Most U.S. citizens are unaware that our government has plenty of dirty secrets, and for many, this ignorance is bliss.
Not for geographer and journalist Trevor Paglen. For nearly a decade he has tracked a host of clandestine government and military agencies and "black" sites that remain hidden from public view and knowledge — and often from the budgetary decisionmakers within Congress.
"Each year," the author writes, "the United States spends more than $50 billion to fund a secret world of classified military and intelligence activities, a world of secret airplanes and unacknowledged spacecraft, 'black' military units and covert prisons, a secret geography that military and intelligence insiders call the 'black world.' "
Paglen takes us on an eye-opening journey through this secret world, from watching unmarked airplanes depart from a secondary terminal at the Las Vegas airport, to trekking up Tikaboo Peak in Nevada to get a look at the expanding black site at Groom Lake, to attempting to penetrate the National Counterterrorism Center, a CIA "undisclosed location" that could be a model for the TV show 24.
Amid his travels, the author discusses the history of the black world, including the 1947 National Security Act, which established the National Security Council and the CIA; the development of the atomic bomb through the Manhattan Project, which employed 130,000 people at its peak; and the work of pioneering cryptologist Herbert Yardley, whose "Black Chamber" became "the early prototype of what would become the Pentagon's black world."
The Manhattan Project was a perfect embodiment of the black world's structure, which is entirely "compartmented and cubbyholed … only a few people are allowed to see the whole picture." Even though it employs 4 million government workers, as opposed to the 1.8 million employed by the so-called "white" sections of the government, very few of those workers know anything outside their limited purview.
In fact, much of this world operates outside or above the law. "The history of secret geographies shows that when they do come into contact with the legal system," writes Paglen, "the legal system tends to change in order to accommodate them."
For those who think Guantánamo Bay represents the apex of government secrecy, Paglen points to numerous prisons and detention facilities in Pakistan and Afghanistan — many of which supposedly don't even exist — that show ample evidence of unlawful holding of prisoners and widespread torture tactics. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration, at the urging of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, suspended many of the rules of due process, expanding the power of the executive branch to an unprecedented level.
Paglen notes a particularly telling exchange between President Bush and Rumsfeld: " 'Any barriers in your way, they are gone,' he told … Rumsfeld. 'I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.' "
"In our American system," the author writes, "state secrecy is the provenance of the executive branch; it has little statutory basis. It is the tool of kings."
The author's diversions into military and government history aren't always smoothly integrated into the narrative, and the alphabet soup list of agencies and code names becomes tiresome. Still, Paglen comes armed with plenty of numbers and the research to back them up. It's information that the Obama administration, in its purported efforts to increase transparency in government, would do well to examine closely.
Eric Liebetrau is a managing editor at Kirkus Reviews.