Annie Jacobsen on the Stories behind Secretive Government Research Programs

Annie Jacobsen Courtesy of Annie Jacobsen

Annie Jacobsen’s reporting has illuminated some of the more clandestine—and sometimes scientifically and ethically murky—research projects undertaken by the United States military and intelligence agencies.

Her 2015 book The Pentagon’s Brain, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, tells the history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known as DARPA). Based on extensive archival research and interviews with scores of people with ties to the agency, Jacobsen traced the agency’s history, from its origins at the dawn of the Cold War in the 1950s to its modern research on drones and brain-machine interfaces. “Does DARPA safeguard democracy, or does it stimulate America’s seemingly endless call to war?” she writes, leaving readers to find their own answers.

Jacobsen takes the same approach in her other books, some of which tackle even more controversial programs. These include the effort to bring Nazi scientists to the United States after World War II to work on missiles and other weapons systems (Operation Paperclip), an infamous and highly classified military site in the Nevada desert (Area 51), and CIA research on extrasensory perception and psychokinesis during the Cold War (Phenomena).

Her latest book, Surprise, Kill, Vanish, examines the covert CIA paramilitary units that conduct sabotage, subversion, and even assassinations at the behest of U.S. presidents. Jacobsen worked as a writer on the first two seasons of Jack Ryan, the popular TV spy drama produced by Amazon and based on the famous character from the Tom Clancy novels.

Here, she talks with Greg Miller about cultivating sources with knowledge of secretive government programs, using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get documents declassified, and writing for television. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


How would you describe the common threads that run through your work? What are the questions that motivate you?

I’m interested in great stories. I really believe that human drama drives every narrative, certainly the ones I want to read about. In my work as a national security reporter, I cover security, secrets, war, and weapons. When you consider those four elements, there’s no shortage of drama.

Are you also trying to educate people about what the government is doing in their name?

It’s so interesting because people ask me that question often, as if I have a torch to carry. I must say that is not what motivates me. The thing driving me is the humanness of it all, not the message.

It’s such an important time politically that we’re in, and I continue to remain publicly neutral about politics because I think there’s a bigger question, and that’s: What do you think? I work from the Eisenhower principle that an alert and knowledgeable citizenry is best for the nation, and if people really do the footwork to understand something they can make a good decision. [In his final public address to the nation in 1961, President Eisenhower said: “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”]

That decision might be different from your decision or my decision, but that’s what makes democracy.

How do you find and cultivate sources with knowledge of secret government programs? And how do you know if you can trust what they’re telling you?

With my first book, Area 51, I got my big break when someone sitting next to me at dinner said, “the CIA just declassified my life’s work.” Bingo, right? Then I determined that this work he’s talking about was developing aerial espionage for the CIA—first with the U-2 [reconnaissance aircraft], then with Oxcart [another spy plane]—and it was taking place out at Area 51. Then from there I could say, “Can you tell me who was in the program?”

Usually the original source is someone you have to track down. Like in my current book, Surprise, Kill, Vanish, Billy Waugh [a former CIA operative] is kind of the main driver. I had to track him down, and it took eight or nine years to get him to talk to me for more than 5 minutes. Every time I was in Florida visiting people for other books I’d call him up and say, “Hey, I’m in the neighborhood. Will you let me come talk to you?” Persistence works with some individuals.

“You want to be careful. You don’t want all your sources to be referrals, or else everyone is telling you the same story.”

He’s a public figure, so there’s no question of, Is he really an operative? He has a background that has been legitimized. Then from there you can source out what you feel comfortable reporting in terms of corroborating events—or sometimes a different version of events, if other people saw it differently.

But you want to be careful. You don’t want all your sources to be referrals, or else everyone is telling you the same story. Referrals are super helpful because the credibility issue is taken care of. Surprise, Kill, Vanish covered paramilitary operators for the agency, and there’s a lot of individuals out there who fabricate information about what they did. If you’re in a small, tight group of people who are linked directly to the 7th floor at CIA, you can be certain that what they’re saying isn’t fabricated, but you must be mindful of the fact that it’s serving their position.

Other than talking to multiple people, what else can you do to corroborate their stories?

I’ll give you my favorite example. It’s also from Area 51. I had understood from a group of nuclear weapons engineers I was interviewing that the military and the Atomic Energy Commission worked on a project together to set off a dirty bomb adjacent to Area 51, in an area called Area 13. This is such a shocking story. The Air Force simulated a plane crash because they wanted to know what would happen if one of our aircraft transporting a nuclear weapon were to crash. Would that crash result in a nuclear explosion? Would plutonium spread across the desert? In 1957 they literally did not know, and so they simulated this out at Area 13 [with high explosives and a nuclear warhead].

The nuclear engineers all knew it had happened, but there was zero on the public record to support that. No one even knew the name of the program because that’s how secret it was. I tried and tried to get documents, and I found myself at the Nuclear Testing Archive library in Las Vegas, yet again, searching for “dirty bomb tests,” “plutonium crash,” “Area 13”—all these keywords, to no avail.

I was upset about this because I felt information was being withheld from me. So I took a minute to go cool down in a photo exhibit that was on display in the same building, and there I bumped into a fellow named Richard Mingus, who I’d met a couple months prior. Richard was a security guard. He asked how I was doing and I said, “Oh, I’m so frustrated,” and I tell him the story, and he goes, “Oh, you mean Project 57?”

I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “I was the security guard out there standing at the gate.” So we marched back to the library and he said, “Annie here is trying to get the documents for Project 57.” The librarian looked at him and typed a few things in and handed me a slip of paper that said where the documents were.

That was the key. I needed to know what to ask for. Who besides Richard and perhaps a handful of men still alive knew that? You could say it’s a lucky break, or you could say that’s what the universe delivers if you stick with it long enough. I think it was my fifth time at the archive.

In many cases you’ve gotten documents declassified. Can you explain how that works?

I file scores of FOIAs [requesting classified documents]. The majority come back in a business envelope, and you open it up and it says, in essence, non-responsive [meaning the request was denied for national security reasons or other exemptions allowed by law]. Other times I get a big manila folder with 10 to 15 documents and I’m like, Wow! And on occasion I get a box of documents. There seems to be absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. The process continues to amaze me.

So the way to get something declassified is to FOIA it?

Yes. You can also find documents that others have FOIA’d and gotten declassified at the National Archives and elsewhere. In Operation Paperclip much of my work came on the shoulders of the incredible work of Linda Hunt, who wrote the first book [on the subject: Secret Agenda, published in 1991]. She was responsible for getting the first files declassified. It was groundbreaking. They were limited releases, but it began the process. I could go into those files, read them, and get new names and request new declassifications.

One of the interests for me in Operation Paperclip was, who of these Nazis we hired did we know were complicit in war crimes? That issue has always been very vague. After much research I identified a list: There were certain doctors on this list for war crimes. I needed that to demonstrate that they knew Dr. Benzinger [a Nazi physician] was a bad guy and they hired him anyway. But the list was among several documents that are so-called “lost” at the National Archives and unfindable, despite me and many others looking for them.

“I have a lot of books in my office, and there’s a shelf with a bunch of books I go to for inspiration…. I think all writers must find those books that serve as your personal inspiration engine.”

In researching a Nuremberg war crimes investigator named Leopold Alexander at Harvard, where his papers were stored, I came across what was clear to me was going to be a gold mine. Because papers got duplicated, what was “lost” at the National Archives might also be in the files of war crimes investigators. But many searches later I realized that the one document I needed wasn’t there [at Harvard], and it wasn’t there because it was classified until 2050. In that case, Annie Jacobsen alone was not persuasive enough to get the DoD [Department of Defense] to declassify that. They rejected my FOIA request on the grounds it was a Privacy Act issue. But lo and behold, with Harvard’s assistance we [submitted another FOIA request and] got those documents declassified. Benzinger and another doctor I’d been researching were on the war crimes list.

Your books often read like spy novels. Do you read a lot of spy novels, or are there other books you turn to for inspiration?

I don’t read a lot of spy novels, at least not right now. My reading habits ebb and flow, but I love reading narrative nonfiction. I have a lot of books in my office, and there’s a shelf with a bunch of books I go to for inspiration. One of those books is Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. It tells the story of 9/11 in the most compelling nonfiction narrative. It’s so simple, and elegant, and unputdownable. If I’m stuck, I just pull it down and read a line from a random page. I think all writers must find those books that serve as your personal inspiration engine.

What’s your approach to re-creating scenes and drama?

There’s a tip I learned from scientists: A lot of defense scientists reverse-engineer things. If you want to know why [Soviet-made] MiG fighter jets were beating so many of our pilots in Vietnam, get your hands on a MiG, break it down to its parts, figure out each part, and then put it back together. I do that with the great books and films and amazing television shows of others. I watch stuff and rewatch it and figure out, What did they do?

I also watch a lot of animal videos, another thing that was taught to me by DARPA scientists. You can learn so much about human nature—that is, animal nature. There’s drama, cat and mouse, catch and kill, hunt or die. There are these incredible archetypes. You watch how the rodent escapes from the snake, or doesn’t. I watch my own feelings about that, how the intensity rises and falls. And then you try to reverse-engineer that.

Is your role on Jack Ryan to help keep it true to life?

My role is to be on the team and create great TV for audiences. There are many individuals for Jack Ryan to make sure the authenticity that the executive directors of that show desired is there. That included visits to CIA headquarters; it included consultants who were former agency individuals at both an administrative level and an operational level. It’s part of my role, too. Many journalists go on to be showrunners of TV shows or create their own shows for exactly that reason. Audiences love the truthfulness of the underlying material.

Does it ever make you squirm when something gets written into the show and you know it wouldn’t really happen that way?

People get so bananas over that stuff, and I find it silly. I’m not watching a TV show about the CIA to learn about the CIA. It is entertainment. But because I love storytelling so much, and I believe that human stories drive narratives, it’s a wonderful respite from the cold hard facts of the real world.


Greg Miller Courtesy of Greg Miller

Greg Miller is a science journalist based in Portland, Oregon, and co-author of All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey. He has written for Wired, Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @dosmonos.

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