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.

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