The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: “Area 51”

Annie Jacobsen first came to my attention when she wrote the controversial article ” Terror in the Skies-Again? ” for in 2004. During a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles, Jacobsen and her husband observed what they considered to be suspicious behavior from a group o f Middle Eastern men. Authorities met the plane when it landed-tipped off, it seems, by the federal air marshals who were reportedly on board. She and her husband later gave sworn statements to the FBI. Air marshals eventually cleared the men: As it turns out, they were Syrian musicians booked to perform in San Diego. But Jacobsen wouldn’t let the issue go. She testified before Congress about the incident and wrote a book, Terror in the Skies , exploring the state of airline security in the post 9/11 world. (The final Department of Homeland Security report on the case concluded that some of the men on Jacobsen’s flight had indeed been flagged by the government for ” criminal or suspicious behavior .”) In short, she’s not one to sit by idly when the government says, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

This makes her the perfect writer to investigate the granddaddy of all government cover-ups, which she does with a deft touch in her new book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base , a compelling narrative of  50 years of covert operations by the CIA, the U.S. military, and the mysterious “Atomic Energy Commission.”

It’s not an easy beach read, but neither is it a dull tome of military history. Jacobsen interviewed many of the men who worked at Area 51 through the years-security guards, test pilots, Lockheed engineers, radar experts-and her book provides an important slice of Cold War history. Without Area 51, we might not have had the U-2 spy plane (which kept the Cuban Missile Crisis from becoming the US-Soviet Nuclear War); the SR-71 Blackbird, an important spy plane; or any of the drones that we use so frequently today in the war on terror.

It’s amusing and eerie, as you read through the book, to see that many of the jokes about Area 51 made in movies (I’m thinking of Will Smith’s Independence Day in particular) have a grain of truth to them.  Area 51 being so secret that the president himself doesn’t know about its existence? Not quite, but Jacobsen does spend a lot of time discussing the Atomic Energy Commission, the successor to the Manhattan Project some of whose clandestine work  even President Clinton was denied access to. Crashed space ships? No, but Area 51 was home to captured Soviet MiG fighter jets. Alien bodies preserved in strange liquids? Again, not exactly, but … well, I’ll leave that for you to read about yourself.

As Jacobsen gets deeper into the book, she reflects on the pros and cons of Area 51. As mentioned, it’s the source of some of our most valuable military tools. But the secrecy allowed the U.S. government and its contractors to get away with things that it probably shouldn’t have. She recounts, for example, how the military put pilots in danger in the 1950s by training them to fly through mushroom clouds during nuclear tests. It’s impossible not to be similarly ambivalent as you reach the end of the book.

In writing Area 51 , Jacobsen talked to dozens of people and pored over thousands of documents that have been gradually and quietly declassifed. Her meticulous research makes for a fascinating read, as it intersperses the accounts of secret government projects with anecdotes from the people who made those projects happen.  In the end, she explains briefly why the government will never acknowledge Area 51. But she can’t get into specifics, because her high-level sources-who had witnessed hydrogren bomb tests, crashes of top-secret planes, nuclear accidents-never had “need to know” clearance on the more nefarious projects of the Atomic Energy Commissions.

“Need to know”: It’s one of the most used expressions in Area 51 .  Thanks to Jacobsen’s book, the American public now has “need to know” clearance for some of its government’s darkest secrets.