It started off as a joke. In the summer of 2019, a comedian named Matty Roberts created a Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.” The plan, if you could call it that, was as audacious as it was moronic: If enough people rushed the perimeter of the government testing facility colloquially known as Area 51, could someone make it through and finally reveal what secrets the U.S. government was hiding out there in the Nevada high desert? “If we Naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets,” the event description read, referencing a popular Japanese anime character who sprints with his arms thrust backward. “Let’s see them aliens.”
In short order, millions of people on Facebook expressed interest in attending. A music festival called Alienstock was planned to coincide with the Area 51 siege. The nearby towns, speck-on-a-map places named Rachel and Hiko, braced for a massive influx of visitors. But in the end, the whole thing was a bust. Barely anyone showed up.
New government documents obtained by Rolling Stone, however, reveal that for as farcical as “Storm Area 51” sounded, the mobilization by state and federal law enforcement in the run-up to the event was anything but a joke. Dozens of law enforcement agencies, from the FBI and the Defense Department to police and sheriffs across multiple counties, mobilized in response to a possible siege on Area 51.
The documents show law-enforcement agencies feared that domestic or international terrorists might embed within the Storm Area 51 attendees; that a group of YouTubers got caught trying to track the movements of the official Area 51 employee bus; and that law enforcement prepared for possible exposure to nuclear and biological weapons. The documents also hint at the extreme level of security that protects Area 51: One government document describes “automated deadly force countermeasures” in place to deal with intruders.
From the moment an anonymous government insider in 1989 claimed he’d seen evidence of alien technologies and possibly non-human lifeforms at a remote base in the Nevada desert, Area 51 has occupied a singular place in the American imagination. Depicted in TV shows like The X-Files, obsessed over by ufologists, and studied endlessly by experts in government secrets, Area 51 — located on the grounds of the Nevada National Security Site about 75 miles north of Las Vegas — is now a part of the pop-culture pantheon, a mysterious government installation synonymous with UFOs, top-secret projects, and, yes, the little green men of lore.
“Storm Area 51” tapped into the deep-rooted fascination with Area 51 and turned it into millions of likes and clicks. It was only a matter of time before someone did it. But the documents published by Rolling Stone also show how a viral meme collided with real-world secrecy — and how the consequences could very well have been calamitous.
Property of the People, a nonpartisan government transparency group, first obtained the documents through a records request and shared them with Rolling Stone. “The democratic process cannot meaningfully function without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government,” Ryan Shapiro, executive director of Property of the People, said in a statement to Rolling Stone.
Here are some of the most interesting details found in the new government records about Area 51 and the preparations for the “Storm Area 51” event.
‘Deadly Force Countermeasures’
On July 22, 2019, the documents show, the Federal Bureau of Investigation convened a meeting to discuss the Storm Area 51 Facebook page. In attendance were representatives from local law enforcement agencies and the state of Nevada’s Department of Public Safety. The feds turned out en masse as well, with officials and analysts from the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Defense, and the Nevada National Security Site all involved.
Annie Jacobsen, a journalist, author, and expert on government secrets who wrote Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base Paperback, says the sheer number of local, state, and federal agencies represented in the email traffic about the planning for a possible raid on Area 51 shows just how seriously the governments views the security of Area 51. “That’s not the Keystone cops worrying an invasion of ants,” Jacobsen says.
Within weeks of going live, the Facebook page for Storm Area 51 had gone viral. Two million people had indicated on Facebook that they were “going” to the event, which was scheduled for Friday, September 20. Another 1.4 million people said they were interested. In the FBI’s meeting and in another meeting a few weeks later, local officials from the surrounding counties “expressed serious concern” that their small localities would be flooded with an “overwhelming number of participants” and “exceed local capabilities,” according to an operational plan distributed by the Nevada Department of Public Safety Investigation Division. There were no medical facilities nearby and in most places very little if any cell-phone service, making communications difficult.
Looking back, the surge of interest shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Area 51 is one of the most secretive government facilities in the country. The Nevada National Security Site is a massive expanse of open desert used as a testing range for nuclear bombs and other weapons. In the 1950s, as Area 51 expert Annie Jacobsen writes in her 2011 book, then-President Dwight Eisenhower tasked the CIA with finding a site somewhere in America to develop a top-secret overhead spy plane for use in the Cold War. That plane would later become known as the U-2. The spot chosen by the CIA, a desolate patch of high desert around a dry lakebed on the grounds of an already-secret missile testing range, would later become known as Area 51.
But Area 51 wouldn’t burst into public view until 1989, when a local Nevada TV station aired an interview with an anonymous source who said he’d worked at Area 51. The source — later revealed to be an engineer named Bob Lazar — claimed the government was studying extraterrestrial technology and lifeforms on the grounds of Area 51. Lazar’s speaking out triggered all manner of speculation about what was really going on at Area 51 and whether the government might be hiding evidence of unidentified flying objects or aliens.
For decades, the U.S. refused to acknowledge the facility’s existence and forbade its employees from uttering the words “Area 51.” It wasn’t until 2013 when the CIA acknowledged Area 51’s existence for the first time, releasing a declassified history of the U-2 spy plane program. But that history made no mention of aliens, flying saucers, or any other extraterrestrial technologies or lifeforms.
The government documents obtained by Rolling Stone describe Area 51 as a “highly classified United States Air Force (USAF) facility” within the Nevada National Security Site. Officially, the documents say, the facility is referred to as Homey Airport (KXTA) or Groom Lake.
To understand the heightened level of security at Area 51, Jacobsen, the author, points to a passage in her book about a near-catastrophe there. Shortly before a scheduled nuclear-weapons test, a top security official got a call that a nearby building was under attack. A group of guards were taking gunfire from attackers in a helicopter. Scrambling to react, the Navy put on alert several nuclear-armed submarines, which aimed their warheads at the Nevada Test Site, as it was then known. In the end, Jacobsen writes, the helicopter attack turned out to be a test by a security contractor hired to help protect Area 51 — a test that the company had failed to mention to its government partners.
The new Area 51 documents include hundreds of pages of situation reports (“sitreps”), maps showing the few entrances into Area 51, and law-enforcement planning measures in anticipation of the Storm Area 51 event. While the documents don’t appear to reveal any new or explosive information about what takes place at Area 51 — a subject with renewed interest after several Navy pilots reported unsettling encounters with flying objects that seemed to defy explanation, kicking the discussion of possible UFOs or extraterrestrial life into high gear once again — they do give a glimpse of the extreme level of fortification around Area 51 and the Nevada National Security Site to keep out trespassers, spies, or anyone else not allowed inside.
“Although details of the facility’s operations are not publicly known, the USAF says it is an open training range, and it most likely supports the development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems, based on historical evidence,” an operational plan circulated by the Nevada Department of Public Safety Investigation Division reads. “Area 51 is highly secured with layered intruder countermeasures that have an increasing level of human and automated deterrence including automated deadly force countermeasures.”
In other words, any attempt to sneak on or flat-out barnstorm Area 51 — as the “Storm Area 51” planners suggested they might do — would likely be a suicide mission.
YouTubers, Terrorists, and WMD
Judging by the Area 51 documents, working there comes with a brutal commute. According to maps included in the documents, there are limited entry points in the form of heavily guarded gates into the Nevada National Security Site and from there into Area 51. The documents make reference to a shuttle bus that transported employees who worked at Area 51 to and from work.
According to the documents, a group of unnamed YouTubers attempted to install a tracker on the employee bus to monitor its path in and out of Area 51. They also tried to identify the employees who rode on the bus, pick out which cars they drove, and follow those people home to “obtain their name and addresses,” the documents say. (The documents don’t name the YouTubers.)
The bus-tracker incident was just one in a spike of surveillance and trespassing issues that law enforcement officials mention in the Area 51 docs. Another was an effort to get people to fly drones over Area 51 to surveil the facility — yet another potential security breach with massive ramifications. But the documents also suggest that state and federal agencies worried that outsiders who were far more dangerous than a group of YouTubers might use the Storm Area 51 event as cover to infiltrate the top-secret facility.
“There is a potential,” one document says, “for domestic and foreign terrorist groups to utilize this event to test the security of sensitive national security sites by infiltrating the groups planning to storm the facility.”
The documents also lay out state and federal law enforcement’s plans for what’s called a CBRNE response protocol — how to respond to a possible chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive weapons of mass destruction. “Areas will be checked for CBRNE threats before any personnel begin arriving or as soon as reasonably achievable,” another document reads. “Preferred that those areas then remain secured by on-scene personnel for the duration of the event.”
Weed, Music, and the Little A’Le’lnn
There are a handful of small businesses that lay just beyond the concertina wire of Area 51 and the Nevada National Security Site that cater to the curious and conspiratorial. There’s the “Extraterrestrial Highway” sign with its flying saucer image and festooned with stickers. The most famous of them is probably the Little A’Le’lnn in the town of Rachel.
For the Little A’Le’lnn, Storm Area 51 and the other events planned for the same weekend, including a music and movie festival, represented a possible boon in business. The inn had booked all of its rooms and was working with some other families in Rachel to rent their land to campers and RVs. The influx of out-of-towners was expected to be so large, and the buzz surrounding the event spreading outward so quickly, that all manner of outsiders and opportunists sought to glom onto the Storm Area 51 craze. One local rancher planned to lay down an entire acre’s worth of fake grass and host an alien-themed move festival. The tourism board for the nation of Belize announced a sweepstakes in which ten residents of Rachel could win an all-expenses-paid trip to Belize to get out of town for the weekend of the siege. At the time, Rachel only had 54 residents in total, per the Census.
A situation report compiled by the Southern Nevada Counter-terrorism Center and the Nevada Threat Analysis Center went so far as to predict increased traffic at a local marijuana dispensary — a sure bet if there ever was one.
But Storm Area 51 began to crumble before the millions who’d signaled their intention to show up had dwindled down to a meager 75 or so people. Matty Roberts, the comedian who’d created the “Storm Area 51” Facebook event, cancelled the events day ahead of time and sent a cease-and-desist order to the Little A’Le’lnn for promoting an Alienstock festival when Roberts had already decided to move the festival to Las Vegas.
Weeks later, the owner of the Little A’Le’lnn sued Roberts, the comedian whose prank Facebook page kicked off the whole drama and sent the government scrambling to respond. The Little A’Le’lnn’s Connie West said she had put up $100,000 of her own money in anticipating for the surge of people coming to her tiny town to storm Area 51 and for the Alienstock music festival. In her suit, she alleged that Roberts had withheld sponsorship money for Alienstock festival that had been provided by the website Pornhub. Lawyers for the Little A’Le’lnn and Roberts reportedly settled their suit earlier this year, court records show.
Meanwhile, the secrets of Area 51 remained as guarded as ever.