Area 51 is the best institutional history I have ever read.
Annie Jacobsen tells the story of the work done in and around Area 51, a section of the Nevada Test Site used for work the government needs to keep secret. Projects such as AQUATONE, CROSSROADS, GRUDGE, HARRASS, OXCART, and PAPERCLIP come to life through interviews with security guards and generals, de-classified documents and the findings of Presidential inquiries. Jacobson’s work is all the more impressive because of overlapping work by three government agencies that are sometimes rivals — the Air Force, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Central Intelligence Agencies — and their corporate suppliers, such as EG&G, Lockheed, and Raytheon. Two separate systems of classification are discussed, including one in which the President does not have a “need to know.” Annie frames the work by two events she believes are closely related — the War of the Worlds broadcast and the Roswell crash.
Jacobsen focuses on four great efforts by the United States — recruiting German scientists after the War, testing atomic bombs, building spy aircraft, and reverse engineering “alien” technology. The “alien” technology was primarily Russian, such as with captured MiG fighters as well as Soviet radar installations. Spy planes that traveled high and fast, and were distinctive, included the the A-12 spyplane, an early version of the SR-71 Blackbird, the U-2 spyplane, as well as (since the 1960s) drones. German scientists were recruited primarily for help with the rocketry program, though this program was not flawless. The United States repeatedly and accidentally bombed Mexico with V-2 rockets, and the recruiters did not understand the importance of the Horton flying wing soon enough
The number of people who kept the secrets of Area 51 is astonishing. The figure has to be in the tens of thousands. Jacobson outlines a few reasons. The most obvious is the classification system. The use of disinformation to hide real facts within ridiculous ones is also used. Lastly, there is guilt and self-incrimination.
I was fascinated by the overlapping methods of classification Annie Jacobson described. One is to shuffle a project between agencies or contractors, often under new names. It becomes hard to track a project over time, or request information about a project, if one does not know organizational where it exists or what it is called. Another is to use the two separate systems of classification in the United States. Some forms of Classification require only Presidential action to unclassify. Others exceed the President’s “need to know”. Thus, sensitive or potential controversial work — such as nuclear tests or exposure of retarded children to radiation — can be kept secret.
Another is what I called the “veil of laughter” a decade ago. To use one example, the U.S. Army Air Force hid its jet program by having pilots wear gorilla masks, so that any pilot close enough to confirm a lack of a propeller would have to confirm a gorilla flying a plane. To use another, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations “leaked” information about aliens to hide the actual Air Force drone program. The only individual to actively leak about Area 51, Bob Lazar, appears to have been a victim of this disinformation.
There also was self interest. Some things could not be disclosed without incrimination the people who would leak them. For instance, “safety tests” that exposed civilians to nuclear radiation or missile attacks on other countries. Likewise, the competitive nature of the US military-industrial complex meant that a disclosure of information could help a rival agency. The only known breach of Area 51 during the period of the book was when a worker at a rival defense contractor “accidentally” landed at the Watertown airstrip, for example.
Jacobsen begins the book by teasing a theory of the Roswell crash, and provides it explicitly near the end. She has stated it was provided to her by one or two sources who had a means to know, but it’s striking that nearly every element of it had been documented elsewhere in the book, at least in isolation. Briefly, Jacobsen believes that Soviet-aligned ex-Nazi scientists had taken Jewish children, deformed them, and had them occupy disk-shape “hover and fly” craft launched from a semi-stealth captured long range German bomber that flew from over Alaska. Roswell was chosen as it was a major location in CROSSROADS, the Hydrogen bomb project that Truman attempted to hide from Stalin. In my Roswell theory I speculated we had not disclosed the truth (which I took to be a crash of a German glider piloted by quasi-defected Japanese pilots) because failure to return or disclose Prisoners of War would be a war crime. Jacobsen’s explanation is darker — other ex-German scientists had conducted similar experiments on children for the U.S. government.
Area 51 is the best history of a government program I ever read. It is more balanced than other histories I’ve read of post-WW2 institutions, whether the American university system or the foreign policy elite. If there is a weakness, I wish that Jacobsen’s work on the Roswell crash had been as exhaustively researched as the other programs she discussed.