Rabu, 17 Agustus 2011
'Area 51' expose by investigative reporter Annie Jacobsen is a mostly convincing read, until it crashes at the end
Some addresses are so strongly encoded in our cultural DNA that just hearing their alpha-numeric sequence gooses the mind's eye.
So "1600 Pennsylvania Ave." may conjure the hushed Oval Office, Richard Nixon's tape recorders and John-John Kennedy frolicking under his father's desk. Rockefeller Center might evoke the leggy Rockettes high-kicking at Christmastime, the cocktail buzz of the Rainbow Room or NBC's stentorian David Brinkley.
Then there is Area 51. Chances are, your first thoughts are of black-eyed aliens and crashed UFOs. For a place that officially does not exist, this heavily guarded patch of Nevada desert still manages to tap those dank mental cisterns where ghost tales rattle and government cover-up plots linger.
The real Area 51, as depicted in investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen's often fascinating, ultimately exasperating expose, is, on the whole, less spooky than its Hollywood persona. Ultra-secret, yes, but more "Dr. Strangelove" than "The X-Files."
"Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base" centers on a desolate base, shielded from prying eyes by mountains and perched on the rim of a flat, dry lake bed that's a perfect natural runway. It begins as a CIA base, and its history brims with Cold War cowboys, supersonic fighter jocks and trigger-happy nuclear weaponeers itching to blow something up.
Jacobsen, a contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, writes that the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s spawned Area 51. "America's most famous secret federal facility was set up to advance military science and technology faster and further than any other foreign power in the world," she notes.
The first child of this tempestuous spyboy/flyboy marriage was the U-2. Radically shaped and able to fly in the atmosphere's thin upper reaches, this super jet could evade most air defenses. Its startling appearance, streaking far above commercial airspace, also fueled the nascent UFO-sighting craze. It kicked off in 1947 with official military reports -- then official denials -- of a saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico.
Jacobsen's recounting of the U-2's development and deployment -- as well as that of its CIA successor, the even faster, higher-flying A-12 Oxcart spy plane -- make for some of the book's most satisfying, richly detailed passages. Others have written insider accounts of the evolution of stealth aircraft, most notably Ben Rich's 1994 memoir about working at Lockheed's fabled "Skunk Works."
But Jacobsen captures the broader context, weaving the Right Stuff exploits of Area 51 test pilots like Col. Ken Collins, who survived a hair-raising Oxcart crash in 1963, with the larger geopolitical tensions at home and abroad.
Of particular interest is the decades-long tug-of-war Jacobsen documents between the Air Force and the CIA for control of stealth technology and the soul of Area 51. On these pages, the Air Force wants to militarize anything with wings, while the CIA sees the U-2 and Oxcart as diplomatic and information-gathering tools.
When North Korea seized the U.S. Navy ship Pueblo in 1968, the Pentagon geared up to retaliate. But at the height of combat in Vietnam, a simultaneous Korean offensive "would have been a war America could ill afford," Jacobsen writes. Photos from a CIA-ordered Oxcart overflight showed that the Pueblo was anchored in an area unsuited to attack, but also provided proof of its capture, which turned into a strong negotiating asset. The Air Force still went on to produce a combat version of the Oxcart, the SR-71 Blackbird.
So far, so good. For most of its hefty 523 pages, Jacobsen's book is a thoroughly reported, well-documented conventional military history. It's spiced with first-person yarns (many from people who lived and worked at the secret base and agreed to on-the-record interviews) and juicy reveals, like the fact that reclusive industrialist Howard Hughes had his own hangar at Area 51.
To Jacobsen's considerable credit, the narrative is bolstered with extensive footnotes, citing stacks of obscure government reports she unearthed to verify what her interview subjects told her. She nimbly debunks pervasive Area 51 conspiracy theories, such as its supposed role as a soundstage for faked Apollo moon landings, or its connections to other government labs via a continent-spanning underground tunnel network.
Then, inexplicably, Jacobsen drives off the rails. Almost as an afterthought, in the final 17 pages, she unspools a whopper of a story she contends explains Area 51's origin:
Turns out that Roswell crash in 1947 wasn't a weather balloon, as the military claimed, or an extraterrestrial craft, as UFOlogists assert. It was a Nazi-designed, Soviet-sponsored flying saucer, flown by adolescent human pilots genetically or surgically altered by death-camp fiend Dr. Josef Mengele to make them appear to be aliens.
The Russians supposedly undertook this as a psy-ops caper -- think "War of the Worlds" -- to panic the American populace. After the crash, the craft and its occupants, two of them comatose but still alive, were initially held at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, then taken to Area 51 for "reverse-engineering."
Who says? A government contractor who allegedly was part of the "rogue" Area 51 team that cracked the saucer's secrets. Jacobsen writes that he also perpetuated the ghastly body-altering methods on American subjects at the direction of the Atomic Energy Commission.
The holes in this hokey tale are big enough to fly a U-2 through.
Twenty-first century surgeons still haven't perfected face and limb transplants, and genetic engineering hasn't yet managed a human clone, so it's ludicrous to think Mengele could have pulled off such alterations more than 60 years ago.
Area 51 engineers reputedly appropriated the saucer's hover-and-fly capabilities (which Jacobsen's contractor cryptically attributes to "electromagnetic frequency"), but there's no evidence of it in the Reaper drones and other highly advanced aircraft the CIA and military operate today.
Most perplexingly, if Stalin actually possessed such cutting-edge aerodynamic technology -- a profound advantage at the dawn of the Cold War -- why would he risk its almost certain capture by the Americans in a flying-saucer "take-me-to-your leader" stunt?
Jacobsen never attempts to explain. "I believe this man is telling the truth," the defensive-sounding author recently told Terri Gross on NPR. "His credentials are impeccable to me."
But readers get virtually nothing upon which to base their own conclusions, and certainly not a name. "He has absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose," Jacobsen told Gross. "I keep him anonymous, and I hope he remains that way."