Blank Spots on the Map is an expose of an empire that continues to grow every year—and which, officially, it isn’t even there. It is the adventurous, insightful, and often chilling story of a young geographer’s road trip through the underworld of U.S. military and C.I.A. “black ops” sites. This is a shadow nation of state secrets: clandestine military bases, ultra-secret black sites, classified factories, hidden laboratories, and top-secret agencies making up what defense and intelligence insiders themselves call the “black world.” Run by an amorphous group of government agencies and private companies, this empire’s ever expanding budget dwarfs that of many good sized countries, yet it denies its own existence.
Author Trevor Paglen is a scholar in geography, an artist, and a provocateur. His research into areas that officially don’t exist leads him on a globe-trotting investigation into a vast, undemocratic, and uncontrolled black empire—the unmarked blank areas whether you are looking at Google Earth or a U.S. Geological Survey map. Paglen knocks on the doors of CIA prisons, stakes out the Groom Lake covert air base in Nevada from a mountaintop 30 miles away, observes classified spacecraft in the night sky with amateur astronomers, and dissects the Defense Department’s multibillion dollar black budget. Traveling to the Middle East, Central America, and even around our nation’s capital and its surrounding suburbs, he interviews the people who live on the edges of these blank spots.
Paglen visits the widow of Walter Kazra, who, while working construction at Groom Lake, was poisoned by the toxic garbage pits there. The U. S. Air Force defense to his estate’s suit? The base does not exist. The U. S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. Whether Paglen reports from a hotel room in Vegas, Washington D. C. suburbs, secret prisons in Kabul, buried CIA aircraft in Honduras, or a trailer in Shoshone Indian territory, he is impassioned, rigorous, relentless—and eye-opening. This is a human, vivid, and telling portrait of a ballooning national mistake.
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Trevor Paglen, Ph.D., has published numerous research papers in academic journals and his writing has appeared in The Village Voice and The San Francisco Bay Guardian. He is the author of I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me and Torture Taxi. He is also an internationally recognized artist who exhibits frequently in major galleries and museums around the world. He lives in Berkeley, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - Facts on the Ground
Chapter 2 - A Guy in the Classified World
Chapter 3 - Unexplored Territory
Chapter 4 - Wastelands
Chapter 5 - Classified Résumés
Chapter 6 - Fiat Lux
Chapter 7 - The Other Night Sky
Chapter 8 - The Observer Effect
Chapter 9 - Blank Spots in the Law
Chapter 10 - The Precedent
Chapter 11 - Money Behind Mirrored Walls
Chapter 12 - Nonfunding the Black World
Chapter 13 - Plains of Death
Chapter 14 - Anything You Need Anywhere
Chapter 15 - Bobs
Chapter 16 - Screaming Their Heads Off
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Map on pages viii-ix created by Darin Jensen. Photo on page 7: courtesy of the USGS; page 80: courtesy of the Department of Energy; page 152: courtesy of the USAF; page 168: courtesy of National Parks Service; page 186: courtesy of the Library of Congress. All other photos courtesy of the author.
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1. Military bases—United States. 2. Intelligence service—United States. 3. Defense information,
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“We need to find an old man,” says Maiwand. We’re standing on a street corner in downtown Kabul. The traffic around us is a tempest of battered 1970s Toyotas occasionally punctuated by a U.N. Land Cruiser or an American Suburban. We’re trying to find a taxi driver who knows the back road to Bagram, a road that has been so dangerous for so long that driving on it would have been unthinkable until recently. We need to find someone who remembers the route from before the Soviet invasion in 1979. An old man.
Eventually we find a driver who knows the road and wants $15 to make the trip, a week’s salary for someone lucky enough to have a steady job outside the opium business. We get into the man’s beat-up Toyota wagon and bounce toward Kabul’s outskirts. At the traffic circle near the military’s heavily fortified Kabul Compound around the corner from the bunker-like American embassy, we see a two-story-high paint-chipped and weathered sign instructing locals to turn in any terrorists they may know.
Kabul itself is occupied by a gaggle of American military units, private military contractors, European troops from the International Security Forces, United Nations development outfits, and other assorted nongovernmental organizations, but their trappings fade away as our cab drives northeast past the airport toward the back road to Bagram. Once we’re outside town, houses give way to sprawling junkyards erected Mad Max-style on the Afghan plains. Guard towers protect the compounds’ precious scrap metal and junk. Solitary furnaces from distant brick factories lace the air with black smoke. A few oversized pickup trucks with homemade turquoise-blue paint jobs adorned with intricate gold and red markings ramble past, their backs overladen with burlap sacks bearing food from Afghanistan’s agrarian bread-basket to the north.
After ten dusty miles, the walls of a compound rise in the distance, and we come to an old-world traffic jam: an elderly shepherd wearing baggy Afghan garb herding a flock of goats across the battered road. The man turns around to look at us. He’s wearing a baseball hat. Unusual attire for a traditional Afghan, to say the least. Emblazoned on his cap are the same initials I’d seen printed on identity cards hanging from the necks of Bagram-bound contractors in Dubai. KBR: Kellogg Brown and Root, the construction firm that had until recently been a subsidiary of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old company.
And there it is in the distance. The top of the crumbling old brick factory once known as the Hecht-hochtief, which found new purpose as one of the first black sites of the war on terror’s geography. A secret prison called the Salt Pit, built shortly after September 11 as the Northern Alliance, the CIA, and American Special Forces fanned though Afghanistan. Like so many other secret places, it had been built as a “temporary” facility but stayed open long after the initial invasion was complete, eventually holding scores of the CIA’s “ghost” prisoners who’d been “rendered” from all over the world. When the CIA abducted a man named Khaled El-Masri from Macedonia and brought him here, his black-clad interrogators told him that he “was in Afghanistan, where there are no laws . . . ‘We can do with you whatever we want.’ ”
What was once a single, crumbling building was now an entire complex spanning dozens of acres and surrounded by high brick walls and a barbed wire fence. Outside the walled gates was another wind-blasted and paint-chipped sign in Dari and English: NO PHOTOGRAPHY. I start snapping pictures.
Black SUVs pull out from the far side of the compound, a tell-tale sign of some kind of “special” American unit: CIA, Special Forces, or contractor. Realizing that there’s a checkpoint ahead, I pull out the memory card on my camera, stash it under the car seat, then pull out another and shoot off a few more pictures. If the guards demand to see what pictures I’ve taken, they will see that I have indeed taken forbidden photographs. I plan to play dumb. I’ll pretend not to have seen the billboard-sized sign, admit to taking the photos, and apologetically erase them or forfeit the camera and memory card. The good stuff will be safely under the car seat. The images on the card are far more valuable to me than the easily replaceable camera equipment.
But none of that will be necessary. As we pull up toward the ramshackle checkpoint, the rail-thin Afghan guard lazily asks where we’re going. Maiwand tells them we’re going back to Kabul.
“What is this place?” we ask.
“Training facility,” says the disinterested guard.
“Are there Americans here?”
“Yes, lots of Americans.”
We turn around to go back the way we came; two Humvees painted desert-tan pass by.
Every year, the United States spends more than $50 billion to fund a secret world of classified military and intelligence activities, a world of secret airplanes and unacknowledged spacecraft, “black” military units and covert prisons, a secret geography that military and intelligence insiders call the “black world.”
It is a global world. It extends from secret prisons in dusty Afghan hinterlands to ice-encrusted radomes near the North Pole, and from remote eavesdropping stations in the Australian outback to makeshift camps and dirt landing strips in South American jungles. But this black world is more than a collection of places. It is an economy of secret dollars, a world of security clearances and secrecy oaths, code names and classifications tucked away in archives larger than the nation’s greatest libraries.
But you don’t have to scour the earth’s corners to find the blank spots on maps characterizing this secret world. The vast majority of this secret world is not found in the remote corners of the earth, but is instead startlingly close to home. And its scale is tremendous.
Approximately four million people in the United States hold security clearances to work on classified projects in the black world. By way of contrast, the federal government employs approximately 1.8 million civilians in the “white” world. The black world, then, represents millions of jobs. It also represents accumulated knowledge and history.
A 2004 study by Peter Galison at Harvard University concluded that, in terms of information, the “classified universe as it is sometimes called is certainly not smaller, and very probably much larger than this unclassified one.” Using data from 2001, Galison noted that there were 33 million classification actions. Assuming that each action represented, on average, ten pages, he deduced that 330 million pages were classified that year. About 80 million were declassified, leaving a net gain of about 250 million classified pages in secret archives. Galison found that if you measure accumulated human knowledge by numbers of pages, the amount of classified knowledge produced in a single year is about five times as great as the amount of knowledge going into the world’s greatest repositories of public knowledge. And the classified universe continues to expand.
This book is a guide to the geography of the classified universe, a circumnavigation of the black world, and an examination of the secret state that has grown and matured as a shadow part of the American government.
Facts on the Ground
The geography department at U.C. Berkeley lies on the relatively quiet north side of campus near the corner of Hearst and Euclid avenues in a building named after a former CIA director. The department’s home is on the fifth floor of McCone Hall, a name commemorating John McCone, whom Kennedy appointed CIA head after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Having a geography building named after a CIA director somehow makes sense. The building, after all, plays host to a handful of social scientists who spend much of their time traveling around the world, collecting, analyzing, and publishing information about faraway, and sometimes not so faraway, places. A social scientist’s work can be remarkably close to that of an intelligence analyst for the CIA or NSA. The lines separating academia from state power can get exceptionally blurry. Across campus from the geography department, at the Boalt law school on the corner of Bancroft and Piedmont avenues on the eighth floor of Simon Hall, is the office of John Yoo. While working in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, Yoo authored legal opinions authorizing everything from CIA renditions to “enhanced interrogation techniques” to warrantless surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency. Upon leaving the Bush administration in 2003, Yoo returned to his professorship at Berkeley. In an age where information is power, it doesn’t take much investigative work to find all sorts of connections among the academy, the military, and the intelligence industries. One doesn’t even have to walk across campus. Every spring, like clockwork, recruitment letters from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency show up at McCone Hall, encouraging young scholars to join the intelligence community’s own version of the geography department.
When most people hear the word “geography,” they’re reminded of traumatic elementary school quizzes on the names of rivers, mountain ranges, and state capitals. People think of maps. But although the discipline finds its origins in Renaissance exploration and the imperial mapmakers of royal courts, contemporary geographic research has come a long way. Geographers nowadays do everything from building elaborate digital climate models of potential global warming scenarios to picking through bits of fossilized pollen to reconstruct prehistoric agricultural practices, and from tracing the light-speed flows of international capital to documenting localized effects of nature tourism on sub-Saharan village life. The discipline, in short, accommodates a wide range of research methods and topics all united by the axiom that everything happens somewhere, that all human and natural phenomena have, well, a geography.
In McCone Hall’s basement is the earth sciences library, featuring discipline-specific books and journals; it houses an extensive map collection as well, in a back room filled with flat files. The library’s collection also includes an archive of United States Geological Survey (USGS) aerial images, all neatly indexed in an old-fashioned card catalog.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at those aerial images. Years before Google Earth went online, I was using the archive to research prisons. With the onset of the “war on drugs” in the early 1980s, California had embarked on the largest prison-building project in the history of the world. The state had built thirty-three prisons in just a few decades. Over the previous 132 years, California had built just twelve. The aerial images helped me to understand where prisons were, why they were there, and what made California’s newest prisons different from those of the past.
California’s new prisons had little resemblance to their older cousins like Folsom and San Quentin, now immortalized in the songs of Johnny Cash. The new prisons were marvels of engineering, dense prefabricated cities of razor wire and white concrete that could go up at almost a moment’s notice. Unlike earlier penitentiaries like ...
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