Investigative reporter Annie Jacobsen

Area 51 author pulls back the curtain of secrecy on an Air Force base so classified that U.S. presidents are denied entrance and explains the controversy surrounding the last seven pages of her book.

Annie Jacobsen is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and a much sought-after speaker on terrorism, national security and intelligence matters. Internationally recognized for her investigative reporting, she used her expertise to research her latest work, Area 51—the first book based on recently declassified documents about the famous military installation in the Nevada desert. Jacobsen graduated from Princeton, where she wrote under Joyce Carol Oates, studied Greek and served as captain of the women's ice hockey team.


Tavis: Annie Jacobsen is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and the author of the New York Times best seller, “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base.” Annie, good to have you on the program.

Annie Jacobsen: Pleasure to be here.

Tavis: What is happening at an air force base in Nevada that is so secretive that U.S. presidents are denied entrance?

Jacobsen: Well, a lot’s happening out there, as I write in my book, 75 miles north of Las Vegas in this giant land parcel that is federally restricted called the Nevada Test and Training Range. It’s about the size of the state of Connecticut.

Inside of that is Area 51 and it’s not just the Air Force and the Department of Defense that are there. It’s the CIA. The Atomic Energy Commission played a major role in the base. I write about that. Now that’s known as the Department of Energy.

So you’ve got all kinds of government presence in the desert, none of which the government will talk about what’s going on there. They still, to this day, will not officially say that Area 51 exists.

Tavis: So if they won’t acknowledge that it exists, then how do you know that presidents are denied? This is a pretty dense text. How do you get all this if they won’t even acknowledge the place exists?

Jacobsen: Well, my research began in 2007 when I was at a Christmas Eve dinner party seated next to an 88-year-old scientist named Edward Lovick who lives here in California. He said to me, “Boy, have I got a story for you.” Now as a national security reporter, I hear that a lot. My work depends on it, but what Lovick said to me was really phenomenal.

That was that, starting in 1957, 1958, he developed stealth technology for the CIA out at Area 51 and the reason he could talk about it in 2007 was because the CIA had just declassified that program. So the men can actually discuss the programs they worked on there that have been declassified, but they technically are not supposed to say that it’s Area 51.

But once you are interviewing people, I interviewed 74 men with rare access to the base. Over several years as I did, the word Area 51 becomes part of the nomenclature because that’s what it’s called.

Tavis: Why is it called Area 51?

Jacobsen: That’s subject to debate. My take on that is very different than others. I believe it is called Area 51 because of a project, the very first project that went on out there, in 1951.

The neighbor of Area 51 is called the Nevada Test Site. That is divided up into a bunch of quadrants starting with Area 1 going up to Area 30, give or take some missing quadrants. Then there’s no 40s and 51. There’s also 52 which is where the stealth bomber was tested in the ’80s.

Tavis: So you’ve mentioned a couple of things now, but what’s basically happening out there? What are they doing in Area 51 or in this whole 85-mile area?

Jacobsen: Now?

Tavis: Right.

Jacobsen: Well, now, and again, everything that I write about now is speculative because everything that happens at Area 51 now is very classified. The suggestions are that the drones that are being used in the war on terror are built out there.

Very interestingly, this Osama bin Laden raid which involved the stealth helicopters, it’s believed by people that I speak with that a lot of the early reconnaissance was done by this drone.

One of the few things the Air Force did admit to me existed out there presently without admitting that it was Area 51 is this drone called the Beast of Kandahar which does not fire missiles, unlike the Predator and the Reaper, but just conducts surveillance.

One of the great questions asked in the press in the past few years was why does the United States government need a drone that doesn’t fire missiles when obviously the Taliban don’t have missiles to take them down? The suggestion was, of course, that maybe we were flying it over Iran, over North Korea. Now from what I understand, that was actually the drone that did the lead surveillance on the bid Laden raid.

Tavis: Is there stuff happening in Area 51 that the American people would be repulsed by?

Jacobsen: Absolutely, I believe so. Some of the projects that I write about speak to exactly that. You know, one of the most important narrative threads I believe in my book is this issue of what national security secrets should be kept secret and what does the public have a right to know or a need to know about? That’s central to what I write about in the book.

And I do relay several programs which have been declassified. I talk about them from first-hand witnesses who were out there working on them, nuclear programs that were downright reckless. One of them I write about, Project 57, was a dirty bomb test on the edges of Area 51. We contaminated the land.

Plutonium has a half life of 24,000 years. The Department of Defense, when they did that test with the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957, said that it was a “safety test.” But as I write in the narrative, there was really nothing safe about any of it and it certainly didn’t provide safety when we actually really did have nuclear accidents.

Tavis: I want to come back to something I raised earlier, Annie. How aware are presidents – the president is, of course, the Commander in Chief. How aware are presidents of what’s happening inside of Area 51? Like what does Obama know about what’s happening inside Area 51 right now?

Jacobsen: Well, as far as I know, all the presidents know about Area 51. It would almost be impossible for them not to. But one of the great enigmas of the entire Area 51 story that I reveal in my book came to me from a source.

This is the only anonymous source that I talk about in my book who revealed a program to me that is one of those absolutely abhorrent reckless programs that never should have happened.

When I asked him how could that have happened and how come President Clinton didn’t learn about that when he looked into similar crimes by the Atomic Energy Commission, his response to me was, “The president didn’t have a need to know about it.”

Tavis: There’s a lot in this book that people are talking about, hence it being on the New York Times best-seller list. But as dense a text as this is, the part that’s been the most controversial really are the last seven pages of the book. Why are those last seven pages causing such a controversy?

Jacobsen: Well, you know, I came to the story of Area 51 a little bit as a newcomer, so to speak. I didn’t have a horse in the race. I’m not an aviation historian, I’m not an Air Force aficionado and I’m definitely not a ufologist. I’m not someone who studies UFOs. So my aim was to literally find the facts out from men who were there and then report them in the most objective manner that I could.

Very much to my surprise was this experience I had in my very first interview with an extraordinarily credible weapons engineer, a nuclear weapons engineer, who was originally a member of the Manhattan Project. He told me something which is an absolute alternative position than ufologists and the Air Force take on Roswell, that great myth that everyone seems to be fascinated by and no real answer has ever really come about.

I tell you a take that was told to me by an engineer who worked on that program and I think that many people who have a vested interest in their theory about that being right are upset with that.

Tavis: Let’s talk about it because humans are involved.

Jacobsen: Yes, yes. The source told me that something really did crash in the desert in New Mexico in 1947, what is now known as the Roswell Incident, and that it was not from Mars. It was from Russia and that Stalin had sent this prototype of a flying disc here to serve as a kind of a war of the world hoax, the same way that Americans had been moved to mass hysteria in 1938 when they believed Martians were attacking earth.

According to my source, that was the idea that Stalin wanted to achieve. So inside his prototype of a flying disc were humans who had been horrifically altered to resemble what the public now perceives to be Martians with a large head and the eyes.

According to my source who bore witness to this, that horrific program, rather than being made public by Truman when it happened, a decision came down from above that, if the Russians were doing this kind of horrific what I called wicked science, then the Americans needed to do it too because we could not fall behind the Russians in terms of science.

That is very upsetting. It was certainly upsetting to learn about, it’s upsetting for people to read about. Where I sit is having interviewed this source first for 18 months, now it’s been over two years. I’ve spoken to him several times face to face since the book has published.

He stands by everything I wrote and I believe that the reason that he told me was because of all his service to the country, this one rogue program stands out as a travesty, as a shame, and he wanted to put that on the record before he died.

Tavis: Despite all the credible work that you’ve done to bring Area 51 to the best light, at least, that we have seen it in thus far, there can be a fine line between credible work and conspiracy theory. What say you about that?

Jacobsen: Well, I mean, if you’re asking whether I think that my source gave me information that is disinformation because that is certainly a question that has been asked of me, I do write in my notes that that is a possibility.

The reason I put it in the notes and not in the text is because I believe that the source’s information is true as he was told it because it came from the highest elements of government. The person in charge of the project who was his superior was also the head of the Manhattan Project, that of our Bush.

I also make a very clear distinction that I think is impossible for my reader not to see, that in those last seven pages, I’m really clear and I make the distinction of letting the reader know that I’m talking in the first person. I say here’s what I was told.

Tavis: Summertime is no longer just for reading fiction at the beach. Nonfiction is having a major say this summer and everybody’s talking about this one. It’s called “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Military Base” that would be out in Nevada written by Annie Jacobsen. Annie, thanks for the book, and good to have you on the program.

Jacobsen: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure.

[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.

And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 27, 2011 at 1:22 pm