Spying on the government
A UC Berkeley geographer maps the secret military bases of the American West – where billions of dollars disappear into creepy clandestine projects.

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."

cows Trevor Paglen Cow town: From top, a few Area 51 locals; geographer and expedition leader Trevor Paglen. (more images)
Guardian photos by Lori Spears
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 myself.

. . .

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 gigantic."

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 cliché. But the fact that it's a cliché 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 spy planes.

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, paglen.com.

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 Paglen.

"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 conspiracy 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 photos.

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? Shit.

. . .

Robby Herbst Tikaboo Peak Tonopah Test Range Beauty and the beast: From top, expedition participant Robby Herbst; chilling on Tikaboo Peak; Tonopah Test Range as seen through Paglen's telescope. (more images)
Guardian photos by Lori Spears,
Tonopah photo by Trevor Paglen.
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 away.

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 stealth bomber."

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 Government Secrecy.

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."

. . .

Little A'Le'Inn Bob Lazar Area 51 warning UFO zone: From top, Rachel, N.V.'s Little A'Le'Inn; an autographed photo in the Little A'Le'Inn of UFO believer Bob Lazar; Area 51 warning signs. (more images)
Guardian photos by Lori Spears
Herbst, the art professor, has a burning question for Paglen. "What's up with the alien shit, man? C'mon, give it up."

Paglen responds, "In 1989 this guy named Bob Lazar came out and said he'd been working at Area 51 reverse-engineering alien spacecraft. And this story became incredibly popular."

After giving interviews to local TV and radio in Vegas, in which he claimed to have wrenched on flying saucers stashed near Area 51, Lazar became something of a guru to UFO believers. There was just one problem. His yarn was demonstrably bogus. Lazar wasn't, as he alleged, a physicist. And there were no records of him attending the schools he claimed to have graduated from, Caltech and MIT. Lazar couldn't even keep himself out of trouble with the Vegas cops, who busted him in 1990 for his role in a prostitution ring.

Darkness drops on the mountain. In the distance, down at Area 51, a grid of lights becomes visible. At this point, everyone's ready to go. Unfortunately, most of us have forgotten to bring flashlights, me included. And as the temp has declined, the slushy snow we waded through on the way up has hardened, becoming slick and icy. Getting down isn't gonna be fun.

Twenty minutes into the descent, I'm sliding uncontrollably on my ass down a giant sheet of snow, already bruised from stumbling – "cartwheeling" is more accurate – over rocks and boulders I can't see. I'll be happy if I get out of here without snapping a bone.

. . .

After a cryogenically cold night, I stagger from my tent, filthy, sore, and sleep-deprived, but, for some reason, excited to forge ahead. Our first stop is the "front door" of Area 51, located on the unmarked stretch of dirt road we spied last night from Tikaboo. We blast down the road at 60 mph in a convoy of a behemoth Dodge Ram pickup and two SUVs. In front of us the mountains look like giant chunks of coal.

Paglen tells us sensors are buried in the road. On a knoll to our right, a security guard sits in a white truck. He doesn't move or approach us, but it looks like he's surveilling us through binoculars.

Area 51 isn't surrounded by a tall, electrified razor wire-topped fence or any other visible barrier. The front door consists merely of an agglomeration of signs posted on either side of the road. The signs, however, are pretty distinctive. One screams in capital letters, "PHOTOGRAPHY OF THIS AREA IS PROHIBITED." Another notes, "Use of deadly force authorized."

We head toward the Little A'Le'Inn, a restaurant-shrine to extraterrestrial visitors, located in the nearby town of Rachel (population 65), a huddle of small houses and trailers. Lunch is greasy but good. Two men, obviously tourists, walk through the door. One is wearing a black T-shirt with a Day-Glo image of a bug-eyed, big-headed alien. The guy has a shaved head and an outsize cranium. He looks a little like an alien himself.

. . .

At 9:25 the next morning we lay eyes on the Tonopah Test Range, a second classified installation just down the road from Area 51. Standing atop a butte, I press my eye to Paglen's telescope, focused on a collection of structures jutting up from the plain below, probably 20 miles away. There in the eyepiece are a phalanx of beige-colored aircraft hangars. I can see their sliding doors and get a sense of their enormity. I feel like Indiana Jones.

Paglen goes into tour guide mode. Tonopah, he says, was originally built to "test nuclear triggering devices and delivery devices, any sort of vehicle that would deliver a nuclear payload."

When the stealth fighter went operational, Tonopah became the home base for the planes, which retailed at $43 million apiece. "All of those structures you see were created for the stealth fighters. They flew from here to Panama to drop the first bombs in 1989."

In recent years the stealthies have relocated to New Mexico, but Tonopah remains active, and Paglen speculates the Air Force and intelligence services may be perfecting remote-controlled UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, updates of the Predator drones currently plying the skies of the Middle East.

. . .

By zooming in on the most exotic zip codes in Pentagonlandia, Paglen runs the risk of overlooking the wider forces at work, the political dynamics fattening the war machine and starving the schools. A month after our return from Nevada, I ask him about this as we cruise 580 in his battered '91 Acura, headed toward Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"I think you're right," he replies. "And that's the trick with this project: to use the places to represent this bigger picture."

Signposts of the garrison state are everywhere, Paglen continues, noting that his office at UC Berkeley is housed in McCone Hall, named after John McCone, a hawk who, during the '50s and '60s, served as undersecretary of the Air Force, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission (the agency chiefly responsible for nuke blasts at the Nevada Test Site), and director of the CIA. "A lot of this stuff is invisible in our daily lives."

Lawrence Livermore is one of those invisible places. While the 53-year-old lab is owned by the Department of Energy and run by the University of California, its primary mission is to build and maintain terrible things that kill people in terrible ways. Here we are, neck-deep in blue-state America, in the über-progressive Bay Area, and aside from a handful of gadflies, nobody gives the Strangelovian bunch at the lab much grief.

You can thank the lab's crafty 22-employee P.R. team for that. They generate a constant stream of press releases about the lab's marginal civilian science effort – researchers who "detect mysterious neutrinos" and explore "diverse ecosystems." Meanwhile, the press flacks don't say a hell of a lot about the arms programs that provide 80 percent of the lab's budget.

Paglen and I pull up at the lab's Discovery Center, a mini-museum with Smithsonian-quality exhibits, which turns to out to be pretty revealing. The prefab brown-and-beige building is stuffed with creepy-ass displays proudly boasting about the facility's starring role in the creation of at least 14 nuclear missiles and bombs, including the charming and obviously Gandhi-esque W87 "Peacekeeper" intercontinental ballistic missile. In the middle of the center is a Death Star-looking mock-up of the lab's National Ignition Facility, a $5 billion laser-equipped nuke-design center.

At the moment, federal budget documents show, the lab is also seeking $4 million for a bunker-busting bomb known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.

"This is a big deal," says Marylia Kelley, director of Tri-Valley CARES, an antinuke group. "The Bush administration is explicitly requesting money to go ahead with a new nuclear weapon. It's irresponsible and enormously provocative."

Paglen and I drive off the grounds of the lab, and as the complex recedes from view, our talk turns to topics other than bullets, bombs, missiles, and warplanes. We relish the sun-laden spring afternoon.

As we drive, the old X-Files mantra comes to my mind: The truth is out there. Some of that truth is locked away, far, far out of public view, at Area 51 and Tonopah. And some of it's right out in the open, just a few miles down the road at Lawrence Livermore, where, in the middle of a placid suburb, lab coat-wearing men and women spend their lives devising world-wrecking machines.

Have a nice day.

E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com.

Image Gallery

Geographer Trevor Paglen's site:
http://www.paglen.com/

The Federation of American Scientists's Area 51 page:
http://www.fas.org/irp/overhead/groom.htm

Military analyst John Pike's site:
http://www.globalsecurity.org/

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's site:
http://www.llnl.gov/

Livermore anti-nuke activists:
http://www.trivalleycares.org/