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

Area 51, seen from above, in 1968. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Seventy-five miles north of Las Vegas sits a land parcel in the middle of the desert. Called Area 51, the parcel is just outside of the abandoned Nevada Test and Training Range, where more than 100 atmospheric bomb tests were conducted in the 1950s. Officially, the U.S. government has never acknowledged the existence of Area 51. Unofficially, it has become a place associated with conspiracy theories, alien landings and tiny spaceships.

Journalist Annie Jacobsen tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the site has remained classified for many years — not because of aliens or spaceships, but because the government once used the site for top-secret nuclear testing and weapons development.

In Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base, Jacobsen details how several agencies — including the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Defense and the CIA — once used the site to conduct controversial and secretive research on aircraft and pilot-related projects, including planes that traveled three times faster than the speed of sound and nuclear-propelled, space-based missile launch systems.

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base
By Annie Jacobsen
Hardcover, 544 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List price: $27.99

Read An Excerpt

Operation Plumbbob

In the summer and fall of 1957, a series of atmospheric nuclear tests — called Operation Plumbbob — were conducted above ground at the Nevada testing and training range, located just outside of Area 51. Twenty-nine explosions were set off while tests were conducted on troop readiness, accidental detonations and the effects of flying debris on living targets, according to documents declassified by the Department of Energy that Jacobsen details in her book.

During the explosions, security officer Richard Mingus stood guard outside many of the weapons-testing sites, including one with the largest atmospheric bomb that has ever exploded in the United States.

"The bomb goes off. Richard Mingus is at ground zero, safe away in a bunker somewhere, and suddenly someone realizes, 'My God, Area 51 is unsecured,' " Jacobsen says. "And so they send Richard Mingus through ground zero, 45 minutes to an hour after this nuclear bomb has exploded, so that he can get to Area 51 to guard the gate."

Mingus survived, as did many other atomic veterans who stood close to ground zero during other Plumbbob tests.

"You can absolutely drive through an atmospheric bomb test and not be affected," Jacobsen says. "Richard Mingus also stood guard at a test at a subparcel of Area 51 ... [during] a dirty bomb test."

During the dirty bomb test, the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission simulated a plane crash where plutonium was dispersed on the ground, to see what would happen if an aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon were to crash on American soil. The resulting fallout and structural damage made much of the land uninhabitable.

"The area out at Area 51 that was part of the Operation Plumbbob test continues to be contaminated," she says. "It was not cleaned up until the '80s. And at that point, they sent in men in hazmat suits to scrape the land."

Rockets Into Space With Nuclear Powered Explosions

The nuclear tests at Area 51 gave the Department of Defense ideas about how the technology could be used to help the United States' newly minted space program. And during the space race with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the Department of Defense proposed using space itself as a weapon, according to declassified documents that Jacobsen found. One of its ideas was to develop a nuclear-powered space-based missile launch system that would sit outside Earth's atmosphere and have the capability to launch missiles — from outer space — into the Soviet Union.

"This didn't end up happening, but it almost did," Jacobsen says. "They were testing the rocket to see whether it would actually work. And to do that meant spewing vast quantities of radiation into the air. It's very controversial [and] it was kept very top-secret."

After the U.S. ratified the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, the tests continued to take place.

"It comes right up to the edge of violating the treaty when an accident occurs," she says. "In one example, a 148-pound chunk of radioactive debris shoots up into the sky and lands, rending [a subparcel of Area 51] a place that no one could go, not even in a hazmat suit, for six weeks."

The Oxcart

In addition to testing nuclear weapons, Area 51 was often used as a training ground for overhead surveillance planes, says Jacobsen. One plane, called the Oxcart, was designed by the CIA to travel three times the speed of sound at 90,000 feet to spy on the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The Oxcart, in use from 1963 to 1968, worked beautifully, though it was never used over the Soviet Union or Cuba. Never once shot down, it was used in missions over North Vietnam and during the Pueblo Crisis with North Korea.

"It absolutely kept us safer and kept us out of nuclear war," Jacobsen says. "The idea that Area 51 was this test facility working to move science and technology faster and further than any other nation is true and is one of the great hallmarks of Area 51. There are other areas of the base that are controversial — but they both exist simultaneously — out there in the desert."


Interview Highlights

The secrecy surrounding Area 51 has made it fertile ground for conspiracy theories, including one about a UFO cover-up and another about the moon landing having never happened. Jacobsen addresses these conspiracy theories in the book and speculates about what led to them. She says her book is based on interviews with 74 individuals with rare firsthand knowledge of the secret base. Thirty-two of the people she interviewed lived and worked at Area 51.

On flying discs and conspiracy theories

"The UFO craze began in the summer of 1947. 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 [a] flying disc. ... American intelligence agents fanned out across Europe seeking the Horton brothers to find out if, in fact, they had made this flying disc.

"The idea behind it remains, why? Why were they looking for a flying disc? And conspiracy theorists have had their hands on this declassified file for over a decade now, and they say it proves that this flying disc came from outer space. If you read the documents, the takeaway that I found fascinating was that at the end of it, the Army admits finding the Horten brothers, and that the Horten brothers admitted their contact with the Russians and that's where the file ends. Everything after that is classified."

On why Area 51 is actually classified, according to a source

"The Horten brothers were involved in the flying disc crash in New Mexico. And that is from a single source. ... There was an unusual moment where that source became very upset and told me things that were stunning that's almost impossible to believe at first read. And that is that a flying disc really did crash in New Mexico and 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 the reveal is that my source, who I absolutely believe and worked with for 18 months on this, was one of the engineers who received the equipment and he also received the people who were in the craft.

"The people were, according to the source, were child-sized pilots, and there's a lot of debate about how old they were. He believes they were 13, although other people believe they may have been older. But this is a firsthand witness to this, and I made a decision to write about this in the very end of the book, after I take the traditional journalist form of telling you everything 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 what one man told me.' And then using the first person, I tell you what I was told. And there's 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 it was important that I put this information out there because it is the tip of a very big iceberg."

On the Soviet human experiments her source told her about

"The child-sized aviators in this craft [that crashed in New Mexico] were the result of a Soviet human experimentation program, and they had been made to look like aliens a la Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, and it was a warning shot over President Truman's bow, so to speak. In 1947, when this would have originally happened, the Soviets did not yet have the nuclear bomb, and Stalin and Truman were locked in horns with one another, and Stalin couldn't compete in nuclear weaponry yet, but he certainly could compete in the world of black propaganda — and that was his aim, according to my source. ...

"What is firsthand information is that he worked with these bodies [of the pilots] 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 Josef Mengele, he left Auschwitz in January of 1945 and disappeared for a while, and the suggestion by the source is that Mengele had already cut his losses with the Third Reich at that point and was working with Stalin."

On why the Soviets would have undertaken such a hoax

"The 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 one of the most interesting documents is the second CIA director, Walter Bedell Smith, memos back and forth to the National Security Council 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."

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Transcript

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 about 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 acknowledge 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 (Los Angeles 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 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 Mingus. He was the security guard at Area 51 and he was also a security guard on many of these weapons tests. And Richard Mingus 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 sent 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 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."

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 describe 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 code-named 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 belief 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. 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 a 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 to 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 crafts. 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, Reimar and Walter 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. 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 about 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 in to 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 a la 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...

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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, and 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 had 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 is 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-size 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.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Annie Jacobsen. She writes about national security for the LA Times, and she's the 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 - 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. Abs--

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 it's 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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