Area 51 and Dropping the MIC [Trenchant Edges]
Reexamining; Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 33 seconds. Contains 2113 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges Newsletter, where we wave around a harpoon gun at the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.
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I spent the last few days revisiting one of the most interesting books on American military secrets I’d read, Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51.
And, uh, hoo boy.
We’ve got a hot one today. A few seconds ago I googled Annie’s name to see what she’s been up to since I read one of her last books and I found something I didn’t expect.
If you’re not familiar with why that siren sound effect from kill bill went off in my head at seeing this, Tom Clancey basically writes American military porn and CIA analyst Jack Ryan is his main protagonist. This show, starring former US The Office star John Krasinski, portrays the CIA in a fairly positive light.
Krasinski actually said on camera, 'Their job [The CIA] is they’re always trying to do the right thing.'
I hope you don’t need me to explain how many things are horrifically wrong with this statement. And producing for this show puts Jacobsen in a different category for me. Not as much a sincere journalist with bad preconceptions and a soft spot for the CIA, but someone actually willing to go to bat for a group of people she knows has committed horrific crimes.
How can you write a book about why and how the CIA (and the rest of the military-industrial complex) saved and protected Nazis and why this is a bad thing and go anywhere near CIA propaganda is beyond my mere mortal understanding.
A Quick Sketch About why the Military-Industrial Complex Is Untouchable
We can’t really discuss Area 51’s continued secrecy without touching on military secrecy. We did this before in detail and the TLDR is that the modern National Security State was born out of the public-private partnerships of the Manhattan Project and then intensified after the end of WW2.
I’m less interested today in the numerous crimes the MIC has perpetuated over the decades than I am in the question of how they’re still around after those crimes have been public knowledge for 50 years.
The answer is they’ve done a really impressive job of hacking the US political system. This happens on a bunch of different levels. We cannot touch all of it.
First is sheer propaganda which has created an environment where cutting defense funding is tantamount to treason. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman dissect the core of this machine in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. Go read it, even if you’ve already read it.
Second, is the contradiction between claiming we’re a republic while actually being an empire. This makes it nigh impossible to honestly discuss the reasons our leaders make the decisions they do. This means Americans functionally can’t take part in policy discussions.
The closest thing Donald Trump had to virtue was his isolationist bent, even if for bad reasons, and while he was probably the most anti-empire president since Jimmy Carter, like Jimmy Carter he spent much of his time feeding the beast instead of fighting it. Even if it was out of ignorance of how the empire actually works,
So, no surprise he wasn’t able to actually fight a goddamn thing.
The third is the sheer scale of lobbying. Over $285 million in campaign contributions and 2.5 billion on broader lobbying efforts just since the year 2000.
The fourth is the utter clusterfuck that is Defense accounting. The imperial need for a large black budget, combined with rampant graft and corruption, has produced a nightmarish set of books to even try to audit.
This is a problem so bad even some of the worst people in America like Donald Rumsfeld tried to fight it, except he announced the accounting problems and called the Pentagon Brass Soviet Planners on September 10th, 2001.
Obviously, his plans to cut the budget and streamline died as the towers fell. And the accounting problems Rumsfeld claimed to want to fight only ballooned under his watch and his successors. As of a few years ago, $21 Trillion dollars of transactions couldn’t be properly accounted for.
In my reading, I’m aware of various attempts to reform this system going back to at least the 1960s without any kind of success. Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket called it out in the 1930s.
The last one is perhaps the most interesting: Defense contractors have broken down their operations and optimized them for congressional capture instead of efficiency or profit.
If you’re in congress and want to cut a program that funds a factory in your district or state, you know that doing that means you’re going to get hit by ads in your next reelection campaign talking about all the jobs you’ve driven out of the state.
A third rail of domestic politics.
Even Bernie Sanders, usually touted as one of the most principled politicians even by his enemies, has gotten in on this act.
Anyway, that’s why we keep making the psychopaths who run this country unbelievably rich and probably will never be able to stop them.
I’m sure I’ve missed a lot here because this subject is so complex but this gives everyone at least a baseline of what we’re dealing with.
Back to Annie
This section is going to be a lot shorter than I’d planned.
As I said, I’ve generally been supportive of her work and have repeatedly recommended it before finding out she signed on to help produce a show that puts the CIA in a positive light.
So now I have to adjust my trust level for her reporting. The CIA’s track record of crime and violence goes back to its early days. It barely existed for 5 years before overthrowing its first democratically elected leader in Iran to secure western access to oil.
I do understand that empires require intelligence agencies and intelligence is at best an amoral project that spends a lot of time in the immoral zone.
But these are the people who, under Project MK-Ultra ran (disclaimer: CW for sexual violence.) Operation Midnight Climax, a government-funded project to drug and sexually assault US Citizens.
And it’s not like their recent track record in the global war on terror has been any better for human rights.
It’s not a red flag or a smoking gun, but it’s definitely a yellow flag. Maybe more of an orange flag.
Anyway, I digress. I was going to go into detail into the book but, now it seems like I shouldn’t hold it up as an interesting but flawed source.
I’ve gone on to verify some of what she said, especially about various nuclear programs like Operation Plowshare, HARDTACK-TEAK, Operation Orion, and others. And they’re all varying degrees of irresponsible and insane.
Especially about Operation Orion, the American Nuclear Spaceflight program.
If you think that sounds like detonating nukes to launch something into space, congrats, you understand how off the rails midcentury pentagon planning was.
The main portion of the book is grounded, apparently well-researched history of the spy plane programs and discussion of declassified reverse engineering of Soviet technology. All supposedly based on dozens of interviews.
I still mostly believe it, because it fits with other things I’ve read and definitely gives off the right kind of mid-20th-century cowboy pilot vibe the Greatest Generation liked to swagger in with.
When I first read it, I found a few amazon reviews from the people she interviewed pissed off that she decided to combine her research of their classified work with some pretty nigh-baseless speculation we’ll get to soon. I couldn’t find them now, though one reviewer mentioned the other complaints. Others point out certain technical mistakes she makes.
But by far the most damning thing in the book is its approach to UFOs.
Jacobsen claims a former defense contractor scientist from EG&G told her that the infamous Roswell crash was a Soviet plot to cause panic War-of-the-worlds style, perhaps Stalin’s attempt to repay the snub of not being let in on America’s nuclear secret.
This is, on its face, a pretty janky proposition at best. The details make it worse.
Jacobsen apparently didn’t do anything to fact check this with the Soviet Archives, which provide a huge backlog into secret soviet plans.
She claimed that Stalin made a secret deal with Josef Mengele to create or deform children into looking like alien monsters to put into a saucer craft designed by the Nazi pilot-engineers the Horton Brothers, which was then remote controlled to create the aforementioned panic.
While Mengele did torture children, I’ve never heard any other claim that his work went along lines that could create kids who look as much like stereotypical greys as they do humans.
The timeline also sucks: how old were these children? When was Mengele captured by the nazis? Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945, the Roswell crash happened in July 1947.
There’s also a bit of an ideological issue. Stalin, famously, was a Lysenkoist. He considered Darwinian evolutionary theory to be inherently fascist. This fact drove some of the worst things Stalin did, and you can’t really say he’d make a deal with the embodiment of fascist Darwinism without addressing the point.
What happened to the Horton brother’s magic flying saucer technology? What are the odds that such technology existed in the USSR are was kept secret after the USSR’s fall?
These questions aren’t even discussed. And there are plenty more that don’t even pass the sniff test.
The whole thing is weak tea.
And so in the spirit of paranoid ideation, I’d like to propose a hypothesis.
Maybe Jacobsen wanted to interview people who weren’t exactly friendly to a journalist snooping about their classified experiments until she cut a deal with someone at the CIA with the clout to open doors and mouths.
Maybe the price was adding this ridiculous story to keep the waters around Roswell and Area 51 good and muddy, just like the agency likes it.
But I’ve always wondered why an apparently competent journalist would publish such an outlandish claim without… serious effort to provide material claims to back it up.
Maybe she just got sucked into a source with a compelling story. And that elderly source, never revealed, and now deceased was someone she kept up with for years after the book so clearly, they were friendly.
I don’t know, I’m not really convinced there was some kind of Faustian deal here.
The source she’s talking about also accused the US Government and its contractors of torturing and genetically modifying people from at least as early as the 1950s through the 1980s.
Which… I mean, honestly, it’s no worse than a hundred other things we know the US Government has done. Seems pretty light on details at least in this account though.
Who, what, where, when, why, how. Not really any of that beyond, “SCIENCE!” and a chip on the shoulder of some bureaucrat fascist angry that the germans got to go full nazi first.
In any case, I tire of speculation.
What if never ends and rarely lands on the truth without some kind of evidence to anchor it to reality.
I don’t understand Jacobsen’s motivations and apparently misread her values.
The one thing I’m sure of now is I won’t be recommending her books anymore, even with the caveats I used to give. There are also a bunch of errors within the book I’ve missed.
P.S. Thanks to the Christian Science Monitor I was able to find an interview with one of her subjects, TD Barnes, who had some understandable frustration with the book. Barnes is president of Roadrunners Internationale, an org of former CIA and defense contractors who worked on the secret programs to build America’s spyplanes, and their website is gloriously 1997. Barnes himself has written quite a few books on the subject in the last decade so… guess I’m adding him to the pile.
PPS: I’ve decided this whole thing is a warning to me about not being skeptical enough and the need to follow up when I spot something off.
There’s a bunch of stuff I kinda wish I could get into, but this whole thing has left me frustrated and tired.
Here’s a quick story I really liked from Area 51: While testing early American jet engines, the pilots ran into a problem: Their test flight range was close enough to Nellis Air Force Base that those pilots could sometimes see the secret tests.
So one clever pilot drove down to a costume store and picked up a gorilla mask to wear while flying close to Nellis AFB’s airspace.
Supposedly rumors of gorillas flying unbelievably fast planes made the rounds in pilot bars shortly thereafter, to much mocking.
See, that’s fun. I’m going back to bed.
Fuck the CIA
Should I put any more time into pulling the threads in this book?