Blank Spots on the Map

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Blank Spots on the Map:
The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World
By Trevor Paglen
324 pages; Dutton

The Gist:

From Area 51 to the once-secret prisons of Afghanistan, there are certain places that the U.S. government has tried its best to erase from most maps. But as author and geographer Trevor Paglen writes early on in his book, the absence of such places — the titular blank spots —inherently inform us of their exact locations: "Secrets, in other words, often inevitably announce their own existence." Over the next 250 pages, Paglen goes on to sketch out a survey of the dark corners of the United States' national security apparatus from the early 20th century to today.

Highlight Reel:

1. On the sheer breadth of the Pentagon's secret world: "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'...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."

2. On the "Black Chamber," America's first codebreaking agency founded in 1919, and its head, Herbert Yardley: "When Herbert Hoover took control of the White House and named Henry L. Stimson secretary of state, the existence of the Black Chamber remained secret even to the incoming administration...After a few months had passed, Yardley decided that Stimson had settled in well enough to be informed and provided the secretary of state with a handful of decrypted Japanese messages...Outraged, he famously exclaimed, 'Gentlemen do not read each other's mail,' and sought to immediately shut down Yardley's operation....Or so it seemed. Just as the Black Chamber was shutting down, the Army tapped William Frederick Friedman to continue its mission under the guise of a secret military unit."

3. On the Red Cross's complicity with the Bush Administration's secret imprisonment of terror suspects: "I knew that the Red Cross isn't supposed to talk about the work they do. The reports they issue aren't meant for public consumption — the Red Cross is supposed to discreetly visit prisoners and submit reports only to host governments. In the case of prisoners held by the United States in the war on terror, that would be the executive branch. The point of the Red Cross's discreet approach is to ensure that the organization remains neutral in a given conflict and doesn't jeopardize its access to prisoners by publicly embarrassing governments...The Red Cross relies on secrecy as much as the CIA does. It might be called a Faustian bargain, but it's easy to understand the logic."

The Lowdown:

Paglen's concern is the "black world," that parallel government bureaucracy funded by billions in taxpayer dollars, the allocation of which is never revealed. It would be misleading to take the book's subtitle at face value — the "geography" to which Paglen refers is as much metaphorical and legal as physical. (Sorry conspiracy theorists, he does not actually infiltrate any hangars at Area 51). "Blank spots on the map begat dark spaces in the law," he writes, in reference to a raft of shady government incidents from NSA wiretapping to extraordinary renditions to secret CIA missions in 1980's Latin America.

It's a lot to string together, and Paglen has a slight tendency towards stunts — holing up in a Las Vegas hotel in an attempt to track workers flying to and from a secret military installation, for example —and digressions, writing of the exploratory history of inner Nevada, or delving deep into the minutiae of amateur satellite hunting. That's not to suggest that those discussions aren't good reading, for they are — Paglen somehow manages to make the movements of a spy satellite riveting — but rather to say that many of his parts are more intriguing than a somewhat diffuse whole.

The Verdict: Skim