Booker Prize judge, Stuart Kelly, in an interview with Edd McCracken at bookriot.com
At just over 300 pages, Trevor Paglen's Blank Spots on the Map is downright slim for the topic at hand: the so-called "black world." This is world where classified people fly classified planes to classified locations to work on classified projects. It's a world where mysterious objects suddenly appear in space and, even though they look like satellites and orbit the planet like satellites, they do not appear on any official list of satellites. This is a world that costs upwards of $50 billion a year to maintain, employs tens of thousands of people, and exists not only in remote desert locales but all around us. That anonymous office building you pass on your way to work every day might house a benignly-named military contractor working on top secret electronic surveillance. That guy sitting across from you at church might board a classified airplane every Monday morning, fly to a military base whose existence the Pentagon does not acknowledge, and spend the next five days working on the fuel system of a top secret aircraft.
As I was reading this I kept thinking of Paglen as a journalist, since the topic, particularly now in the post-Wikleaks/Snowden age, is especially relevant at the moment, but also because Paglen's does some serious, balls out investigative journalism. But it quickly makes sense that Paglen, a geographer by training, would take an interest in this topic. Early in the book he writes about his first glimpse at the "black world" when, in the mid-1990's, he began collecting aerial and satellite images of "super-max" prisons in the US southwest from the UC Berkley archive and finding strange lacunae. He writes:
"As I worked my way through the archive, I noticed that cast swaths of land, particularly in the Nevada desert, were missing from the imagery collections. [...] I expanded my search to the entire USGS archive, plugged longitudes and latitudes into a government search engine to retrieve image previews. When I did that, I stumbled across a series of images that left me flabbergasted: black plates with stenciled white letters reading simply FRAMES EDITED FROM ORIGINAL NEGATIVE. Someone, somewhere, in some official capacity, had deliberately removed these plates from the archves. I was startled to find blank spots on the official map, an image that hearkened back to an earlier age."
From the public interest point of view, the reactions to government-sanctioned excissions range from "That's an outrage! My tax dollars are paying for these images, I should be able to see them, and what are they hiding, anyway?" to "Better no one sees it than for it to be seen by our enemies." But Paglen, who does not shirk the public interest perspective (and is unabashedly on the side of transparency), also offers the geographer's perspective. "Blank spots on maps were a hallmark of Renaissance cartography," he writes. "The Cantino planisphere, one of the earliest surviving maps to the New World, shows fragments of North and South American coastlines. Beyond them, the world is vast, empty, and unexplored."
(The Cantino Planisphere, 1502)
"It was hard for me to believe," Paglen writes, "that here, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, there could be such a thing as an unmapped space." He then spends the rest of the book trying to do for the "black world" what the Cantino did for the Americas: chart its coastline and assess its breadth. What follows is one part detective novel, one part history lesson, and one part mid-career John le Carré novel.
One of Paglen's first (after the visitor's center at Vandenberg AFB which obviously yields bupkis) is a hotel room in Las Vegas overlooking McCarran Airport. There is a small terminal on the airport's northwest corner, farm from the commercial terminals, that houses a fleet of unmarked 737's and King Airs. These planes, Paglen writes, "are shuttles to and from the black world. Each day, they bus people to work at a handful of secret military installations in the deep desert to the north." And so he holes up in this room for a week with a telescope, a map, and a military-band radio scanner in an attempt to learn where they go. (I did say it was part le Carré novel, didn't I?)
Paglen interlaces the accounts his week of (essentially) spying on the US Government with a fascinating history of the many classified military uses to which the geography of the southwestern US has been put, as well as philosophical asides like this one:
"By paying attention to flight routes, I began to see what the arch-agitator Karl Marx famously called the 'annihilation of space by time." In the emerging world of fast-moving trains, telegraphs, and tourism, the notoriously cantankerous philosopher saw transportation and communication technologies helping to form vast non-Euclidean geographies. Spaces that were distant and disparate in terms of the absolute number of miles between them were becoming connected, even becoming indistinguishable from one another."
From a Las Vegas hotel room, Paglen travels into the Mojave desert to piece together the history of the US's classified aerospace program using a technique Paglen calls "Resumint" (basically googling the names of test pilots he's heard of). There is a chilling chapter tracing the emergence of the "black world" as it exists today back to the Manhattan Project, and a remarkable series of chapters (my favorite part of the book) about a group of amateur satellite watchers who have identified classified spy satellites and something that appears to be a slick decoy. We also meet the widow of a man who died in a workplace accident, only his workplace was a secret military base (Area 51, actually) that the US government did not acknowledge existed, and thus they could not acknowledge that the man had worked for them, or had died. Her story is as tragic as it is infuriating. No less infuriating is the story of the secret Honduran air fields Paglen later visits which played a central role in Iran-Contra.
Finally, Paglen (as he must) takes us into the 21st century, where we can no longer look back up out of the rabbit hole at a our "quaint" WWII and Cold War dalliances with extreme secrecy and are instead forced to confront the black sites and "enhanced interrogations" and mercenary military contractors that have become part and parcel of the US national security apparatus. The book ends on a note of hope in the face of extreme foreboding, but after 300 pages reading of things you were not meant to know about, it is a difficult thing to not see the black spaces flourishing and expanding over ever greater areas of the world.