The CIA has 'officially' recognized the existence of the secretive 'Area 51' base (also known as 'Groom Lake', 'Dreamland', 'Paradise Ranch' etc) via the release of a 1992 document recording the history of two key aerial reconaissance programs. "The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs" (PDF) was written by CIA historians Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach more than two decades ago, and has just now been released to the public in response to a Freedom of Information request made in 2005 by George Washington University's National Security Archive (though a heavily redacted version of the U-2 portion of the document was published way back in 1998).
A number of media reports (and some skeptical sites) have immediately noted how this 'new' information about the U-2 and Oxcart (Lockheed A-12) programs puts the kaibosh on UFO enthusiasts' claims about alien spacecraft at Area 51; CNN reports that "the release of these reports seem to put the theories about aliens and flying saucers to rest for the time being". But while there is no shortage of hype and spurious mythology surrounding the possible craft at 'Dreamland', this is an ignorant view - the testing of the U-2 spyplane at Area 51 has been known for some time, both in military history circles and UFO research. Dr. Gerald Haines noted back in the 1990s that, "according to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U-2 project and the OXCART project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States". UFO historian Richard Dolan rebutted that claims somewhat in his 2002 book UFOs and the National Security State, while also acknowledging the testing of experimental aircraft at Area 51, including the U-2's maiden flight:
There are objects being tested and flown today of staggering technology. The fabled Aurora spacecraft, an open secret flown out of Area 51 in Nevada, possesses extraordinary speed, maneuverability, and stealth capabilities, and is rumoured to incorporate revolutionary principles in propulsion technology. Regarding the early years, CIA historian Gerald Haines argued recently that most UFO sightings in the 1950s and 1960s were actually of classified aircarft such as the U-2 and SR-71 planes. There is no doubt that some of those UFO reports were of these aircraft. A closer inspection of the facts, however, reveals his claim to be specious. The U-2, for instance, did not fly until 1955. Its altitude was typically eighty thousand feet, and it flew straight as a string. It did not hover, no accelerate instantly, no land vertically, nor do any of the other things thousands of witnesses attributed to UFOs. The same can be said for the rest of America's cutting-edge technology of the cold war.
Regardless of misinformed views, this new release is a welcome one, giving more details about the mysterious site and some of the operations that originated there. Though of course, the government and intelligence agencies will always fill in the picture how they want it filled in, so keep a handy dose of skepticism as to how much of the full picture you're seeing, and if the colours are genuine!
(And for some fun tales about Area 51, make sure you check out Blair MacKenzie Blake's Darklore 7 article about his adventures exploring the outskirts of Groom Lake with his good friend Danny Carey, drummer for Tool.)