It turns out there was more going on than UFO conspiracy-inducing tests at the government’s not-so-secret “Area 51” out in the Nevada desert.

“Area 51 was more than a national security site; it was also an alleged crime scene, and at least two good men may have died from what occurred there,” attorney Jonathan Turley charges in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. “They were not hurt by aliens but by their own government, which refused to declassify information they needed to understand what had happened to them.”

Turley, a lawyer for workers who sued the federal government over what they believe were workplace-based illnesses, said employees in Area 51 were regularly exposed to smoke from open pits in which old equipment and unspecified hazardous wastes were burned. But the government, invoking national security concerns, stonewalled requests for information that could have helped the workers seek treatment for subsequent illnesses.

And being the workers’ lawyer was no walk in the park, Turley writes:

During the 1990s, I represented Area 51 workers in two lawsuits. The suits, which forced the first official recognition of the base — though not its name — were the first against a “black facility,” one whose very existence is denied by the government. Over the course of the litigation, the contents of my office were classified, I was threatened with arrest, workers and their families were threatened with prosecution and we had to go as far as Moscow to find images to prove the existence of the base.

The story is reminiscent of the catch-22 that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Siegel (disclosure: Siegel is a friend and former colleague at the Los Angeles Times) exposed in his book, “Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets,” about the federal government’s lies in court over the nature of a classified Air Force flight that crashed in 1948, killing several civilian engineers aboard.

That case helped establish the legal precedent for the government’s ability to avoid courtroom disclosures by claiming to do so would expose state secrets, even though records later showed that the only thing secret about the flight was that the Air Force failed to properly maintain the plane. By invoking “state secrets,” the government kept the victims’ families from recovering damages.

Turley, who teaches public interest law at George Washington University, writes that the government’s official stance on the existence of Area 51, and the work done there, has left the victims hanging, and government officials unaccountable.

“The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime,” he writes. “But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy.”

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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