Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

The trouble that is not found on any map

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.

Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World

By Trevor Paglen

Dutton, 352 pages, $25.95

The trouble that is not found on any map 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. BREAKING: Tropical Storm Harvey forms in Atlantic


    UPDATE: At 5 p.m. the National Hurricane Center said a hurricane hunter plane had determined that Tropical Storm Harvey had formed with sustained winds of 40 mph.

    Three tropical waves are expected to strengthen as they move across the Atlantic Ocean. [Courtesy of the National Hurricane Center]
  2. Editorial: Pinellas should join lawsuit challenging new state law


    The Florida Legislature has been on a cynical, constitutionally dubious quest to render local school boards powerless. The most direct assault is a new state law that strips school boards of much of their authority when it comes to the creation and funding of charter schools. It's time for the Pinellas County School …

  3. Editorial: Fix funding unfairness in Florida foster care system


    Many of the children in Florida's foster care system already have been failed by their parents. The last thing these kids need is to be failed by bureaucracy, too, and yet that's exactly what appears to be happening because of a needlessly rigid funding formula set up by the Florida Legislature. Child welfare agencies …

    The Legislature may have had good intentions when it came up with the funding plan, but it’s obvious that there is some unfairness built into it. The funding may be complicated, but the goal is simple: Making sure every child in need gets the help he or she needs.
  4. After Charlottesville, Judy Genshaft asks USF to "stand together with open minds and open hearts"


    TAMPA — In a welcome letter celebrating the start of a new academic year, University of South Florida System President Judy Genshaft took a moment to reflect on last weekend's violence in Charlottesville and asked students to unite with "open minds and open hearts."

    USF president Judy Genshaft posed with graduate Matt Jackson in 2015.
  5. Police: Man arrested in Largo had thousands of child pornography files


    LARGO — A 43-year-old man was arrested Wednesday after detectives found thousands of child pornography images and videos on his laptop.

    Tyrone Jeffrey Russell, 43, was arrested Wednesday on child pornography charges, according to Largo police. [Pinellas County Jail]