Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: "Area 51", by Annie Jacobsen

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base (Little, Brown and Company, 2011; 521 pages), by Annie Jacobsen, is a strange book. This starts with the fact that, in my local library at least, it is shelved with the UFO books, despite the fact that there is little about UFOs in the book, and what Ms. Jacobsen does have to say about the subject has nothing to do with extraterrestrials. I'm not sure what goes into the assigning of Dewey Decimal classifications to books, but if I were the one doing it, I'd be much more likely to put this book in with the books on espionage or the Cold War, with both topics given plenty of room in Ms. Jacobsen's book.

Most of the book, in fact, is given over to information Ms. Jacobsen gleaned from declassified documents about the legendary Nevada site that some claim the US government has still never admitted to maintaining, and from extensive interviews with those who worked there on various projects over the decades. And it's interesting stuff. Much of the work done there has had to do with the development of surveillance aircraft such as the U-2 and other high-altitude, high-speed spy planes. Ms. Jacobsen also writes about nuclear testing that was conducted in the area, which also includes the Nellis Air Force Range and the Nevada Test and Training Range, where numerous above-ground and underground tests of nuclear devices took place from the 1950s up until testing ended (maybe, according to Ms. Jacobsen) with the implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by President Clinton in 1993). There is some information, as well, about tests of thermonulears weapons in the Pacific in the 1950s, which were connected to Area 51 through pilots flying sampling planes that were tested at the secret base.

The book also details the decades-long disputes between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force over who would control the base. While the two agencies cooperated very briefly during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, for the most part, they engaged in an ongoing competition at the highest levels of government over who would develop the latest-generation spy planes and therefore control activities at Area 51. The details Ms. Jacobsen includes show that even the most powerful men in the country, and in the world, are not above playing petty politics.

In Area 51, then, Ms. Jacobsen appears to paint a fairly straightforward history of activities at Area 51, told by the people who were there and who feel free to talk about their experiences now that the papers connected to the activities they participated in there have been declassified. At least, this is true up until the final chapter of the book. Then the tone of the book changes to one of conspiracy theorizing.

Near the beginning of the book, Ms. Jacobsen introduces the idea that the vehicle in the Roswell crash in July 1947 was not an extraterrestrial vehicle, as some UFO believers maintain, nor was it the weather balloon that the government has always used as a cover story for what happened there, but a Soviet experimental craft that was sent as an attempt at psychological warfare, trying to induce panic in the US population akin to that generated by the Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in October 1938. That dramatization of H. G. Wells's science fiction novel about invaders from Mars had much of the country believing, for a few hours on the night before Halloween, that the Earth actually was under attack from outer space.

Then, in the final chapter of the book, Ms. Jacobsen includes information from an anonymous source (the only interviewee she does not identify by name) who claimed that the supposed "alien" bodies from the Roswell crash were actually children whose bodies had been altered to look like aliens. In his account, the bodies, including two that were alive but in comas, along with the craft they were in ended up at Area 51 in 1951, where they were experimented on by US scientists to try to "reverse-engineer" what was done to them. This anonymous sources claims, additionally, that the alterations were carried out by Nazi scientists who had ended up in the Soviet Union, just as some Nazi scientists were put to work in the United States after World War II, mostly in the development of the US space program. Even worse, the source claims, the US did not just attempt to figure out what had been done to the children from the crash, but also continued to carry out its own secret tests on US prisoners and handicapped children at Area 51. He further claims that these tests weren't even "the half of it", of what went on there, but refused to talk more to Ms. Jacobsen, claiming that she did not have a "need-to-know."

Frankly, it is as if the final chapter of the book is lifted from another book entirely and tacked on for, well, for who knows what purpose. And it has come in for criticism from some of those who cooperated with Ms. Jacobsen in the writing of the book, who have said they feel "betrayed" by her inclusion of that final chapter in the book. One of those men, radar expert T. D. Barnes, is quoted in an article at Huffington Post from August 7, 2011, as insisting that nothing like what the anonymous source claims ever took place at Area 51. However, Huffington Post writing Lee Speigel points out in the article there that the anonymous source claimed the experiments on the crash survivors too place in 1951, while Barnes did not arrive at Area 51 until 1968 and that, in any case, Barnes would not necessarily have known about such experiments even if they had taken place while he was there, especially if it was not directly connected to the work he was involved with. As Ms. Jacobsen points out several times in her book, Area 51 operates with a "need-to-know" culture in which someone working on a project does not even know about other aspects of that project unless it is determined by project supervisors that he needs to know about it.

Overall, Area 51 is an interesting book and, I think, well worth reading. However, it does raise some questions, even aside from the issue around the final chapter and the controversy surrounding it. The main question is, how can a reader ever really believe anything written about the CIA? Now, that sounds like a question that would come from the mind of a conspiracy theorist. I realize that. However, considering that the intelligence agency (and, quite likely other government agencies) has been known to spread disinformation (information that it portrays as being the truth, but which is not true) in order to hide what it has done, I think it is a valid question. Another issue concerns what that, and other government agencies, allows to be declassified and that which it does not.

As a case in point, there is a story in the book about a flier who was lost at sea during a nuclear test in the Pacific in 1952. His job was to fly in and out of the radioactive cloud after the bomb was detonated, sampling the air for the amount of radioactivity. For some reasons, some of the equipment on his plane failed during the flight and he couldn't locate the homing signal to get back to the base where he was to land. By the time he reacquired the signal, he ran out of fuel and was not able to get back to base. His plane crashed into the sea and neither it nor the pilot were ever recovered. When the documents relating to that series of tests were declassified in 1986, that pilot's name was redacted (blacked out) in all the reports. It took his family many Freedom of Information Act requests, which were repeatedly denied, until 2008 to convince the Air Force to tell them what had happened to him.

One is left wondering exactly why the government was not willing for so long, even after releasing the rest of the information about that series of tests, to simply let a family know what had become of their son, husband and father. But, if for no other reason, books like this are valuable to keep the questions coming, and to hold the government, even the clandestine services, at least somewhat responsible for the things they do and the money they spend without telling the American people, the Congress, and sometimes even the President of the United States what they are doing in their names. This is not to say that agencies like the CIA should have to tell everything, all the time. There are reasons that some things should be kept secret for some period of time. On the other hand, when the reason that things remain classified for decades is simply to keep an agency from being embarrassed or held accountable for events that went wrong, or for events such as tests that went as scheduled but put people, both in and outside of the government, at unacceptable risk for harm or death, a case can be made that such secrecy is an abuse of power.

Read the book, and make up your own mind.

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