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Area 51 'Uncensored': Was It UFOs Or The USSR?

Area 51 is classified to the point that its very existence is denied by the U.S. government. Journalist Annie Jacobsen says it's not because of aliens or spaceships -- but because the government used the site for nuclear testing and weapons development.

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Area 51 'Uncensored': Was It UFOs Or The USSR?

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Area 51 is the nation's most secret domestic military facility, so
secret the government doesn't acknowledge it exists. My guest, Annie
Jacobsen, has written a new book called "Area 51" about the secret
surveillance plane projects developed there and the nuclear tests done
just outside Area 51, within the Nevada Test and Training Range.

She says her book is based on declassified documents and on interviews
with 74 individuals with rare firsthand knowledge of the secret base.
Thirty-two of them lived and worked at Area 51.

She thinks that some of the projects developed at Area 51 were hidden
for good reasons, others for arguably terrible ones. The secrecy
surrounding Area 51 has made it fertile ground for conspiracy theories,
including one abut a UFO cover-up and another about how the moon landing
was actually staged at Area 51. She addresses these conspiracy theories
in the book and speculates about what led to them. Jacobsen is a
contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, where she writes
about national security.

Annie Jacobsen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, let's acknowledged from the
start we're talking about an area and research projects that for the
most part don't officially exist. So given that, would you describe what
Area 51 is and why it was created?

Ms. ANNIE JACOBSEN (Contributing Editor, LA Times Magazine): Area 51 is
a land parcel in the middle of the desert in southern Nevada. It's just
outside the Nevada Test and Training Range, which is where, starting in
1951, President Truman authorized what would end up being over 100
atmospheric bomb tests, nuclear bomb tests.

And Area 51 was created on the other side of the fence, so to speak, to
deal with overhead espionage.

GROSS: So there's really two secret areas that you're writing about:
Area 51 and the secret nuclear testing ground.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Absolutely, and the Nevada test site is a land parcel
that's 1,350 acres. And that land parcel is divided up into quadrants:
Area One, Two, Three, Four, Five, etc, going up to Area 25.

And then also keep in mind, Terry, that this parcel of land that I just
described sits within an even bigger parcel of land, federally
restricted land, which is called the Nevada Test and Training Range.

And that's where the Department of Defense comes in because that larger
land parcel, which is about the size of the state of Connecticut, is
where all three of these organizations - the - what was called the
Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy; the Department
of Defense; and the Central Intelligence Agency - merge with these
secret projects.

GROSS: Let's start with some of the nuclear tests in the nuclear testing
ground in this secret area. Describe what Operation Plumbbob was.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, Operation Plumbbob took place in 1957. So nuclear
atmospheric tests had been in full swing for six years. And you know, I
was under the impression that of course we dropped the atomic bombs on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I knew sort of from history that there had
been some atmospheric tests in the Pacific Proving Grounds, which is the
in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

But I had no idea that right there in Nevada we were setting off these
nuclear bombs one after the next, a hundred. And of course later there
were 900 that took place underground.

But one of the heroes of my book is named Richard Mengis(ph). He was the
security guard at Area 51 and he was also a security guard on many of
these weapons tests. And Richard Mengis also stood guard on what was an
astonishing, unbelievable test that I write about, which took place at a
subparcel of Area 51 called Area 13.

And that was actually a dirty bomb test, Terry, and what that means is
that the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission teamed
up to see what would happen if, let's say, an aircraft carrying a
nuclear weapon were to crash on American soil.

And so they simulated this airplane crash out at Area 51 to see what
would happen if plutonium was dispersed on the ground. And of course it
was. And plutonium, as we know, has a half-life of 24,000 years.

And so this area out at Area 51 that was part of the Project 57
Operation Plumbbob Test, continues to be contaminated.

GROSS: Did they do anything to try to get rid of the plutonium-
contaminated ground?

Ms. JACOBSEN: They did. And what's, you know, what's stunning is that
they didn't think of doing it at the time, so - because there were so
many nuclear tests going on. In 1957, they set off the dirty bomb, and
then they kind of wrote about their fears that perhaps earthworms would
move through this soil and carry the plutonium particles, the alpha
particles, somewhere else.

And they were concerned about that, but there were so many tests going
on. There was the buildup of the Cold War. There was this urgency to
test more bombs. And so, no, it was not cleaned up until the '80s, and
at that point they send in men with HazMat suits to scrape the land off
of Area 13, the subparcel of Area 51.

And it's still contaminated, and that is, of course, according to an
interview I conducted with the spokesman, presently the spokesman for
the National Nuclear Security Agency, which is in charge of our – of our
weapons.

GROSS: So the purpose of detonating this bomb in Area 51 was to see what
would happen if a plane carrying a nuclear weapon accidentally crashed.
And there was fear of this because there were American planes in the air
with nuclear weapons fairly constantly, you say, so that if Russians, if
the Soviet Union launched an attack against us, we would be ready in the
air for a counterstrike.

Now, a crash did actually happen over Spain in 1966, a plane carrying
four hydrogen bombs. So what happened with those bombs?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, that's a very famous and well-documented incident,
when one of these SAC bombers was going through a refueling process,
where they refuel in mid-air, and there was a problem with the boom and
the whole plane exploded.

And miraculously the pilot and a couple of the crewmembers in the bomber
ejected, and so did the four thermonuclear bombs, which as crazy as it
sounds actually had parachutes attached to them to hopefully keep them
from crashing.

But a couple of them didn't, you know, deploy properly, the parachutes,
and so these thermonuclear weapons crashed on the farmland in Palomares,
Spain, spreading plutonium particles all across the landscape.

And what was shocking to me was this - you know, the landscape there in
Spain, and the landscape in southern Nevada, at Area 51, is strikingly
similar. And had the U.S. government followed up with its quote-unquote
safety test, which it claimed this dirty bomb test was, and effectively
found out a way to clean up this mess, one might be able to argue that
Project 57 was perhaps not a bad idea.

But that's not what happened because no one cleaned up Project 57. So
instead you had all these scientists and nuclear weapons experts going
into Palomares, Spain to clean up the dirty bomb, you know, plutonium
contamination with no knowledge of what they were supposed to do.

GROSS: So you consider that experiment a failure.

Ms. JACOBSEN: I would. I would have to say that I would - I think that
was an unwise test to begin with, and maybe one of the redeeming
elements would have been foresight about future problems. That's not
what happened.

And Terry, another accident happened a little bit later, in Thule,
Greenland, when an airplane crashed, and it crashed into the ice up
there, and the fire that was caused by this burning airplane that had
nuclear bombs on it caused the ice to melt, and the bombs went into the
ocean. And there remains a big debate about whether one of those
thermonuclear bombs is still there at the bottom of the sea.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Annie Jacobsen. She's a
national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and author
of the new book "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret
Military Base." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some
more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest Annie Jacobsen. She's a
national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and author
of the new book "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret
Military Base."

And this is about the nuclear testing, the testing of very fast
surveillance planes that were created in this secret area, and it's also
about some of the conspiracies surrounding this area, some of the
conspiracy theories, which we'll talk about a little bit later.

You write about what you described as one of the most radical covert
science experiments conducted by man. This was in 1958. What was the
experiment? And I should say that this experiment wasn't at Area 51, but
it was conducted by the scientists and engineers who worked at Area 51.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Yes, and it's actually a two-bomb test series. They were
thermonuclear bombs codenamed Teak and Orange. And the project was
spearheaded by President Eisenhower's science advisor named James
Killian.

And these tests were to see what would happen if a nuclear bomb was
exploded right up at the edge of the atmosphere, where the ozone layer
lies. And a couple of the engineers who were at the test site went to
Johnston Island to work on these tests. And that's why I include them in
the book about Area 51.

And I found so reckless about this was there was a lot of discussion in
these kind of top science advisor memos about whether or not a nuclear
explosion up there by the ozone could actually blow a hole in the ozone
layer.

And this is all declassified documentation now. There was a concern that
it would. But the scientists also wrote that they felt that the bomb
turbulence would somehow close up that hole, if a hole were to be made.

So they went ahead with the tests anyways, and they were very - they
were top-secret tests. No one knew about them when they were going on.
But what I also found fascinating was the New York Times got onto the
story that these tests had taken place, and you have all these memos
going back and forth between the White House and the New York Times.

The New York Times is saying: We're going to reveal these tests. The
White House is saying: No, you can't. And at the end of the day they
decided, they being the White House, and the president's science
advisor, James Killian, decided to hold a press conference saying these
were important safety tests and that is why they had gone on.

And it was just totally buried under the rug that we could have, and
perhaps did, do serious damage to the ozone layer.

GROSS: If I understand correctly, the purpose of this test was to see if
the electronic pulse that would be created by these blasts could damage
the arming devices on Soviet ICBM warheads, which would be trying to
make their way to the U.S. In other words, this was an experiment in
trying to undo Soviet nuclear missile systems.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Absolutely, and the Teak and Orange tests were the
precursor tests to that test, which was called Operation Argos. So you
had to be able to get bombs up to a certain height and explode them to
then go to the next height.

So Teak and Orange were the buildup to Argos, which took place in outer
space to test exactly that theory that you're talking about. And it was
a failure. They found that, no, in fact a nuclear bomb up in space would
not affect the arming systems on incoming missiles.

GROSS: Let's talk about another nuclear experiment at Area 51, and this
involves getting a rocket into space through nuclear-powered explosions.
Would you describe this experiment?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, there was a plan in the 1950s to get man to Mars.
And this was all part of the space race with the Soviets, which of
course the Soviets won initially with the launch of Sputnik in October
of 1957.

But at the time the Department of Defense was seriously considering
weaponizing space. And so one of the ideas was that by figuring out how
to send a spacecraft to Mars, in the astonishingly short timeframe of
124 days, we would be able to get the technology to then create a space-
based launch missile system that could kind of go around the Earth and
launch missiles at the Soviet Union at any time.

Now, this didn't end up happening, but it almost did, and the NERVA
nuclear rocket program that took place at Area 25 was the place in which
all this technology happened.

GROSS: So was there a blastoff?

Ms. JACOBSEN: There was never a blastoff to Mars, but they were testing
the rocket to see how - whether or not it could actually work. And to do
that meant spewing vast quantities of radiation into the air. It's very
controversial. It was kept very top secret and - although it did have a
public face.

Interestingly, John F. Kennedy visited the NERVA nuclear program, and
there is kind of these lovely pictures of him dashing around with his
handsome sunglasses, and you know, part of that idea of we are
scientifically capable of getting man to Mars, let's do it.

But the tests themselves were very dangerous, and after the Nuclear Test
Ban Treaty, which prohibited any nation from testing any kind of
radioactive weaponry in the atmosphere, after that occurred, these tests
continued to go on.

And I write about how dangerous this was and how it comes right up to
the edge of violating the treaty when an accident occurs. And one
example was, you know, a 148-pound chunk of radioactive debris shoots up
into the sky and lands, rendering Area 25 a place that no one could go,
not even in a HazMat suit, for six weeks.

And what's interesting today, Terry, is that in this post-9/11 world
that's actually the place where the Department of Homeland Security now
trains its Special Ops people in how to respond to a post-nuclear
accident or a post-nuclear event.

GROSS: Because it is a post-nuclear event.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Yes, it is.

GROSS: So just to clarify: If this project had gone to completion, how
would the nuclear explosions be used? Would this have been like bombs
powering a missile takeoff?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, it's a fascinating story in and of itself because
that's actually how it started. And believe it or not, they actually -
the Department of Defense contracted with the Coca-Cola company because
the original idea, designed by a famous physicist named Ted Taylor - and
this was back when the project was called Orion - they were going to
have a number of nuclear bombs, each being one kiloton.

And these nuclear bombs were going to kind of come out of the back of
the rocket ship like Coke bottles coming out of a Coke machine. And they
would explode behind the ship, and the explosive power would then propel
the rocket ship further on into space.

It sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but
it's absolutely what was happening out there. And then the project
shifted away from that once the Atomic Energy Commission began to
realize that this test ban treaty was coming down the pike. And they
knew they wouldn't be able to literally explode bombs one by one.

And so that is when they began to build the rocket engine that
essentially acts like a small nuclear reactor inside an engine,
allegedly containing the radioactivity and then propelling that into
space.

GROSS: But the radioactivity wasn't contained when they actually tried
that.

Ms. JACOBSEN: No, and ultimately the program was canceled in the early
'70s because America completely lost its interest in spending any more
time or treasure exploring space, when there were so many complicated
things going on in the United States with the Vietnam War.

GROSS: So Area 51, you write, was created primarily to investigate
planes for overhead surveillance. So the U2 comes out of Area 51, right?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Yes.

GROSS: And then the Oxcart, which sounds like it would be a very slow-
driven cart, but it's actually a plane that could go three times the
speed of sound, which is very fast. So what was the Oxcart, which I
think most people have never heard of? What was the Oxcart intended to
be used for?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, the A-12 Oxcart was the CIA's brilliant idea of a
spy plane that could conduct espionage on the Soviet Union, that could
peer over the Iron Curtain and see what was going on there.

And absolutely most people have never heard of it, but many people have
actually seen its cousin, and the cousin is the Air Force's SR-71
Blackbird.

So the Oxcart was declassified in 2007, at which point the CIA was able
to reveal: No, no, no, we actually had all this incredible technology,
which we gave to the Air Force, which they used in the Blackbird. And I
think that the CIA should get a lot of credit for that because they were
out there at Area 51 setting the bar higher and higher for these
espionage vehicles, which absolutely kept America safer and kept us out
of nuclear war and kept us from a number of other incidents.

And the idea that Area 51 was this test facility working to move
technology and science faster and further than any other nation is true
and is absolutely one of the great hallmarks of Area 51.

There are other elements of the base that are controversial, but they
both exist simultaneously out there in the desert.

GROSS: Annie Jacobsen will be back in the second half of the show. Her
new book is called "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top
Secret Military Base." She writes about national security for the Los
Angeles Times Magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Annie
Jacobsen, author of the new book "Area 51." It's about the top-secret
military testing base which is located within the Nevada Test and
Training Range. She writes about the surveillance planes that were
secretly created at Area 51 and the hundreds of nuclear tests conducted
in Nevada just outside Area 51. The book is based on declassified
documents and on interviews with people who lived and worked in Area 51.
Jacobsen is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times magazine,
where she writes about national security.

Now Area 51, as you point out in your book, is associated in a lot of
people's minds, with three conspiracy theories. One having to do with
UFOs; one having to do with beliefs that the moon landing was actually
faked at Area 51, it really didn't happen, it was just staged there; and
the other having to do with this believe that there are tunnels at Area
51 that connect with nuclear research facilities and military bases all
over. And you write that each of these conspiracy theories have some
kernel of truth woven within them.

So let's get to the conspiracy theory about unidentified flying objects.
First of all, you point out that, for instance, the Oxcart that was
being tested in Area 51 was so fast and so unusual looking for its time
that anybody seeing that would think oh, it's a UFO. And there were
other vehicles being tested at Area 51 people might think was a UFO. So
that's part of where you think this conspiracy theory comes from about
covering up UFOs. Yes?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Absolutely. And there is lots of documentation in the CIA
archives that support this idea, going back to its second director,
General Walter Bedell Smith, who himself was obsessed with UFO - what he
called UFO hysteria in the nation and he felt that it was a threat to
national security because people's susceptibility to hysteria could make
the nation's early air defense warning system vulnerable to what he felt
was a real Soviet attack. And he actually believed that that was a
strategy that the Soviet Union had in play in the mid-1950s.

GROSS: Now there was an unidentified flying object that crash landed in
Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the remains were brought back to Area 51
for investigation in 1951. And I think that you believe that this crash
landing is really central to the whole UFO conspiracy theory that is so
popular in America. And Roswell figures very heavily into that
conspiracy theory, that it was all covered up. So what can you tell us
about this unidentified flying object that did not come from outer space
- that was not created and flown by aliens?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, Terry, this is the end of my book and it's obviously
controversial and shocking at the same time.

GROSS: Let's start before the most controversial shocking stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And let's get to the Horten brothers who are believed to have
designed this flying object. Who were they?

Ms. JACOBSEN: The UFO craze began in America in the summer of 1947. And
several months later, the G2 intelligence, which was the Army
Intelligence Corps at the time, spent an enormous amount of time and
treasure seeking out two former Third Reich aerospace designers named
Walter and Reimar Horten who had allegedly created this flying disc. And
these are all documents that are declassified by the Defense
Intelligence Agency now, and they're part of a program that was called
Operation Harass. It's a 300-page file which shows that these American
intelligence agents fanned out across Europe seeking the Horten brothers
to find out if, in fact, they had made this flying disc.

GROSS: So what did you learn about what the purpose of this flying disc,
that is believed to be created by the Horten brothers, was?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, the government was obviously concerned that they had
created a flying disc. And if you go to the National Archives, you can
see some photographs of the Horten brothers' airplanes that, some of
which, the U.S. government confiscated and some of which they just
confiscated the photographs. And you see that as early as the 1942, the
Horten brothers were working with kind of like parabolic shaped flying
craft. So they had gotten three quarters of a circle.

One of the German scientists described it as a cake with the slice cut
out of it. And obviously the government was concerned that the Horten
brothers had made a flying disc and that that could possibly account for
some of the sightings of these flying discs which were being seen by
thousands of Americans in the 1940s – late 1940s and early 50s and were
causing kind of hysteria/panic.

GROSS: And this flying disc could hover. It wasn't always in motion,
which was considered quite a technological breakthrough. Do you think
that these discs were intended to ultimately be used for spying and
surveillance?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, there's what I think and then there's what my source
told me. And I think it's important, as I write in the book, to
differentiate between that. I very clearly make a decision to tell you
what the source told me. And in the epilogue of my book I offer some of
what I think may have happened. But I do also want to clarify that
nowhere in any government documentation that I came across, has the
government ever discussed this hover and fly technology in a
declassified manner.

And that is what makes my source's allegations controversial, because
according him, one of these flying saucers did come over into the United
States, it did crash. He worked as one of the five engineers who reverse
engineered it, and according to him, it did have the hover and fly
technology and we have had that hover and fly technology all along.

GROSS: So are the Horten brothers and their flying disc, is that all
classified or is that any of that unclassified? Just trying to get a
sense of how much of this is from sources and how much of this you were
able to read in official documents.

Ms. JACOBSEN: In official documents there's a lot of information about
the Horten brothers, their flying craft. They were best known for being
the inventors of the flying wing. And there is some information about
their parabolic shaped airplanes. What is separate and what is new to
the reporting that I do in the book is that the Horten brothers were
involved in the flying disc that crashed in New Mexico.

GROSS: Okay. And that's from sources.

Ms. JACOBSEN: That is from a source.

GROSS: From a source.

My guest is Annie Jacobsen author of the new book "Area 51."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Annie Jacobsen, author of the new book "Area 51,"
about the secret military research facility located within the Nevada
Test and Training Range. The book is based in part on interviews with
people who worked at Area 51. The base's secrecy has made it fertile
ground for conspiracy theories. When we left off, we were talking about
the conspiracy theory alleging a cover-up of a UFO that crash landed in
Roswell, New Mexico. One of her sources told her that a flying disc did
crash at Roswell in 1947, but it wasn't an alien spaceship. The military
believed the flying disc was created by two German aerospace engineers,
Walter and Reimar Horten.

Now this source that you have told you some amazing things that are kind
of hard to believe, and I don't know what to make of it, honestly. And
so, the most extraordinary stuff I think that he told you has to do with
who was in this flying disc. So tell us what he told you.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, I want to back up for one moment, and just speak
about my sources, because it's important that I distinguish the fact
that all of the sources came to me from one another. Everyone came by
referral. They are part of a formerly secret group of scientists,
engineers and physicists who were out in the desert working on these
various projects. And they all had different levels of need to know on
different projects, so what one knew the other did not know. And out of
all of the sources, as I write in the book, they would often say to me I
can't discuss that. That's classified.

And I had this unusual, extraordinary moment, when one of the sources
began to become very upset and told me some things that were stunning,
and this is what you're talking about in the end of the book that's
almost impossible to believe at first read. And that is that a flying
disc really did crash in New Mexico. And that it was transported to
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and then in 1951 it was transferred to
Area 51, which is why the base is called Area 51. And the stunning part
of this reveal was that my source, who I absolutely believe and worked
with for 18 months on this, was one of the engineers who received the
equipment – he refers to it as equipment - and he also received the
people who were in the craft. And so...

GROSS: Do you mean the remains of the people in the craft?

Ms. JACOBSEN: The people were - according to the source - the people in
the craft who were child-sized pilots, and there's a lot of debate about
how old they were. He believes that they were 13, although other people
believe that they may have been older. But this is a firsthand witness
to this and, you know, I made a decision to write about this in book at
the very end of the book, after I take the traditional journalist form
of telling you everything, all the stories in the third person, I switch
and I kind of lean into the reader and I say, look, this is not why Area
51 is classified to the point where no one in the government will admit
it exists. The reason is, because of what one man told me. And then
using the first person, I tell you what I was told. And there is no
doubt that people are going to be upset, alarmed and skeptical of this
information, but I absolutely believe the veracity of my source, and I
believe that it was important that I put this information out there as
relayed to me by him, because it is the tip of a very big iceberg.

And what he says is that the child-sized aviators in this craft were the
result of a Soviet human experimentation program, and they had been made
to look like aliens ala Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds."

GROSS: So if your source is right and if there were human beings
engineered to look like aliens within this aircraft that crash landed at
Roswell, what was the point? Why would the Russians want to send a
vehicle with humans engineered to look like space aliens?

Ms. JACOBSEN: When the Orson Welles radio broadcast "The War of the
Worlds" aired in 1938, people on the East Coast actually took actions
based on their belief that Martians had landed in New Jersey and were
attacking. And this fascinated the American military - I source all this
in my book - and led to a lot of behind the scenes thinking about what
it meant that American citizens could be so moved by something that was
fictional - that was science fiction. And across the pond, Hitler also
paid attention to "The War of the Worlds." He referenced it in a speech.
And according to my source, Stalin also paid attention to "The War of
the Worlds" and was fascinated by American susceptibility toward science
fiction. And so his plan, according to my source, was to create panic in
the United States with this belief that a UFO had landed with aliens
inside of it.

And Terry, one of the most interesting documents that I encourage people
to look at is the second CIA director, General Walter Bedell Smith,
memos back and forth to the National Security Council in the early 50s,
talking about how the fear is that the Soviets could make a hoax against
America, involving a UFO, and overload our early air defense warning
system, making America vulnerable to an attack. My read of General
Walter Bedell Smith's documents are that it was actually another hoax.

GROSS: So the goal was to just - make it seem like there really were
UFOs? Is that what you're saying?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Yes. That is according to the source.

GROSS: Okay, now here's something in the story that makes no sense to
me. What you write is that the 13-year-old, or older, pilots...

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Okay, now here's something in the story that makes no sense to
me. What you write is that the 13-year-old or older pilots who were
basically genetically designed to look like children – to not really
grow, and to look like aliens - that this was part of an experiment by
the Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, as Stalin made a deal with him after the war
that Mengele could continue to work on eugenics programs, on his crazy
human experiments, but do it for the Soviet Union. Now, since this takes
place in 1947, how would Mengele have had time to create even a 13-year-
old? That would go back to 1934, that he would have started working on
this in 1934.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, I would beg to differ on that, because I - and the
reason that I say genetically/surgically altered is because my source is
unclear, because remember that's secondhand information to him. What is
firsthand information is that he worked with these bodies, and he was an
eyewitness to the horror of seeing them and working with them. Where
they actually came from is obviously the subject of debate. But if you
look at the timeline with Mengele, he left Auschwitz in January of 1945
and disappeared for a while. And the suggestion by the source is that
Mengele had already sort of cut his losses with the Third Reich at that
point and was working with Stalin.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So you're saying that these children were surgically
altered.

Ms. JACOBSEN: I am repeating what the source told me that...

GROSS: Right. That he's saying. I'm sorry. He's saying that they were
surgically altered.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Yeah. Or genetically. It's unclear. What he is absolutely
clear about is that the iconic images that we have now of aliens with
the big head and the nose and the eyes, that is actually what the
child's eyes - pilots - looked like. And what I asked my source over and
over again, where my skepticism came in was, why, originally in 1947,
when this craft supposedly crashed with these grotesque humans in it,
why on earth didn't President Truman hold a press conference to show
what a horrible, evil abhorrent man Joseph Stalin was, to be working
with Dr. Mengele?

And the source's answer - which took a very long time - was ultimately:
because we decided to do the same thing. And that the head of the
program - who my source says was a man named Vannevar Bush, who had also
been in charge of the Manhattan Project, decided that it was important
to figure out what the Soviets had done. And so we began our own rogue
program with human experiments. And this, says the source, is why it's
all secret.

GROSS: My guest is Annie Jacobsen, author of the new book "Area 51."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Annie Jacobsen. She writes
about national security for the LA Times, and she's author of the new
book "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military
Base."

Now, I have to ask you, your book seems so credible when talking about
nuclear tests and tests on new surveillance planes and all the secrecy
and the lack of oversight at Area 51 and the nuclear testing ground. And
then you get to this source at the end who tells you things that seem
just really out there. And I guess I'm wondering: Did it - did you ever
think about not including that, thinking that if you did include it,
people might question your credibility because that part is so
incredible sounding?

I mean, it just – and it just adds, in a way, to the whole conspiracy
theory, though it's not a conspiracy theory about aliens from outer
space, but it is a conspiracy theory of Stalin and Mengele and a cover-
up in the U.S., because we started to do crazy experiments, kind of
mutating humans.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Absolutely. I thought through all of those things. I mean,
those are serious concerns that any serious journalist would have. But I
had to balance that with my job as a journalist, which is to tell the
citizens the truth. And I believe this man is telling the truth.

GROSS: Why do you believe him?

Ms. JACOBSEN: I worked with him for 18 months, as I write in the book,
but now it's been over two years. And he had a Q clearance. He had a
top-secret clearance. He was a member of the Manhattan Project. His
credentials are impeccable to me. Working with him for two years,
hundreds of hours of interviews, I fact-checked every other fact that he
ever gave me. I accessed his medical records. I accessed his war
records. I accessed his full military record. He worked for the Atomic
Energy Commission across three decades. The source is legitimate, in my
opinion, and I felt that if I were to leave it out, it would be a
disservice to why I believe he told me what he told me in the first
place.

Terry, he has absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose. I keep
him anonymous, and I hope he remains that way. But he's the last of the
five engineers who worked on this horrific rogue program, and he's a
real patriot and he did amazing things for American national security.
But he knows that this rogue program was wrong, and I made a decision to
put that information on the record.

GROSS: So you've taken a lot of stuff from your sources that was not
supposed to be revealed and you've revealed it. Why do you think it's
important to take the classified information that you were able to
access and make it public?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Because if we really did have a program that involved
experimenting on humans and the result was death, that needs to be made
public. And one of the things that people may say is, you know, how
could you accuse the Atomic Energy Commission of such things? And I do
make very clear, because my source told me this, that it's the Atomic
Energy Commission that has the original files on Roswell and that
specifically, the defense contractor EG&G, and those files are protected
from even the president by the national security keeping system at the
Atomic Energy Commission enjoys. But the Atomic Energy Commission, as I
write in the book, Terry, has a long history of experimenting on humans.
And this has been written about publicly, and many people kind of turn
the other way when they hear about these things.

No one wants to hear about retarded children in Massachusetts who have
been injected with plutonium, as the reporter Eileen Welsome reported in
the 1990s, which set about President Clinton investigating the crimes of
the Atomic Energy Commission. And no one wants to hear about those
things. Why? I don't know.

Hillary Clinton apologized to the Guatemalans just in October of last
year for the fact that our scientists went into mental institutions in
Guatemala, pulled people out and infected them with syphilis so that we
could see what would happen. Now, these are horrific human experiments,
and we have done them. And in my opinion, people sort of pay attention
to it, and then go on with their lives. And maybe this one might make
people think a little more clearly about this, because it is such a
high-profile subject, because so many people are concerned with all
these different theories about Roswell.

GROSS: Do you know what Area 51 is being used for now?

Ms. JACOBSEN: Well, my understanding is that Area 51 is now the place
where our most important drones and our overhead espionage platforms are
being developed. And in the most interesting way that brings my story
full circle is that these eyes in the skies, this idea which began right
after World War II that overhead espionage would keep us out of war,
they've now merged with weaponry, because as we know from the predator
drone and the reaper drone, the eyes in the skies now also shoot
missiles.

And it's also interesting that our director of Central Intelligence is
going to be the secretary of defense. And one of the top men in
Afghanistan is going to go over to the CIA. So you see, in the 21st
century, how these two organizations are overlapping and working
together.

GROSS: Annie Jacobsen, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. JACOBSEN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Annie Jacobsen is the author of the new book "Area 51." She's a
contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, where she writes
about national security.
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