Annie Jacobsen pens a love letter to war technology in Area 51
By Annie Jacobsen. Little Brown, 384 pp, hardcover
In 2004, after sharing a domestic flight with 13 innocent Syrian musicians that she deemed “suspicious”, Annie Jacobsen penned a notorious tract called “Terror in the Skies, Again?”. A federal investigation dismissed her claims that they were performing a “dry run” hijacking, but it didn’t matter. Jacobsen’s widely read panic attack had done its bit for the war on terror.
Jacobsen has no credibility, although she does possess a gift for getting her mug on TV. She’s receiving scads of media attention for her history of America’s most famous top-secret military base (if you’ll pardon the paradox). Working from declassified reports and interviews with retired personnel, Area 51 describes the development of nuclear and stealth technology, the early role of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in establishing a huge parcel of Nevada for secret weapons testing, and a cartoonish behind-the-scenes battle between the air force and the CIA for funding and presidential favour.
In Jacobsen’s world, Lockheed and other defence contractors are assumed to be a force for good, and the personnel she interviews are humble American heroes from a simpler time. Behind it all is a lust for stealth and weaponry. There’s no context to Jacobsen’s admiring chapter on drone technology, for instance. No mention of dead Afghan children or illegal strikes in Pakistan. She’s also bent on protecting the dashing gentleman spies of the CIA—meaning suited thugs like Richard Helms—while painting the air force as brutes, and hanging the Atomic Energy Commission out to dry for irradiating huge swathes of Nevada (fair enough).
One wonders, basically, who Jacobsen is really working for. Her agenda hardens in a chapter titled “The Lunar-Landing Conspiracy”, in which she brandishes the term “conspiracy theorist” like a 17th-century New England preacher screaming “Witch!” Again, there’s no context, as if goofy moon-landing hoax theories negate any and all forms of skepticism. But Jacobsen is a cheerleader for orthodoxy; she goes on to suggest in the face of prevailing evidence that secret military technology explains most if not all UFO sightings.
Ironically, Jacobsen’s biggest “scoop” is beyond stupid. Based on a lone anonymous source, she claims that it was actually a Soviet flying disc that hit the ground in Roswell, piloted by monstrously deformed 13-year-olds bred by Josef Mengele at the request of Stalin himself. In this laughably written chapter, Jacobsen finally seems to find her moral compass, striking a pose of high dudgeon while lacing into the Atomic Energy Commission for the foul inhumanity of its own forays into human experimentation, sparked—it’s claimed—by the discovery of Stalin’s program (true to form, she downplays the CIA’s far more expansive behaviour-control program MKULTRA earlier in the book). Her conclusion is that “a group of powerful men” defiled morality and the constitution “in the name of science and national security”.
In a 400-page love letter to war technology, Jacobsen becomes quite the crusader for one whopping paragraph. And a bit of a conspiracy theorist.