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Books of The Times
A Military Post’s Secrets: Espionage, Not Aliens
By JANET MASLIN
Published: May 15, 2011
At the start of “Area 51,” Annie Jacobsen’s cauldron-stirring book about America’s most mysterious military installation, Ms. Jacobsen offers a passing glimpse of a large-headed little gray space alien being interrogated by scientists in white coats. This is both a tease and a distraction. Yes, Ms. Jacobsen will eventually address the U.F.O. issue with which conspiracy theorists eagerly associate Area 51, but her book is not science fiction. It’s much more levelheaded. It is an assertive account, revelatory but also mystifying, of the long-hidden United States weaponry and espionage programs to which she says Area 51 is home. (Some say Area 51 is home to nothing, because it does not officially exist.)
An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base
By Annie Jacobsen
523 pages. Illustrated. Little, Brown and Company. $27.99.
What is it about Ms. Jacobsen that has made her privy to such inflammatory material? It’s best to know her answer to this question before delving into her book. And her answer is strange and byzantine in the way that all things about Area 51 seem to be. Ms. Jacobsen, a national security reporter and contributing editor to The Los Angeles Times Magazine, happened to be at a 2007 family dinner with her husband’s uncle’s wife’s sister’s 88-year-old husband, the physicist Edward Lovick, when Mr. Lovick leaned over and said, “Have I got a good story for you.”
That happened to be the year when formerly top secret records about the development of certain stealth technology, most notably the C.I.A.’s A-12 aircraft, code-named Oxcart, were made public, even though the creation of the A-12 had occurred nearly 50 years before. In any case, Mr. Lovick had been instrumental in A-12 research, and he did much more than relate his story.
He plugged Ms. Jacobsen into a network of elderly scientists, pilots, engineers and other witnesses who had firsthand accounts of Area 51 and its surroundings, a test range located in southern Nevada. (“I tell you all this, Annie, because you give a damn,” one of them told her.) This testimony pointed her in the direction of extremely arcane documentation, material of needle-in-a-haystack obscurity. (Sample source: a secret 1948 memo of “European Command Message Control Secret Priority” to United States forces in Austria regarding a glider of parabolic design that might have been flown in the 1920s and then developed into a flying saucer.)
Thus armed with numbingly intensive documentation, Ms. Jacobsen has put together a set of strong allegations about Area 51’s covert history. Part of “Area 51” is devoted to the nuclear weapons testing that began with the Manhattan Project, continued under the aegis of the Atomic Energy Commission and prompted The New York Times to tell tourists, in 1957, about a project called Operation Plumbbob: “This is the best time in history for the non-ancient but nonetheless honorable pastime of atom-bomb watching.” Ms. Jacobsen recoils at the weaponry that was being developed and the ghastly results of atomic testing. But she acknowledges ways in which it wound up keeping Americans safe.
Her book moves on to the surveillance technology that was meant to override the need for nuclear arsenals. And her research into the world of “overhead,” the aerial espionage that needed to be developed in extreme secrecy, is compellingly hard-hitting. One of her sources is Col. Richard S. Leghorn, whom she calls “the father of peacetime overhead espionage.”
She has also spoken to Col. Hervey S. Stockman, the first man to fly over the Soviet Union in a U-2; Col. Hugh Slater, an Area 51 base commander; and Jim Freedman, an Area 51 procurement manager who was one of the few people privy to a wide range of the base’s activities. Ms. Jacobsen writes that not even President Clinton was able to gain full knowledge of what the military contractors at Area 51 were up to.
“Area 51” is guided by its author’s political assessment of changing American military strategy, particularly during the cold war. It describes Area 51’s strategic importance during the eras of Sputnik, the Bay of Pigs, the lunar landing and the Vietnam War, with a strong narrative account of C.I.A.-Air Force territorial fights about whose aircraft were better suited to combat situations.
She also writes about the reverse engineering — the analysis of equipment by taking it apart and reassembling it — at which Area 51 scientists are thought to excel. She acknowledges their work on a Soviet MiG aircraft that was hidden inside a cargo plane for its trip to Nevada. But she does not take seriously what some readers will find most urgent about an Area 51 study: rumors that alien spacecraft are reverse-engineered there, too.
Back to that little gray alien allegedly seen at Area 51: Ms. Jacobsen has a theory about the base’s alleged U.F.O. connections. It goes back to the radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938 and the panic it engendered. Making a series of implications that are her book’s most controversial aspect, she connects this hysteria to the 1947 alleged flying saucer crash in Roswell, N.M., a story cherished by conspiracy theorists and not easily refuted.
Ms. Jacobsen connects the appearance of a real, disc-shaped, hovering object with Stalin-era Soviet intrigue. She hypothesizes that the relic found in Roswell was the opening shot in the cold war. She suggests that the supposed space creatures were human guinea pigs, the results of American experiments as monstrous as the Nazi ones conducted by Josef Mengele. And she thinks that once the rumors of a Roswell landing and cover-up began, American intelligence sources might have found U.F.O. rumors to be excellent cover for their activities, no matter how surprised they were by the need to encourage such thinking. Two Air Force officials once found themselves on a panel with members of the Civilian Saucer Investigations Organization of Los Angeles.
Although this connect-the-dots U.F.O. thesis is only a hasty-sounding addendum to an otherwise straightforward investigative book about aviation and military history, it makes an indelible impression. “Area 51” is liable to become best known for sci-fi provocation.
But the book is noteworthy for its author’s dogged devotion to her research. Angry over being denied access to a research facility, she began talking to a security guard — who, it turned out, had worked at Area 51 and became one of her most valuable sources. And when it comes to EG&G, the secretive engineering company that plays a major role in the Area 51 story, she describes pressuring one unnamed EG&G employee persistently, no matter how hard he resisted.
“You don’t want to know,” said this anonymous source, when grilled about the most nefarious part of Ms. Jacobsen’s U.F.O. theory. She asked again. “You don’t know the half of it,” he replied, still stonewalling. And then, over lunch, she put a crouton on a plate and asked how the extent of her knowledge about the whole Area 51 story compared with the crouton-plate ratio.
Great news for ufologists: the still-untold truth, this man finally admitted, is bigger than the crouton. Bigger than the plate. To the delight of conspiracy fans everywhere, it remains bigger than the whole table.
A version of this review appeared in print on May 16, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Military Post’s Secrets: Espionage, Not Aliens.