Visiting A CIA 'Black Site' Trevor Paglen combined his skills as a journalist, geographer and visual artist to study CIA "black sites' — restricted areas featuring ultra-secret labs and other covert charms. Paglen leads a visit to a Nevada site.
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Visiting A CIA 'Black Site'

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Visiting A CIA 'Black Site'

Visiting A CIA 'Black Site'

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand. The U.S. government spends around $50 billion a year on covert activities. That's according to Trevor Paglen. He's the author of a book called "Blank Spots on the Map." And to figure out where that $50 billion goes, he traveled to what are known as blank sites, the shadow world of covert bases, rendition flights, and secret weapons tests. But Trevor Paglen is not your typical investigative journalist. He is a visual artist with a Ph.D. in geography. Producer Adam Burke brings us this profile.

ADAM BURKE: When you look at a landscape, you notice things - details up close, vistas in the distance, a bit of nice scenery, some interesting architecture. But when was the last time you really looked?

Mr. TREVOR PAGLEN (Author, "Blank Spots on the Map"): In human geography, we think about landscapes as being political, social, cultural, economic and physical things all at the same time. And that's the way that I wanted to approach the question of state secrecy.

BURKE: In his new book, "Blank Spots on the Map," Trevor Paglen sets about documenting the diffuse world of secret government activities from a geographer's perspective. It's a pretty heavy duty task, since he's chasing after info that's, well, not easy to get.

Mr. PAGLEN: One of the real challenges with the project is how do you research something that is secret or that somebody is trying to keep hidden from you?

BURKE: How indeed?

(Soundbite of jet engines)

BURKE: Well, for Paglen, a geographer and an artist, it's a visual problem, a material problem. It means going to the places where secrets are kept.

Unidentified Man #1: Sounds like airplane down there.

Unidentified Man #2: Where?

Unidentified Man #1: Flying low. I heard this - I heard them say ejected.

Unidentified Man #2: Someone ejected?

Unidentified Man #1: I don't know.

(Soundbite of radio conversation)

BURKE: A few days ago, Paglen joined some friends on the edge of the Nellis test range. Southern Nevada contains a stretch of alkaline military ground the size of Switzerland. The flat valley floor is blanketed with stubbly plants, flanked on all sides by dry, crusty mountains. Above us, a military training exercise is underway.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, I see the helicopter. ..TEXT: BURKE: A heavyset man only gives his first name.

GARY: You can call me Gary.

BURKE: He's watching the action through binoculars.

GARY: Popping flares.

BURKE: In the back of his truck, a radio scanner is jerry-rigged to a car battery.

Mr. GARY: Can you see that smoke?

BURKE: Yeah.

Mr. GARY: They launched a fake missile at that aircraft, that a smokey SAM. And then he's setting off those flares.

BURKE: This training exercise is not classified. But the test range contains a secret landscape within its borders. Twenty miles to the south is Area 51. Yes, that Area 51, a classified site where weapons and aircraft are tested in secret. And these guys focus the same radio scanners, spotting scopes and binoculars on Area 51 as well.

Mr. PAGLEN: They've developed very, very specific ways of doing research.

BURKE: Paglen says he's learned a lot about mapping secret landscapes from amateur military observers like Gary.

Mr. PAGLEN: These guys, you know, generate enormous amounts of data in doing this work, and sometimes there are potentially little pieces of information that might point to something larger going on.

BURKE: For his research, Paglen interviewed amateurs who monitor secret spy satellites. He himself tracked the movements of planes shuttling workers from the airport in Las Vegas to secret sites in the desert.

Mr. PAGLEN: In the traditional academic literature, secrecy is thought of as a set of bureaucratic operations - hiding files and hiding information, that sort of thing. And I wanted to take a much broader view at it and say no, let's look at secrecy as being indistinct from people who work in secret -from secret air bases, from dollars that are spent in secret.

BURKE: Most of the time, this reconnaissance produces nothing. But every so often, there's an interesting lead. Once at a nearby installation, Gary spotted an airplane with the number N192D on its tail fin.

Mr. GARY: That plane was a known rendition aircraft.

BURKE: According to some human rights groups, that aircraft is allegedly linked to the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.

Mr. GARY: I drive by, I see the aircraft. Get the binoculars, ID the tail number. Get the camera, get a shot. Get out of Dodge.

BURKE: Even a detail like this confirms nothing. It only suggests a CIA presence at this remote facility. But for Paglen, it manifests a larger web of systematic U.S. secrecy. A web that he says links the physical geography of Southern Nevada to extralegal activities and hidden sources of funding.

Mr. PAGLEN: Often times secrecy involves creating spaces that are outside of the law but are outside the normal channels of oversight. And I think it's pretty easy to see that if you create spaces that are essentially outside the law then you're creating spaces where anything can happen. And it's quite likely than anything will happen.

BURKE: In his book, Paglen explores some of the court cases where the rights of Federal employees collided with a secret federal bureaucracy. But according to some who have worked on the inside of these operations, legal and financial cloaking of secret sites is necessary.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Former Operative, CIA): The CIA cannot operate other than with a veil of secrecy around it. It can't do its job.

BURKE: Robert Baer worked as an operative in the Central Intelligence Agency for 21 years.

Mr. BAER: You know, if you want to open these places up you're going to be destroying things like the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, vast parts of the Air Force and the military.

BURKE: Baer admits that the system of secrecy creates a potential for abuse. But he says the fiscal and legal framework is not the issue.

Mr. BAER: The system is completely sound. It's the people running it and the people running dishonestly that are the problem. The system works as long as the people are honest and operate with integrity.

BURKE: Paglen disagrees.

Mr. PAGLEN: These systems are not neutral and they strongly guide the ways that we act within them. And the larger that this secret world grows, the more that it bends the state in its own image, the more that it transforms the state around it to look more like itself.

BURKE: Traveling dirt roads and listening to radio frequencies with Trevor Paglen, it's not clear how this atmospheric research supports his basic argument against state secrecy. But its process is interesting. Maybe Paglen is more effective as a provocateur than as a documentarian. And he offers this simple but often overlooked to notion - that even secret government activities can't defy the laws of physics.

Mr. PAGLEN: If secrecy is made out of the same stuff that the rest of the world is made out of then it's fundamentally visible, which means that secrecy can only fail in the first instance, in the sense that you cannot make something disappear.

BURKE: Late in a day, we drive a dirt road to the edge of area 51. We've reached the border between the place that's public and the place that's secret.

(Soundbite of conversation in car)

Mr. PAGLEN: Pull off to the side of this dirt road.

BURKE: Two signs flanking the road order us not to cross and not to take photographs. On a bluff overlooking the spot, a guard in a white Trooper vehicle watches us from a distance.

(Soundbite of conversation in car)

Unidentified Man: Ready?

Mr. PAGLEN: Yep.

Unidentified Man:OK. Should I leave the car running?

Mr. PAGLEN: Either way.

(Soundbite of camera)

Unidentified Man:That's Trevor Paglen taking a photo of a sign that says photography of this area is prohibited.

Mr. PAGLEN: You don't necessarily get information or data from doing what we're doing right now. You learn to see - maybe that's it, maybe you'll learn to see things that you see every day, or think that you see every day, in new ways.

(Soundbite of camera)

BURKE: For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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