Need-to-Know: On Area 51

Hear this piece read by its author, Matthew Farish:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Reviewed in this essay:

Annie Jacobsen, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base Little, Brown and Co., 2011.

Trevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World. New American Library, 2010.

For two days in 1996, the most compelling spectacle staged in Nevada was not the exploding, pina colada-fragranced volcano in front of the Mirage Casino, or the Siegfried and Roy show inside, but an extended highway dedication ceremony. In February, Nevada’s Transportation Board had approved a new name for State Route 375, a quiet stretch of pavement that passed through the tiny town of Rachel and little else. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Board heard supportive “testimony from a local gadfly who calls himself Merlin and says he was born on a flying saucer.”

By April, the Governor’s office had struck a deal with Twentieth-Century Fox, whose movie Independence Day, set for a summer release, contained a peculiar regional tie-in. First, a preview of the film was presented at a megaplex in suburban Las Vegas.As the audience departed, the same Merlin approached the actor Jeff Goldblum, one of the cast members in attendance. Pressing a slip of paper into a reluctant Goldblum’s hand, Merlin urged him to take note of its message, namely that “tourists from Alpha Centauri” would land on the newly renamed highway in three years. According to the writer David Darlington, the next day in Rachel a monument was revealed to an audience that included an Elvis impersonator and a state legislator dressed as Darth Vader, along with various Independence Day representatives. Below the plaque was a time capsule to be opened in 2050, “by which time interplanetary visitors shall be regular guests of our planet Earth.”

Connoisseurs of road signs, auto atlases, conspiracy theories, jingoistic science-fiction blockbusters and desert scenery will all likely know that Route 375 was re-titled the Extraterrestrial Highway, undoubtedly to attract guests from distant locales. A decade later, long after the The X-Files had passed from an article of zeitgeist to one of nostalgia, a New York Times correspondent encountered a Japanese couple who were braving the windy road “for an alien souvenir.” They would have missed Merlin; in 2001, his body was found alongside the Carson River near the state capital of Carson City. There was no sign of his 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which he used to roam Nevada’s arteries, and which was also his home.

Merlin was one of the more prominent and unfortunate members of the varied subculture drawn to the American Southwest in the decades after a mysterious 1947 incident in Roswell, New Mexico, tied Unidentified Flying Objects with the nascent Cold War. But it has only been since the Berlin Wall came down that UFO enthusiasts have closely watched a particular location in Nevada, a wedge of land skirted by the Extraterrestrial Highway. In November 1989, a Las Vegas television station aired an interview with a man named Bob Lazar, who claimed to have seen recovered UFOs at a military base in the desert. This assertion installed the site’s popular identity, but it also broke a longstanding secrecy oath and confirmed the existence of a place known variously as Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Groom Lake, Watertown, and Area 51.

Independence Day presented Area 51 as it was and still is popularly known: a laboratory for research on extraterrestrial technology. This identity means that it is the most famous “secret” military site in the world. But it would be a mistake to embrace this paradox too fully, for Area 51 really is a profoundly secret location, full of dangerous secrets, and linked to other secret landscapes. In very different ways, both Annie Jacobsen and Trevor Paglen urge us to fixate on this persistent, proliferating secrecy and its consequences, and to tear our thoughts away from lurid and convenient distractions.

As a representative of the U.S. Air Force phrased it in a notorious 1998 letter, “[t]here is an operating location near Groom Dry Lake.” This location – the extent of the geographical information that the government is willing to disclose about Area 51 – lies within an enormous expanse of government land in southern Nevada. Groom Lake, a salt flat cradled by a shelf of mountains, sits near the northeast corner of the Nevada National Security Site – where, under its former designation, the Nevada Test Site, over 1,000 nuclear detonations were executed from 1951 to 1992. While this toxic, crater-riddled realm is managed by the Department of Energy, the adjacent Nevada Test and Training Range is overseen by the Air Force. Within the Range is a ‘box’ of restricted airspace, with the lake at its centre, flanked by the immense runways and other facilities of the Area 51 compound.

While Jacobsen treats Area 51 as the hidden heart of a tale that extends outward to encompass the global military and aerial intelligence operations of the Cold War and the “War on Terror,” Paglen describes Groom Lake as a node in a diffuse but connected worldwide archipelago of clandestine American sites. Area 51, he has written elsewhere, “is a kind of global city,” an obscure equivalent to the world’s financial capitals. But these two accounts share the same historical ground zero: the Manhattan Project, and its creation of what Richard Rhodes, in The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), called a “separate, secret state with separate sovereignty.” The Manhattan Project spawned the Atomic Energy Commission, and by the 1950s, the AEC was producing both deadly mushroom clouds adjacent to Area 51 and the ‘Restricted Data’ policies that continue to cloak much of Nevada.

The nuclear weapons program was responsible for the presumption that certain technologies and forms of information, but also places themselves, could be “born classified.” In a recent Public Culture essay, the anthropologist Joseph Masco argues that since World War II the American state has derived substantial authority from the official capacity “to manage the public/secret divide through the mobilization of threat.” By this logic, moreover, any state secret is an equivalent of the paradigmatic atomic secret. To expose secrets is therefore not just a political slip, but a matter of national survival.

Jacobsen’s thick “uncensored history” arrived earlier this year to no shortage of controversy. Her most contentious assertion is that the items recovered by the military at Roswell in 1947 were experimental Soviet flying craft containing genetically modified humans. According to one of Jacobsen’s informants, these aviators and their saucers were eventually transferred to Area 51, where they underwent decades of study. Though Jacobsen has prioritized a form of sourced reportage that crowds out critical reflection, her research, particularly her interviews with former Area 51 employees, deserves commendation. She adds lucidity to the saga of a place that has an appallingly thin public history. Her book is often engaging and occasionally jaw-dropping, even as it features hyperbolic and repetitive prose, frustratingly inadequate references, and editorial lapses.

Despite Jacobsen’s claims to originality, a reasonably substantial and mostly sober literature on Area 51 does exist online and in libraries. Two thoughtful studies, David Darlington’s Area 51 and Phil Patton’s Dreamland (1998), appeared not long after the dedication of the Extraterrestrial Highway. Both adopt an ethnographic approach, creeping up to but rarely testing the boundaries defined by blunt signs, armed patrols, and classification stamps. Jacobsen’s aims are different, but her failure to fully acknowledge these books, along with Trevor Paglen’s vital academic and artistic work, means that she comes to rely heavily on her ‘insider’ sources. Much of Jacobsen’s book is concerned with the role of Area 51 as the most important base for tests of now-legendary Cold War reconnaissance aircraft, from the U-2 and the A-12 to the terrifyingly fast SR-71 Blackbird, commissioned by the Air Force to conduct aerial photography in the wake of an American nuclear bombardment. In these chapters, we see the vague outlines of the growing and increasingly intractable military-industrial complex that Area 51 so clearly epitomizes. But the pace of her plot, along with her gripping interviews, means that Jacobsen rarely pauses to reflect on the extraordinarily troubling nature of her story.

This blindness, or evasion, is most apparent as Jacobsen is forced to grapple with the absence of research material on Area 51 from the last four decades. Her informants, content and able to spin yarns about the good old days, fade from view, and are replaced by rhapsodies about potent devices and their makers, production histories familiar to readers of technophilic magazines. Particularly disappointing is the most recent case. The links between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force at Groom Lake had waned in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but were suddenly reinvigorated in early 2000, when the CIA’s Predator drone was retrofitted to fire missiles. Since 2001, unpiloted Predator and (newer, more powerful) Reaper drones, both tested at Area 51, have embarked on untold numbers of extra-judicial killing missions, part of what the geographer Derek Gregory calls the “everywhere war” underway in and above dozens of countries. Jacobsen is aware of the deep controversies surrounding drones. But she chooses instead to naturalize the renewed and disconcerting alliance between intelligence and military agencies, describing it as a product of the “symbiotic reality of war.”

From early Cold War reconnaissance aircraft to today’s deadly drones, Area 51’s “most secret projects” have been the stuff of significant public conjecture and extrapolation, and Jacobsen’s embroidered tone as she traces their trajectories is almost excusable. In her epigraphic use of Horace, her final paragraph, and periodically in between, she deploys the idiom of disinfecting sunshine and lifting veils, claiming that her book is an exceptional counter to the “need-to-know” doctrines of secrecy that seem more prolific in southern Nevada than slot machines. As she explains, the TS/SCI (Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information) policy that blankets Area 51 “ensures that outsiders don’t know what they don’t know and insiders know only what they have a need-to-know.” Remarkably, this system has been in place for a half-century. The Air Force pilots recruited by the CIA to test the U-2 “did not have a need-to-know about anything except how to fly the airplane.” They were given pseudonyms, and were unaware that the high-altitude craft was a product of the Lockheed Corporation. More recently, according to a profile in the Daily Telegraph, a set of coffee mugs available at the base, depicting the nose of one stealth aircraft, had to be shelved at the end of workdays or when individuals from beyond the specific project team were nearby.

Need-to-know is the most prevalent catch-phrase in Jacobsen’s text. It is used so frequently that she seems somewhat dazzled by the cleansing light that she claims to have manufactured. In the 2008 documentary Secrecy, the declassification expert Thomas Blanton demolishes the problematic premise of need-to-know with a simple assertion: “as if anyone could be so omniscient.” But Jacobsen repeatedly pairs need-to-know with dramatic Area 51 experiments and exercises, and the concept is therefore drained of both specificity and critical significance. Likewise, while she convincingly demonstrates that Groom Lake has played a central role in the American military exploits of the last half-century, she cheers most of this activity, decrying only a handful of excessively covert or outlandish initiatives that jeopardized the health of government employees or small populations nearby. The result is a narrow treatment of something as ideologically ruinous as Area 51.

In the book’s prologue, Jacobsen states that many of the “projects and operations” detailed in subsequent pages “were hidden for decades, some for good reason, others for arguably terrible ones, and one that should have never happened at all.” We encounter no more profound judgments in the subsequent four hundred pages, and Jacobsen never asks why sites such as Area 51 even exist within an ostensibly democratic territory – and particularly why the base continues to exist, long after the diminution of the Cold War fears that led to its birth. The same persistent drumbeat that justifies the perpetual militarization of Nevada – and innumerable places beyond – echoes throughout Jacobsen’s book. If one follows the arguments set out in Secrecy, or the reporting by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin that has resulted in the just-published Top-Secret America (2011), this is not necessarily a radical assessment.

The most intriguing section in Trevor Paglen’s Blank Spots on the Map is also set in Nevada. Checking in to Las Vegas’s Tropicana Hotel, he unpacks a telescope, tripod, and camera, along with a carefully programmed radio scanner, and settles in for a week of plane spotting, often at uncomfortable hours. The Tropicana sits just to the northwest of McCarran Airport, and Paglen is charting the schedules of the inauspicious ‘Janet’ planes that shuttle employees to various military installations in the Nevada desert, including Groom Lake. While apparently owned by the Air Force, these aircraft are operated by the mysterious defence contractor EG&G, a company that plays a crucial role in Jacobsen’s account of Area 51. Paglen is not the first person to conduct this observational work, which relies on an intriguing combination of technical abilities. Still, these are not the methods of a typical scholar. But then calling him a mere scholar is a disservice; experimental geographer, a term he coined, is more suggestive.

Rummaging in the elusive archives and visiting the scattered outposts of the secret state, Paglen has produced a similarly capricious collection of essays. Some of his historical explorations are entirely dependent on familiar secondary sources, and they do not match his other investigative and artistic labours that are absent from or only partially perceptible in this book. To stitch all of these threads together is a daunting task, and Paglen is also caught between adventure and analysis. This is not shocking; Blank Spots on the Map is a streamlined version of his dissertation, which he completed at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008. The book seems to have been published quickly, and lacks the striking images that have earned Paglen tremendous acclaim over the last decade. (A companion volume of photography, Invisible, was also released in 2010 with an introduction by essayist Rebecca Solnit.)

Nonetheless, Paglen has managed to capture, or at least approach, his convoluted subject in a startlingly original and thorough manner. His eclectic and arduous research practices, including what he calls limit-telephotography, suggest the effort that is required to see what has been designated ‘black,’ but Paglen also refuses the premise that this world can actually be separate from our own. He has found innovative ways to represent secret spaces, but he also emphasizes their immediacy: adjacent to the Tropicana Hotel, at the end of an ordinary Afghan road, or in the night sky that we all regularly pause to scrutinize. Secrecy, he suggests, is really the attempt to manage such contradictory proximity – a process that is not just epistemological, but profoundly spatial. Seen geographically, greater secrecy also implies greater contradiction. With that gesture, we are handed the need-to-know; indeed, we already ‘know’ a great deal, and should seek to learn more.

About the author

The TRB
By The TRB