former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, many government secrets are kept for an ironic reason: to attract attention. In his 2002 autobiography Secrets, Ellsberg describes how he and other analysts were swamped with more information than they or senior officials could possibly review. Like other analysts, Ellsberg focused on the most highly classified material, on the assumption that “most highly classified” meant “most reliable” and “most important.” Knowing that, report writers wanted the highest possible classification … so analysts and officials would notice their work.

It was not much different from direct mail marketers who stamp “URGENT!” on the envelope in bright red letters. And many highly classified reports are just about as reliable. Highly classified information is more difficult to verify or disprove, because it cannot be widely challenged. The same story whispered by sources in London, Berlin, Rome, and Moscow may mean only that they’re all repeating the same unreliable rumor, as happened with the CURVEBALL reports on Iraq’s non-existent mobile biological weapons laboratories.

Finally, when our leaders assume secret information is the most important and most reliable, they can ignore the public debate, as by definition a public debate does not include the secrets. When the disconnect between public debate and official policy is too great to ignore, many citizens will invent their own secrets to fill the gaps … and we get tales of alien spaceships at “Area 51.”

And maybe that’s the point. When we argue about alien spaceships, we don’t ask how “Area 51” employees were exposed to toxic waste, or whether we need and can afford another multi-billion-dollar fighter jet. Those are the real secrets. Shhh….