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Tonopah Test Range as seen through Paglen’s telescope. Tonopah photo by
Spying on the government: A UC Berkeley geographer maps the secret military
bases of the American West ? where billions of dollars disappear into creepy
By A.C. Thompson
IT STARTED WITH an e-mail inviting me to join an expedition to Area 51, the
secret military site in the Nevada backcountry.
“Let me be clear about this,” wrote Trevor Paglen, the 30-year-old
geographer leading the trek. “The trip will not be easy. It might not even
be that fun, depending on your attitude, how well-prepared you are, and what
you consider fun. The weather is unpredictable ? it could be really hot or
really cold, or (most likely) both…. If you are not in reasonable shape,
or are without proper equipment, you will die. Seriously.”
Despite the less-than-inviting invitation, I was intrigued. For five decades
Area 51 has been the military’s heart of darkness, the core of its “black
world” of classified research and development, a place that appears on no
maps, and, officially, has no name. The U.S. government will divulge nothing
about the site, except that it’s an “operating location” overseen by the
U.S. Air Force. Everything else ? including the most seemingly mundane facts
? is classified in the name of national security.
The territory in question sits deep in a colossal, small country-size, 3.1
million acre Air Force base northwest of Las Vegas. Built on Groom Lake, a
dry lake bed, Area 51 is bisected by a 27,000-foot runway, studded with
massive hangars and communications towers (which look something like
offshore oil rigs topped by giant scoops of vanilla ice cream), and
patrolled by a platoon of camouflage-clad private security personnel with
orders to kill intruders.
Despite the government’s omerta-like code of silence, aerospace experts have
concluded the isolated, mountain-ringed rectangle of desert served as an
incubator for some key cold war machinery, aircraft like the U-2 spy plane
and the black-winged, radar-deceiving F-117A stealth fighter.
UFO-heads, of course, have other ideas. For them, Area 51 is the locus of
fevered, conspiratorial speculation, a remote and incredibly well-guarded
location where the government has hidden a fleet of alien spacecraft.
According to this line of thinking, the mysterious lights sometimes spotted
blipping across the night sky over Nevada are hot rods from another planet.
After doing a little reading on the place, I knew I had to see it for
. . .
Paglen is steeped in the lore surrounding Area 51, the twin currents of
secrecy and weirdness that swirl around the place like powdery desert dust.
Clandestine military installations are the subject of his doctoral
dissertation in geography at UC Berkeley, an endeavor that’s propelled him
across the American West, mapping the archipelago of bases that dot the
landscape. “The whole thing is about getting people to see the world around
them differently,” Paglen says. “The amount of land devoted to this stuff is
To Paglen, a good-humored Air Force brat with a Woody Woodpecker-ish laugh,
Area 51 is many things. It’s a pop-culture trope, served up by the X-Files
and the 1996 flick Independence Day. A testament to the supremacy over
American life of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency and their
corporate pals. A fount of disinformation.
One tactic used to shroud zones like Area 51, he argues, “is to make those
places very visible in the wrong way ? all the UFO stuff at Area 51, for
example. Area 51 is far from secret. It’s a clich?. But the fact that it’s a
clich? also hides it.”
Declassified CIA documents, Paglen notes, suggest Langley fomented UFO
rumors during the 1950s and ’60s as a way to deflect attention from the very
real flights of experimental aircraft, including the U-2 and A-12 Blackbird
I met Paglen about 10 years ago when we were both hanging out at East Bay
punk gigs. He’s still got a punkish edge, favoring dark jeans and cowboy
boots and punctuating many of his comments with slang and obscenities. All
this camouflages, to some degree, his eclectic braininess: Before pursuing
geography, Paglen earned degrees in religious studies (with a minor in
musical composition) and art. As you read this, the Lab, a San Francisco
gallery, is displaying Paglen’s solo show “Recording Carceral Landscapes,” a
chilling commentary on California’s leviathan prison system.
In addition to his academic explorations, Paglen also gives informal tours
of classified America, journeying to places like the Tejon Ranch Radar Cross
Section range (where Northrop tests bleeding-edge aircraft), the
headquarters of Science Applications International Corp. (the no-profile
defense contractor tapped to set up a TV propaganda network in Iraq), the
San Diego docks that are home to the Sea Shadow (a classified Naval
watercraft), and the Classic Bullseye listening station (a heavily guarded
collection of National Security Agency eavesdropping equipment). He’s posted
graphics, reports, and pics from all these expeditions on his Web site,
In mid-March I spent three days probing the dark side with Paglen and a crew
of 10 other sightseers.
. . .
“Uh, guys, we need to be up there,” Paglen says, gesturing to the
snow-encrusted peak looming above us, “and we’re heading downhill.”
We’re somewhere near the base of Tikaboo Peak, a treacherous 8,000-foot-tall
pile of prehistoric rock stippled with scrubby trees. To get to Tikaboo, the
vantage point closest to Area 51, we’ve driven about 120 miles north from
Vegas, following a dirt road through the desolate yet gorgeous Nevada wilds,
surrounded by an ocean of scrubby vegetation and grainy, sunburned soil.
So far, getting up the mountain has been quite a task ? on top of our, ahem,
navigational issues, one member of our crew has already vanished (apparently
he took off to take a dump), and we’ve lost any trace of the trail we’re
supposed to be following. The conditions on this frigid afternoon aren’t
especially favorable, either. The temperature is dropping rapidly, daylight
is dwindling, and three-foot-deep swatches of snow speckle the mountain.
I’ve managed to pull a Homer Simpson move, leaving my heavy, waterproof coat
back in San Francisco. Plus, I’m wearing DC skate shoes, which are already
soaked thanks to the snow.
“Have you ever seen any people out here?” one of the expeditioners asks
“Only once, and it was really crazy,” replies Paglen, a charming character
with an expansive sense of humor. “We ran into this group of cops from Waco,
Texas. They had all these telescopes and high-tech gadgetry.”
Cops from Waco, the nexus of myriad conspiracy theories springing from the
carnage-laden Branch Davidian debacle, descending on Area 51, the hub of UFO
iracy theories? Yeah, that’s a tad weird.
We tromp on, and by 5:01 p.m. we hit our first stopping point, a peak
several hundred feet below the summit. Robby Herbst, the guy who disappeared
to make like a bear in the woods, has resurfaced. He’s weary from the
ascent. “I’m ready for the aliens to take me,” says Herbst, an itinerant art
professor from Los Angeles, clad in an amazing pair of ’70s-era striped
jeans. From here the trek gets totally Lord of the Rings, as we traverse an
exposed ridgeline punctuated with boulders and begin a steep ascent. At this
elevation we’re encircled by sky, not trudging beneath it.
After a two-hour scramble up the mountain, we hit the summit with the sun
hanging low and look out over a vast plain lined by a few unpaved roads.
Dust billows up from one of the roads. Paglen figures it’s a government van
ferrying Area 51 workers around the base.
Unfortunately, we can’t see much more. Our view of Area 51 ? which would’ve
been limited anyway ? is further obscured by charcoal-colored clouds
pregnant with rain and a thick layer of floating dust. “Can the government
make haze?” jokes one guy who flew out from Chicago for the trip.
Paglen has lugged a powerful telescope up with him, so we take turns peering
through it, able to make out a handful of structures on a mountainside about
25 miles away. He snaps a digital camera onto the scope and shoots some
The whole deal is fairly anticlimactic; we drove hundreds of miles and
dragged ourselves up a fucking mountain, only to be thwarted by Mom Nature?
Until 1995 you could get substantially closer to Area 51 by ascending White
Sides Mountain or Freedom Ridge. Then UFO freaks and stealth-plane watchers
began circulating detailed photos of hangars, fuel tanks, runways, and radio
towers they’d shot from the two mountains, and the Air Force decided to
annex more acreage around Area 51, pushing tourists like ourselves further
From our perch atop Tikaboo, Paglen dives into the history of Area 51, a
locale lacking an official name but endowed with an abundance of enigmatic
nicknames including Dreamland, the Dark Side of the Moon, the Box, the
Container, and the Ranch.
By any name, the site is testimony to the cozy relationship between the U.S.
government and its corporate contractors. “It was originally called the
Ranch, and it was started by Lockheed in 1955 because they were developing
the U-2 spy plane,” Paglen says. “Francis Gary Powers” ? the ill-fated pilot
shot down by the Soviets in 1960 ? “trained here to fly the U-2.”
Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) had been blueprinting and building new planes
at the Skunk Works, the company’s covert Burbank R&D lab, and testing the
experimental craft at Edwards Air Force Base, in the Mojave Desert near
Palmdale. But the U-2, a joint project of the CIA and the Air Force,
demanded a more private proving ground. The vehicle was an international
incident waiting to happen: a camera-equipped aircraft capable of going to
the upper regions of the stratosphere (up to 74,000 feet) and bringing home
snapshots of the evil empire.
From the start, everything was cloak-and-dagger. The Agency bankrolled the
base by writing $1 million in checks to Skunk Works director Kelly Johnson
and mailing them to his Encino home. Johnson in turn made sure Lockheed’s
fingerprints wouldn’t be on the project by creating a phony front company, C
and J Engineering, which hired builders who erected the basic Area 51
infrastructure in a matter of months.
The next radar-eluding craft developed at Area 51, Paglen explains, owed its
existence to a set of 1870s-vintage physics formulas. Those formulas,
devised by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and known simply as
Maxwell’s equations, predict how a surface will reflect electromagnetic waves.
In the 1970s they became the basis for the F-117A stealth fighter when
Lockheed engineers used state-of-the-art computers to tweak and extrapolate
the equations, hunting for shapes that would scatter and diffuse radar
waves. The result was a chunky, flat-angled, Star Wars-esque vehicle,
weighing 52,500 pounds (loaded) and measuring nearly 63 feet from nose to
tail. It had the “radar signature” of a small bird.
Paglen says, “The stealth fighter became the most secret project since the
Manhattan Project. Ronald Reagan was particularly interested in magic-bullet
technology” like stealth planes and Star Wars missile defense.
In Paglen’s estimation, the historic road to Area 51 goes through the labs
of Los Alamos, N.M., where J. Robert Oppenheimer and company begat the
A-bomb. The Manhattan Project, Paglen writes in an essay for a forthcoming
book, was the “first highly-classified, multi-billion dollar [military
research] effort…. The Manhattan Project had to manage the thousands of
people working on the weapon at any given moment, while restricting the
knowledge of the project’s true purpose to a very small number of people.”
The strategies devised in New Mexico were transplanted to Area 51 and
further refined, he says. In some ways the connection between Oppenheimer
and Area 51 is even more direct: Area 51 abuts the Nevada Test Site, where,
between 1945 and 1992, the government detonated 1,021 nuclear weapons,
sprinkling radiation across a vast swath of the Southwest.
. . .
Enough about the past. What the hell is going on out here now? Even the
experts have few clues.
John Pike directs GlobalSecurity.org, a Beltway think tank, and has been
scrutinizing the Pentagon for 25 years. He says that during the Reagan
years, analysts could figure out ? in broad terms ? what the key classified
projects were, despite all the secrecy. “Twenty years ago, when there was a
big increase in classified spending, we pretty much knew what the programs
were,” Pike says. “We knew there was a stealth fighter. We knew there was a
In 1990, he notes, a New York Times reporter was able to pen a 273-page book
on the “black budget,” the money funneled into clandestine military and spy
programs with little congressional oversight.
These days, Pike admits, he’s baffled. The military is far more successful
at keeping things under wraps. Whatever is going on at Area 51 and similar
spots is truly a mystery at this juncture.
“It’s certainly a testament to Rummy’s ability to keep a secret ? that
they’ve been able to spend this money without anybody noticing,” Pike says.
And they’re spending plenty. The black budget is blimping out to new
dimensions. Estimates by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,
another nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank, put the total spending for
classified weapons programs at $26.9 billion for 2005; for 2006 the
Department of Defense has asked for $28 billion.
That’s up from a comparatively paltry $11.7 billion a decade ago.
Pike figures a chunk of the increase can be attributed to surging spending
on hardware for the intelligence agencies. “You can probably explain half of
that from growth in the intelligence budget,” he contends, explaining that
spook outfits like the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Organization
disguise their spending by sticking it in the Air Force’s budget.
And at least some of the loot is going into Area 51. Pike was one of the
first people to post overhead satellite photos of Area 51 on the Web, paying
a Russian company for pics of the territory shot in 1998 and 2000 and
comparing them to some rare 1968 pics taken by the U.S. Geological Survey.
(Apparently, all images captured by U.S. satellites after 1972 have been
deleted from the National Archives.) From looking at the photos, it’s
obvious there’s been massive expansion at the site, with new runways and a
gaggle of new buildings doubling the size of the installation.
At the Federation of American Scientists, Steven Aftergood has a couple of
ideas about what kind of toys the government is blowing our money on. “To
start burning up lots of money, you have to be building hardware, and if
it’s space-based, that’s a plus,” he says sarcastically.
He points to the outburst of West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller, who in
late 2004 publicly shredded an unnamed covert R&D effort, describing it as
“totally unjustified and very wasteful and dangerous to national security.”
Intelligence analysts quickly connected the dots, theorizing that
Rockefeller was pissed about a stealth spy satellite project, an
eavesdropping device that, like the F-117A, can avoid detection.
“I think it was mainly supposed to be stealthy in regards to radiation and
ground-based detection,” says Aftergood, director of the FAS’s Project on
An earlier project, code-named MISTY, apparently relied on a shield that
would “make it difficult or impossible for hostile enemy forces to damage or
destroy satellites in orbit.” Analysts uncovered that language when the
Defense Department stupidly decided to patent the invention in 1994.
In this time of ballooning black budgets, Aftergood says, “first and
foremost” we need Congress to watchdog the spooks and warriors. “I think
there are legitimate reasons to classify advanced military research. But if
they classify it, they need to receive more, not less, scrutiny, even if
it’s behind closed doors.”
. . .
Read the rest of the article here …
More links …
Geographer Trevor Paglen’s site:
The Federation of American Scientists’s Area 51 page:
Military analyst John Pike’s site:
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s site:
Livermore anti-nuke activists:
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