Review: Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History

Claims of the Russians Being Behind Roswell Overshadows an Important Work on U.S. Black Ops and Espionage

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseSometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it is not. Of course this hinges upon knowing what the truth is and what the fiction is – where the facts end and the fiction begins. And such is the problem with Area 51.

In one small but significant way, it’s also the problem with Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by journalist Annie Jacobsen. One small foray beyond the realm of established fact threatens to overwhelm potential reader’s perception of an exhaustively researched history of covert U.S. military and other government programs, based on interviews with people directly involved and an apparent trove declassified documents – the stuff of journalism and truth.

This isn’t so much a problem with the book itself – although I question this one small foray’s inclusion at all – as it is with word-of-mouth and the knee-jerk Internet culture in which we live. Perhaps our culture – maybe humans in general – has always been a knee-jerk, reactionary one, but it is seemingly amplified a thousandfold here in the immediate information age.

It’s a shame because Area 51: An Uncensored History is a valuable piece of research and history – military, scientific, cultural, U.S. and human history. After all, one of the things the book illustrates so wonderfully is that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and September 11, 2001 is seemingly a case in point.

The Military and CIA Territorial Hissy Fits: Aren’t You Guys All on The Same Team?

The U.S. Government’s various intelligence agencies and the military all have territorial approaches to spying/espionage and protection of the country; this has lead to lapses in critical intelligence and analysis – sometimes catastrophic. Without those lapses, with an integrated approach to espionage, intelligence and analysis, 9/11 could have been prevented – in hindsight all of the intelligence we needed to do so was there in front of us. It’s particularly sad in a dramatic, Shakespearean-flaw kind of way when one considers that the military and the various spy agencies are all on the same side.

One would hope that these things have been addressed a decade later. But given what Jacobsen shows us in her in-depth history of Area 51 and the corresponding CIA, Department of Energy and military installations deep in the Nevada desert, one wonders if it truly has. This divisiveness and territoriality among U.S. espionage agencies and the military goes back to at least World War II, and time and time again it has caused problems at critical junctures in modern history.

It is fascinating reading, these experiences of the pilots, security guards and government and military leaders directly involved with the creation of Area 51 and its environs, including the Nevada testing range, and the many programs that took place there. Some of these have already been made public in recent years, such as F117 Nighthhawk stealth fighter and some of its forerunners in stealth. One of those of course is Project Oxcart.

Oxcart, incidentally, was the original second-generation stealthy reconnaissance aircraft created at the behest of the CIA; the SR-71 Blackbird variations are follow-on craft based on the Oxcart designs built at the behest of the U.S. Air Force – because the USAF has never been comfortable with the CIA flying manned aircraft, as Jacobsen so deftly documents.

Of course, one could make the case that Oxcart was a third-generation stealth plane, if we include the experimental craft designed and built by Nazi aircraft designers and brothers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers figure in the tale of Area 51; we’ll come back to them later.

Jacobsen details other notable black operations in the Nevada desert in and around Area 51; she also delves into just how U.S. black ops came about – black ops being projects that officially don’t exist and don’t have an official budget (but of course they actually do, and usually big ones), and are managed on a strictly “need-to-know” basis, so much so that the U.S. President and members of Congress frequently don’t know about them. Of course U.S. black ops trace their history – at least in the modern era, at any rate – to the Manhattan Project.

So much so that apparently in the world of black ops, need-to-know is a noun – one that most of us don’t have.

Other not-so well known black ops at the Nevada test site outside of Areas 51 involve various flavors of nuclear testing. In general the knowledge that nuke tests have take place there is well known – it’s kind of hard to hide a nuclear blast when the ground shakes and windows rattle as far away as Las Vegas. But some of the particular programs and specific details have just come to light in recent years, as documents and programs have become declassified years later; Jacobsen does a thorough job of chronicling many of these programs in Area 51: An Uncensored History.

She also explores the lack of oversight that is inherent in the nature of black ops, and how this can sometimes lead to questionable decisions and corresponding actions. Sometimes these might be questionable from a moral or ethical standpoint; other times just from the standpoint of common sense, i.e. they’re just plain stupid.

An excellent example of the latter is Project 57, originally conducted at Area 13, one of the various secret areas adjacent to or nearby Area 51 and Groom Lake. In the late 1950s the Atomic Energy Commission (the forerunner of today’s Department of Energy and the progenitor of many of the covert programs that were and are taking place in the Nevada desert) and its partners decided it needed to study what would happen if an airplane laden with nuclear bombs crashed and nuclear material were released – similar to what would happen if someone detonated a dirty bomb.

As Jacobsen notes, by this time there had been so much nuclear research and atmospheric and underground testing that the results were a foregone conclusion. But the test proceeded anyway, and the one true benefit to be gained from such a test, gathering data on how to clean up such an irradiated mess, never took place – the site wasn’t even cleaned up at all until 1998, in fact.

Why simulate an accident with foregone results, and then not clean it up? The answer to that seems lost to history; ostensibly the Atomic Energy Commission and its partners had other things to worry about at the height of the Cold War. Such is the nature of black ops.

Other interesting projects Jacobsen sheds light on are the various programs involving a nuclear-powered rocket – no, I didn’t learn about this one in school, either. Project Orion was originally conceived in 1958 and was in development for several years, basically until the limited test ban treaty of 1963. Then there was NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application); it was in development until it was canceled in 1972; at the time plans were on the table to build an actual NERVA prototype rocket.

You only get one guess as to where the test bed for this nuclear rocket engine was located and frequently tested.

Pilot Kevin Arnold with a drawing of one of the UFO's he reported seeing in 1947.Little Green Russkies: Was Stalin Behind Roswell and the 1947 UFO Flap?

Back to the Horten brothers. But first, let’s talk about that one small foray beyond the realm of established fact that Area 51: An Uncensored History takes. By now if you’re reading this you probably know what I’m talking about. All of the press involved around the book’s release has centered around this one thing, regardless of its merits as a work of nonfiction and investigative journalism.

That thing is Jacobsen’s allegation that a saucer actually did crash outside Roswell in 1947, perhaps more than one. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft and its occupants to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, to be reverse engineered. So far this is the stuff of standard UFO/conspiracy theory folklore. But Jacobsen provides an interesting twist to the standard tale.

The craft wasn’t of alien origin, but built by the Soviet Union, she claims; it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children altered through some medical means to look as if they were aliens. This was allegedly all part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Well’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938.

The idea behind this is that a flurry of reported sightings would overwhelm America’s air defense and military communications infrastructure, even if most of the sightings were bogus. Jacobsen further alleges that Stalin actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalike and that the vehicles involved were based on aircraft designs by the Horten brothers, if not directly designed by them.

This is far fetched, to say the least. Jacobsen bases these assertions on the words of an EG&G engineer, now elderly, who was intimately involved in the project to reverse engineer the craft. But not only the craft – the alien-looking children were “reverse engineered” as well, because the U.S. government wanted to pursue it’s own similar black ops propaganda program. This last allegation is supposedly why the operation has been black and strictly need-to-know, rather than using the revelation of its existence to call out Stalin out and embarrass the Soviet Union at the time.

EG&G traces its roots as a company back to the Manhattan project, and is even today involved with covert programs based in the desert in Nevada. Still, this is all very hard to swallow, and the fact that this source remains anonymous – the only anonymous source Jacobsen relies on in the entire book – doesn’t exactly help it go down.

In fact it would be rather easy to discount it as the efforts of an intelligent but lonely old man to keep the interest of Jacobsen. As a reader and as a journalist I’m tempted to discount the story altogether, despite the fact that Jacobsen states that as far as she is concerned, there is not doubt as to the veracity of this man’s story, as she elaborates in the Area 51 epilogue. Tempted, that is, but for one thing, and a fact, at that.

The Horten brothers were taken into Allied custody in 1945, shortly before the end of the war in the European theater. Many Nazi scientists were given amnesty in exchange for being brought to America to work for us – Jacobsen elaborates much on this aspect of Project Paperclip, as many of these scientists figure prominently in the black ops at Area 51 and elsewhere. The Horten brothers were soon released, however, and were never part of the Paperclip op, even though some of their experimental aircraft were brought back to the United States. Allied intelligence officials apparently didn’t deem the brothers in the same class as Werner Von Braun, et al.

However, in 1947, as Jacobsen documents, there was a sudden interest in the U.S. intelligence and military community in the Horten brothers. So much interest that there was a large U.S. intelligence operation in Europe to find them once again and question them further – just two years after they had been let go. The Horten brothers themselves were living in plain site by this time, one remaining in Germany and the other in Argentina.

Why the sudden interest? Did it have to do with the crash at Roswell? The UFO flap of 1947?

The Horten Ho 229 powered prototype nearing completion in the Gothaer Waggonfabrik aircraft factory, 1944.A look at a drawing of the craft that pilot Kenneth Arnold claims he saw in 1947 – the report that seemingly ushered in the rash of UFO sitings at that time – is striking. Not in and of itself, but because it looks very similar in shape to aircraft that the Horten brothers were actually building in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. In fact the aircraft pictured here in a hangar, the Horton Ho 229, was actually in the air at the end of the war in 1945, but not yet in military service.

Furthermore, this aircraft was an early and arguably the first attempt at incorporating stealth technology and design into an aircraft — to lessen its radar signature. Was this the reason behind the interest in the Hortens in 1947?

Unfortunately there is much still classified about this operation to find and interrogate the Horten brothers in 1947, including the question of why. The Horten brothers themselves never elaborated on it prior to their deaths; they refused to discuss it in interviews, although they acknowledged that they were indeed questioned by U.S. Intelligence operatives in 1947. This, of course, makes it all the more interesting.

In any event, the timing of the intelligence operation to find the Hortens certainly had some interesting timing, to say the least. With regard to the claim that the Soviet Union was behind the Roswell incident, this interest in the Horten brothers gives one pause for thought. Jacobsen further documents that in the 1950s, U.S. Intelligence officials including CIA director General Walter Bedell Smith, were genuinely concerned that a War of the Worlds broadcast scenario could in fact be used as a cover for a Soviet attack on the Continental U.S. Hmmm …

But Does Area 51 Shoot Itself in the Proverbial Foot?

As for Jacobsen and her EG&G engineer’s allegations about what really happened outside Roswell in 1947, she herself acknowledges in the book and interviews that she’s putting her own credibility on the line by using this anonymous source. This is in spite of the fact that the rest of the book relies on solid information — interviews with dozens of people and reams of government documents, for example. She felt this was important though, that the truth this black ops program involving children and medical experiments for propaganda and espionage purposes needs to be known.

As she herself documents, while it’s a matter of record that what is now the Department of Energy has conducted tests on humans in the past – sometimes unknown to the participants themselves – much of the information about these programs is still classified, still black. In fact there are some six hundred million pages of documents related to the postwar use of Nazi scientists expertise alone that remains classified.

Do we know what we don’t know?

Of course if it is true that the U.S. Government has conducted secret medical tests or something similarly horrific, then it’s almost impossible from a moral standpoint to disagree with her goal of shedding light on something so reprehensible. On the other hand, I think as a journalist I would have been tempted to keep this information to myself and attempt to research if further, not publishing it until I had some sort of corroboration on the record.

Area 51: An Uncensored History easily stands on its own merits without this anonymous assertion. In some ways I’m sure it’s served to drum up interest in the book that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But so many people have keyed in on this one aspect of the book and summarily judged it without actually having read it, I can’t help but think that, true or not, it ultimately does a disservice to what is otherwise a fascinating, important  and exhaustively researched work.

Postscript: I should further note that conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs who aren’t in the skeptics camp will likely be disappointed by Area 51. Aside from the aforementioned explanation for the Roswell incident, Jacobsen doesn’t uncover any little green men or other UFO-related phenomena. As for the claims that the government and NASA faked the moon landing at Area 51, believers in this conspiracy theory will also be disappointed and perhaps even insulted; it’s clear that Jacobsen didn’t find anything in her research to lend this idea any credence.

Get Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History here. 

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