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. 

Area 51: A Preview on the Review

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseI literally just finished Area 51: An Uncensored History about an hour ago, and plan on having a review up tomorrow – well, later today, as it is the wee hours as I write this – Friday at the latest.

But I felt compelled to put down some initial thoughts, as there is a lot of buzz about this book, buzz driven by a relatively small part: the claim that the Roswell UFO crash of 1947 was actually part of a Soviet Russian “black operation.” This claim is actually only one small part of Area 51: An Uncensored History, discussed at the very beginning and very end of the book. But since the Fresh Air interview with author Annie Jacobsen last week, I’ve seen posts on Boing Boing and Io9, among many other sites, about the book and the one thing everybody focuses on is the book’s claims about Roswell and its ties to black ops.

Jacobsen, a journalist, says that the craft recovered at Roswell was actually a craft of Russian build based on designs by Nazi aircraft designers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers – this part is a matter of historical record, by the way – were experimenting with stealth technology and unorthodox jet aircraft designs at the end of World War II. She further states that the bodies of aliens that witnesses claimed to have seen at the crash site were actually disfigured human children, the result of medical procedures or research either performed by or at least based on the work of Josef Mengele on behalf of the Russians.

The goal of this Soviet black op was twofold, according to Jacobsen. First off, the whole thing was designed as part of a psychological warfare effort designed to instill panic in an American civilian populace already jittery about UFOs, communism, nukes and the Cold War, Jacobsen’s source tells her. The military benefit of this was that if the United State’s air defenses and early warning systems were overwhelmed with reports of UFOs, real or imagined, it would provide a window – or cover – for an actual Soviet attack.

Why cover this up? Because American military leaders and scientists wanted not only to reverse engineer the advanced technology found in this craft – something more advanced than jet propulsion. They also wanted to pursue human experiments of their own, ostensibly to reproduce people with a similar alien appearance as the unfortunate Russian child pilots, for our own American black ops.

Sounds pretty far fetched, doesn’t it? Almost as much as the idea that a real extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed in Roswell.

The Horten Ho 229 powered prototype nearing completion in the Gothaer Waggonfabrik aircraft factory, 1944.I will say this: Jacobsen offers up a lot of tangential and circumstantial evidence to back up her claim; she actually makes, if not a compelling case, certainly enough of one to give the reader pause for thought. Furthermore, she separates out this dubious claim from the rest of Area 51: An Uncensored History, which is actually exhaustively researched and documented – some 20 percent of the book is taken up by footnoted source citations. Another big chunk, some 10 percent of the total text, is taken up with acknowledgments, most of which are concerned with the people she interviewed for the book, on the record – many of whom were actually directly involved with the programs at Area 51 in the 1950s through the 1970s, and discuss their work publicly for the first time.

There is a lot of information here that has only recently been declassified and Jacobsen connects the dots and fills in the gaps – some of which would yawn quite large, otherwise. Even students of history will find much that is new to them (I certainly did). In cases where information on former need-to-know black ops have been declassified for some years – or even well known historical events, such as the Cuban missile crisis – Jacobsen has still managed to uncover previously unknown facts and bring them to light.

All of this makes me think that perhaps it was a shame to include the claim about Roswell, as interesting as it may be, regardless of its veracity. There are a lot of revelations here about Area 51, the history of U.S. nuclear testing and the development of overhead surveillance for espionage purposes. This book would be of interest to everyone who has an interest in not just military history, but politics and U.S. history in general.

I’ll save the rest for my review. Let it suffice to say that there is lot more worthy information in Area 51: An Uncensored History, than the fantastic Roswell claim; to judge it solely on this doesn’t do it justice.

Terri Gross Interviews Area 51 Author Annie Jacobsen on Fresh Air

Little Green Aliens Russkies?

Is truth stranger than fiction? And is Area 51: An Uncensored History truth?

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseWhen I was a child, I went through a years long phase where I read everything I could on the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and UFOs. This period commenced in second or third grade not long after the school nurse figured out I was blind as a bat and I got my first pair of glasses; I subsequently discovered the world at large – a world only vaguely, blurrily hinted at before.

I was able to see the board in the class room for the first time, as well, and academic things suddenly began falling into mental place. I went from being in the lowest reading level group to the highest in a matter of weeks. The world of books opened up for me as well.

Anyway, this interest in the paranormal, modern myths, mass hysteria, cryptozoology, complete and utter bullshit – please take your pick of your own preferential term, here – lasted well into adolescence. In fact it never really ended, it just became sublimated to a large degree by other things, namely cars, girls and computers. Needless to say that when the X-Files debuted, I was there glued to the television, and was pretty much every week during the season for the next eight years.

I drifted away to some extent once David Duchovny got too big for Mulder’s britches – but was and am still solidly in the Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade. Did you see her in Last King of Scotland? Did you SEE? Oh. My. Various. Gods. Hurt me. So it’s perhaps also needless to say – in my roundabout sort of way – that when I listened to Terri Gross’ Fresh Air interview with journalist Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base – I knew I would have to read this book.

(I’m in Terri Gross’ brigade too, just like Gene Simmons, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Documentation and Research Overshadowed by OMG Little Gray Russians Revelation

In fact I just listened to the podcast in the wee hours this morning while out for a walk before bed – I’m completely nocturnal these days – and promptly downloaded the book from Amazon when I got home. I read the first several chapters before I drifted off to sleep.

If you have any interest in this sort of thing at all – and by “thing” I don’t so much mean UFOs and little green men and conspiracy theories, although that’s all wrapped up in this, but rather U.S. military history – then this book is probably worth a read. I’ll be able to address the “probably” in the days ahead once I finish the book, naturally. Incidentally I find myself for the first time since college reading two non-fiction books concurrently, so it may take a few days.

In any event, you’ll want to check out the Fresh Air interview; you can read excerpts of both it and Jacobsen’s Area 51 at NPR as well.

My first impression of the book, based on the first few chapters, is that it does seem to be deeply researched and documented, although the style in which it is written I’m finding to be mildly problematic (more on this in the full review). Jacobsen is a professional journalist by trade, a contributing writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine covering national security issues, so she has a vested professional interest in publishing an accurate book.

That being said, the use of anonymous sources can be tricky when it comes to credibility; I’ve been in that boat myself, although that only involved the misuse of public funds in the Sedona (Ariz.) Fire District – not alleged early Cold War-era Russian subterfuge and espionage programs and rival U.S. government-sanctioned programs, both of which involved children – allegedly, I stress.

You can read more about this if you follow the link above to the NPR/Fresh Air interview. Much of what Jacobsen and her sources say – many of whom are on the record – seems quite plausible and indeed is documented: that Area 51 and nearby facilities have been used for nuclear bomb and even nuclear rocket tests, as well as overhead surveillance programs and the development of related aircraft. Some of this, of course, is actually already known, such as the U2 spyplane, the stealth fighter, and Project Oxcart.

So it’s unfortunate that the one thing that everyone in the media is going to focus on almost exclusively will be the tidbit in the back of the book, in which Jacobsen alleges that a saucer actually did crash in Roswell in 1947. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, after it was initially taken to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. And that it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children “altered” to look as if they were aliens. That this was part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Welle’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938. That Stalin had actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalikes.

This admittedly seems farfetched, particularly the Mengele aspect. If being a journalist teaches you nothing else, it teaches one to have a healthy bullshit detector and to believe in Occam’s Razor. You don’t last long without the former; real-life experience leads you to follow the latter intuitively, if not scientifically. Either way, I’m sure that most of my fellow people in the Fourth Estate would agree that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation or answer to a question is usually the correct one.

On the other hand, Jacobsen says she has faith in her source, that she worked closely with him for nearly two years. That she is able to verify the veracity of everything else he has told her, that she has checked and verified his medical, personal and military records – so she personally takes him at his word on this admittedly difficult to believe claim.

He allegedly was one of the engineers called in to reverse engineer the Russian craft that crashed at Roswell and also saw the bodies of the child pilots. Of course, it might be different if we knew the identity of this person, and thus is the slippery slope of anonymous sources – we have to trust the journalist on this one. And she’s going out on a pretty big limb – if it were to come out somehow that this source isn’t reliable or deliberately mislead her – or worse, that she herself has made this up – her career as a journalist is over (although there will still be the talk-show circuit).

I want to believe, but I'm skeptical of the final claim in Jacobsen's Area 51.In any case, the whole Mengele aspect of the story is particularly hard to swallow; his movements at the end of and in the years immediately after the War are seemingly well documented. If he was working with the Russians he was apparently doing so clandestinely and remotely. And the idea that the technology existed in the 1947s to surgically or otherwise alter a human’s appearance to the point that they looked truly alien – like a so-called gray – is, well, admittedly ridiculous.

It’s notable that this revelation comes at the end of the book in an epilogue, although Jacobsen refers to it in an early chapter of the book. I’ll reserve any further comment until I finish the book, but again she addresses these issues following questions from Terri Gross in the NPR interview, so you can read/hear for yourself.

As for me, like Mulder, I Want to Believe. But like Scully, I’m pretty skeptical – at least as far as this Roswell revelation that comes at the end of Jacobsen’s Area 51.