Top Secret: A History of Black Ops Patches Trevor Paglen discusses military black ops patches, which he's collected in a a new art and history book, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me.
NPR logo

Trevor Paglen on the BPP

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Top Secret: A History of Black Ops Patches

Trevor Paglen on the BPP

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There is a special department of the Pentagon called the Institute of Heraldry. Every military insignia you see on a uniform, every official military seal or plaque or building on a podium, even those medals for bravery and service are designed and manufactured at the Institute of Heraldry. But there are some military memorabilia you probably never see, or if you do, you won't understand what it really means. They are patches commemorating covert operations that even the Institute of Heraldry might not sign off on.

We talked with one man who's become intrigued by these patches. He discovered it while researching another story about black ops. We'll get into that in just a minute.

Trevor Paglen put the patches in his new art flash history book called "I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me," a collection of 75 black ops patches and his attempt to decipher them.

Can you explain what black ops - a black location is for people?

Mr. TREVOR PAGLEN (Author, "I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me"): Programs, places that are classified, whose existence is a secret. So that might be an airplane that was built, and its existence is a secret. It might be a special operations unit whose existence is a secret. And that's what they mean by black, is the fact that this thing exists or is going on is classified.

STEWART: So as someone who wanted to study a piece of black world lore, these patches, how difficult was it for you to obtain information about these patches once you became aware of them?

Mr. PAGLEN: Well, it's very difficult because the - even though the patches exist, the programs that they refer to are classified. And so you can't just, you know, call up the Air Force historian and ask about one. Well, you can, but the - you won't get it…

STEWART: You won't get the answer, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGLEN: There's a funny thing, however, in these patches, which is that the symbols in the patches often contain clues to the nature of those programs.

STEWART: How did you go about learning about the lexicon of these clues that you see on these patches?

Mr. PAGLEN: Basically, people who worked in the vicinity of these programs told me about them, kind of taught me a little bit how to interpret them. There are also some guides. For example, if you have a patch that's for a black project and the project is declassified, then you can check the symbolic language of the patch you had to what has been declassified. That happens quite rarely.

STEWART: Who makes these patches? Are they something that actually come out of the branches of the military, or is this something that the agents who were involved in these operations do for one another?

Mr. PAGLEN: They'll come - in some instances, they come from the contractor. So, for example, if you're Northrop Grumman and you're building a secret airplane, you might make a patch for all the people who are working on that secret airplane and distribute it to them. If you are a black Air Force unit, the military's going to issue some patch, and you probably won't like that patch very much. And so the people in your unit and you will get together and create your own patch and then try to get a permission to wear it, and sometimes you'll be able to wear these things on Friday.

STEWART: You brought a couple of patches with you here to the studio. Can you decipher one or two for me?

Mr. PAGLEN: These are a little bit tricky. One of these is kind of fun.

STEWART: Yes, I like it.

Mr. PAGLEN: And there's like a spy guy with a big hat in a big white cape, and he's got red eyes and he's holding a pole. And at the bottom of the patch, it says NKAWTG…nobody. And this is quite obscure. If you were to look at this, you'd have no idea what it meant. But what it actually refers to is K - NKAWTG means no one kicks ass without tanker gas. Nobody. And so it turns out this spy guy is holding a refueling boom. And what this is from is, as you can imagine, if you're building secret airplanes, airplanes need to be refueled in flight. And so if you're going to fly secret airplanes, you need to have a secret tanker squadron to refuel those airplanes. And so that's what this patch comes from. So no ones kicks ass without a tanker gas. Nobody. As in including airplanes that don't exist.

STEWART: There's one that's scary, a little bit, to me. It says alone and on the prowl on the bottom. And it's a skull with a very sort of menacing bat wrapped around the top of the skull, and they're both baring their teeth. Oh, there you have the real one. Okay. I didn't realize you brought that in. And then, it's got the Roman numeral nine on one side, IX, and an XI, which I'm guessing is 9/11.

Mr. PAGLEN: What I've been led to believe with this one is that it refers to a classified aircraft nicknamed Desert Prowler. This phrase alone and on the prowl seems to be associated with it. But I know very, very little about it.

STEWART: This one is fairly ominous. It's black, with nothing in the center of it, except across the top and sort of embossed, it says, if I tell you, I have to kill you.

Mr. PAGLEN: That's a funny patch. It's - the thing that's fun about that one is that there's no information, really, on it. It's just that this person's identity has been blacked out.

STEWART: There's one that's across on page 85. It's a naked woman riding a whale. And here's sort of the rein she's using - it's a lighting bolt. It says rodeo gal. And the numbers on the patch are 7, 16, 5, 26.

Mr. PAGLEN: What that patch is from was from a stealth cruise missile that was called TASM. And it was colloquially known as The Killer Whale, because they built - Northrop had built a classified aircraft called Tacit Blue that kind of looked like a flying bathtub. And they made a cruise missile based on that design, which was called The Killer Whale - Tacit Blue, they called The Whale. The numbers refer to, I believe, the serial numbers of the airplanes that's able to launch these cruise missile prototypes from - I'm also told about that patch that some of the guys that worked on that project got really grumpy because they created this patch for themselves and then, as they put it, some general saw it and said that wasn't politically correct, and they couldn't wear it anymore.

STEWART: How were you able to verify that these patches that are in your book and the ones that you brought in today are indeed associated with black ops?

Mr. PAGLEN: People tell me. I mean, that's the funny thing about this sort of thing. You're not going to get the secretary of defense or whomever to really confirm much of this stuff.

STEWART: So, in a sense, you're like a journalist that you trust your sources on these.

Mr. PAGLEN: Yeah, you trust your sources. You try to get multiple sources. But again, these are - I don't make any great claims to the accuracy of the things in the book. There's a number of patches that are actually in the book that I don't know definitively what they are. And I know at least one of them, my interpretation is wrong, because since the book has been published, a guy who knows a lot about the program e-mailed me and said, no, it's actually this other program. But, you know, it's a good guess.

STEWART: Yeah. That's interesting. You have a pretty interesting disclaimer in the book where you say, you know, this is not meant to be a piece as a historical reference…

Mr. PAGLEN: Right.

STEWART: …is the gist of what you're saying. So if it's not a historical reference, what is it exactly? What is the book?

Mr. PAGLEN: On one hand, I think it's a look into the culture. What does this black world look like? But I also think of it as an art book. And I think these are really interesting artistic creations, which are posing very, very old aesthetic questions, which is about how does one represent that which cannot be represented? That's traditionally a question for mystical or religious art. But it's funny to see in this day and age those kind of artistic strategies being applied to classified military activities.

STEWART: Have you been contacted by any branch of the military about this book and about anything you've written in the book in a formal way?

Mr. PAGLEN: No. No. No. But I've gotten e-mails from people that worked in some of these units, and e-mails like, oh, we really like that book, or, you know, our command is really upset that somebody leaked this patch to you.

STEWART: Why do people talk to you about the patches? I mean, we've talked about that this is a secret world and these - you know, they're secret for a reason. Why did people want to talk to you about them?

Mr. PAGLEN: Most of us are proud of what we do for a living and want to share that with others. And I think that a lot of people who work on these black projects are never able to get that recognition for what they do. These are people, they can't, you know, they come home and they can't tell their spouse what they did that day, or even maybe where they worked that day. The patches are a way to let off some of that steam a little bit.

STEWART: Trevor Paglen is the author of - author. Is that the right word to use for you, Trevor?

Mr. PAGLEN: Sure.

STEWART: Okay. It's called "I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me."

Thanks , Trevor.

Mr. PAGLEN: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.