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Sunday Book Review: Area 51


This is a guest post by Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica

A couple of weeks ago, there was quite a bit of press about a new book, ‘Area 51 – An Uncensored History‘ by Annie Jacobsen. As a self-respecting plane nerd, especially one that grew up reading too many Dale Brown books, it wasn’t a hard decision to read it. Sadly, what looks at first glance to be a readable and well-sourced history of secret aviation projects based at Groom Lake, NV ends up making such ludicrous claims that a reader with even the slightest grasp of 1940s science (or reality, for that matter) will find impossible to swallow.

In the late 1940s it became apparent to the US atomic weapons program that being able to conduct nuclear tests somewhere more convenient than remote Pacific atolls was probably a good idea. Thus was born the Nevada Test Site, an expanse of desert, mountains, dry lake beds, and other stuff that wasn’t important enough to prevent the government from detonating nuclear weapons there.  The test site is bordered by the even bigger Nevada Test and Training Range (nee Nellis Air Force Range), and Groom Lake is a dry lake bed that belongs to one or the other, depending on where you look.

In 1955, the CIA wanted somewhere they could test and develop a new spy plane, the U-2. Groom Lake offered them the privacy and security they wanted, and was designated Area 51 (fitting in with the naming convention for the test site). Development of Project Oxcart, the CIA’s A-12 plane that eventually became the SR-71, also happened at Groom Lake, as (presumably, since it’s not declassified) all the more recent work on stealth technology. Jacobsen recounts a history of these programs, based on published memoirs as well as interviews with people who were there, and if that were all the book dealt with it would be a welcome addition to the plane nerd’s library.

But no, Jacobsen couldn’t leave it at that. My first inkling that something was off was the first chapter and the story of Bob Lazar, who allegedly worked at Area 51 and gained notoriety for claiming that he saw alien technology being reverse engineered there. Thanks to its veil of secrecy, the nature of the weird planes that are tested there, and people like Bob Lazar, the gullible are happy to believe that Area 51 is where the US keeps all its crashed flying saucers and the like. Jacobsen evidently isn’t that gullible; even she rightly regards the idea of a secret lair full of alien technology as patent nonsense. For many of the following chapters this streak of nuttiness is absent. But later in the book it begins to creep back in, and end with such a preposterous claim that ultimately everything in the book has to be suspect.

After the war, the west and the USSR scoured up as many Nazi scientists and engineers as they could. The US program was called PAPERCLIP, and gave us Werner Von Braun and rockets. According to Jacobsen, the USSR got their hands on the Horten brothers, or at the least their flying wing research, and that what crashed at Roswell NM in 1947 wasn’t alien, but marked with Cyrillic script. So far, so relatively implausible, but it gets worse. You see, Stalin also got Joseph Mengele, according to Jacobsen, and Mengele allegedly created a crew of ‘grotesque, child-sized aviators’ who piloted this craft and whose bodies were recovered in the crash. Yes, you did read that correctly.

Obviously this is all complete bollocks. She alleges that Mengele used organ transplants and genetics to create these poor buggers, but organ transplants weren’t feasible until the development of immunosuppressive drugs in the 1960s. As for the genetic engineering, it’s even more risible. Thanks to Stalin’s patronage of Lysenko, Soviet science had been, and continued, down the wrong tracks for decades. Watson and Crick only worked out the mechanism behind DNA in 1957, and genetic manipulation started in the 1970s. Futhermore, we’re supposed to believe that in 1947 the USSR had advanced flying hover planes that could cross continents, but which somehow utterly failed to influence postwar Soviet aviation as we know it. Oh, and despite the fall of communism, not a single word of this has managed to leak out of Russia? Um, yeah…

The story about soviet child pilots isn’t even a new one. Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week recounts that it was the plot of a 1956 story by James Blish, and in his review gives a possible explanation as to why Jacobsen went down this ludicrous alley:

I know exactly why this happened, from personal experience. A couple of times I have taken Area 51 ideas to agents and had the same response: You need something that will make headlines.

As a form of disinformation, Jacobsen’s book works brilliantly; the batshit insane stuff does enough to poison the credibility of everything she alleges that hasn’t appeared in other, more respectable sources. I’m reminded a bit of Nick Cook’s book, The Hunt for Zero Point, in which a respected reporter at Jane’s makes the case that zee Germans unlocked the secret of antigravity and that the US got hold of this technology. Except that, if anything, I find Cook’s book slightly more plausible.

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  • anon

    Jonathan, I think your take down is right on the money.

    This isn’t the first time Annie Jacobsen has seen demons. http://www.snopes.com/politics/crime/skyterror.asp

    The real question is how she got a job as national security reporter and contributing editor to The Los Angeles Times Magazine.

    FWIW, on the other hand, Jonathan, in her interviews, she makes it clear that the story of the Soviet Pilot Babies etc., form only the last 7 pages of a book that is hundreds of pages long.

    • yep, jacobsen is a paranoid nut-job. odd she works for a major paper and isn’t laughed out of the room every time.

      • Atticus Dogsbody

        It’s not “odd” at all.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Wait — it’s that Annie Jacobsen?

      • Halloween Jack

        Not that you’d know from the credulous interviews done by the likes of NPR, eh? It’s like interviewing David Icke and not bringing up the lizard people.

  • Slocum

    “the gullible are happy to believe that Area 51 is where the US keeps all its crashed flying saucers and the like”

    I know! Stupid sheeple. That stuff is at Wright-Patterson AFB.

  • xaaronx

    The basic idea is also referenced in Ken Macleod’s The Human Front, which I had recently tracked down a copy of and read when Jacobsen was on the Daily Show. Macleod’s fiction is much more interesting than Jacobsen’s: http://www.sfsite.com/10a/hf185.htm

    Also, in that interview at least she made no attempt downplay those seven pages.

    • xaaronx

      to downplay

  • DocAmazing

    For a good rundown of the secrecy surrounding Area 51 and similar places, check out Trevor Paglen’s excellent book Blank Spots On the Map.

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  • Murc

    … this woman is the national security editor for the LA Times?

    • DocAmazing

      Thst’s the LA Times that kicked loose Robert Scheer to give a slot to Jonah Goldberg; that’s the LA Times that was instrumental in the rise of Ronald Reagan, back in the day (then run by the Chandlers, AKA Mr. and Mrs. Pavilion).

      Annie Jacobsen is just a little more colorful than their usual run.

    • Warren Terra

      Her mainstream employment in an area related to the subject of this book really is rather shocking. The Soviet super-aircraft notion is absurd enough, for the reasons noted (lack of effects on other, later aircraft, and lack of revelations from the former Soviet Union) – but genetically-engineered superpilots? Fifty years ago, when even now we wouldn’t have the faintest idea where to start, and with the Soviets quite behind the times as regarded biology in any case?

  • monad

    Terri Gross had a great interview with Jacobsen a few weeks ago. Lots of “Um. *long pause* O-Kayyy” towards the end of the interview from Terri.

  • monad
  • creature

    Lots of nut job reporters in the dead-tree & intertube news media. It makes for entertaining & frightening reading on a daily basis. It would be nice if they turned their talents toward producing science-fiction and psuedo-historical drama pieces, that would be even better & less harmful to the collective intelligence.

  • N W Barcus

    Glenn Campbell’s Groom Lake Desert Rat covered the Bob Lazar hoax contemporaneously in the mid-90s on the Web. (The Area 51 mania of the time, with X-Files on all cylinders, the “alien autopsy” hoax receiving credulous coverage, and Grays popping up in every nook of the media, led some entrepreneurs to entice would-be Experiencers to an area overlooking the base before dawn, where they would attempt to pass off the lights of the janitorial staff being flown in from Vegas as experimental Air Force planes using alien tech.) Campbell’s work was a model of self-funded reportage, well-written, sober, handling the wacky aspects of people’s extraordinary beliefs with aplomb and good humor.

    More to the point, Campbell covered the legal case that hinged on whether Area 51 “really” existed. (It was the Clinton years, remember, though the manner of parsing involved has long been used by the state.) IIRC, the janitorial staff were complaining that some of the production processes at the base were causing them health problems, but when they tried to use legal means to stop it and/or gain compensation the court was stymied by the base being so secret than it did not officially exist. (The processes may have been similar to the multilayer composite techniques Boeing workers were complaining about around the same time.)

    Oddly enough, after the inevitable diminishment of his public profile once the marks had generally caught on, Lazar popped up again on CBS a decade later as a US supplier of polonium, in the wake of the Litvinenko poisoning.

  • Well at least my novel, Area 51, is finally outselling her supposedly non-fiction book. I was just at Area 51 a couple of months ago filming with the SyFy channel. I wrote Area 51, and it’s sold over a million copies in print and is now available in ebook, because everyone was quoting each other about what was there. So I thought– what if? using my background as a NY Times bestselling author and former Green Beret.
    I saw her on Jon Stewart and have no clue why anyone takes her seriously.

  • allium

    For a sequel she could research Trofim Lysenko and finish up with a particularly vivid scene from Greg Bear’s novel Vitals (spoilers)
    Stalin lives! Unfortunately for him, it’s in the worst Manhattan sublet ever – a metal sarcophagus underneath downtown that’s half-filled with the engineered bacteria and growth medium that keep him alive and insane.

    We’re through the looking glass, people – and on the other side is the New York City Department of Buildings.

  • central texas

    Maybe I am too old and jaded, but my experience is that books written by raving nutjobs dealing with topics on which they have zero insight and less knowledge, are a waste of time. Arab’s on the Airplane Anne qualifies, in spades, on all counts.

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