Viewing Secrecy Through “Blank Spots on the Map”

01.30.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“I think that trying to understand secrecy through geography helps make the subject more real,” writes Trevor Paglen in a new book about secret government. “Thinking about secrecy in terms of concrete spaces and practices helps us to see how secrecy happens and helps to explain how secrecy grows and expands.”

Paglen, a geographer, writes about secrecy at the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, secret prisons in Afghanistan, secret satellite constellations in orbit, secret contractor locations around Washington, DC, and elsewhere. He considers their enabling conditions, as well as their implications for American democracy and public policy.

“The United States has become dependent on spaces created through secrecy, spaces that lie outside the rule of law, outside the Constitution, outside the democratic ideals of equal rights, transparent government, and informed consent,” he concludes. Worse, “the black world’s historical geography shows that where black budgets manifest into a space, informal violence becomes the norm.”

“Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World” by Trevor Paglen has just been published by Dutton Books.

The book has won enthusiastic blurbs from Andrew Bacevich, Robert Baer, Rebecca Solnit, and other esteemed authors. But it has important limitations and defects.

Paglen is a fluid writer with an eye for paradox and incongruity. But he is not a perfectly reliable guide to secrecy policy and practice. There are probably closer to three million persons holding security clearances, not four million [see correction below]. The majority of them are not employees of “the black world” of covert or unacknowledged programs but are engaged in perfectly overt activities that happen to involve handling of classified information. It is absurd to suppose that “In terms of numbers of pages, more of our own recent history is classified than is not” (p. 279). It is not correct to say the term “DET 3” never appeared on official Groom Lake documents (p. 41); it appeared on a facility security guide. The TIARA and JMIP intelligence budget categories which Paglen says are classified (p. 204) have not been in use for several years now.

Paglen’s point of departure is that there is a “lack of serious literature” about black sites and classified government operations (p. 13). But this premise cannot be sustained. If anything, there is an excess of largely repetitive material on the same themes. There are at least two books about Groom Lake alone, the subject of Paglen’s chapter 3. There are at least two other books about the 1953 Supreme Court decision in the Reynolds case on state secrets, which he summarizes in chapter 10. There are several other books about the black budget and classified spending, a topic he introduces in chapter 12, and so forth.

There are also some surprising “blank spots” in Paglen’s own narrative. In the 1990s, an independent researcher named Glenn Campbell spent years mapping the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, testing its perimeters and security procedures, scouting out the best public domain vantage points, and tracking the “Janet” airplanes in their daily flights to and from Groom Lake, fifteen years before Paglen did something similar. Without a credential or a book contract, he produced an astounding volume of genuine “black world” geography called the “Area 51 Viewer’s Guide.” But except for a misspelling of his name in an incidental footnote (p. 286), Campbell’s pioneering effort goes completely unacknowledged. Campbell himself would probably find his erasure from the record sublime, but to me it is dispiriting.

Finally, Paglen is so fascinated by the corruption of secrecy that he misses an opportunity to think more critically and more deeply about the subject. In his view, the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites, is an instrument of “domination” while those who work diligently to expose its secrets are servants of “the public good” (p. 119). But what if the opposite is true? What if by performing secret missions that are authorized and funded by the people’s elected representatives the NRO is actually an agent of liberty? And what if those who work to penetrate its secrecy are thereby undermining its democratically authorized mission? These are live issues for some of us, and there are various ways to respond to them. But in “Blank Spots on the Map” the questions themselves find no place.

Correction: Paglen was roughly correct about the number of security clearances, which reached a reported 4.2 million in 2010, and I was mistaken.