Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World

Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World

4.2 5
by Trevor Paglen

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Welcome to a top-level clearance world that doesn't exist...Now with updated material for the paperback edition.

This is the adventurous, insightful, and often chilling story of a road trip through a shadow nation of state secrets, clandestine military bases, black sites, hidden laboratories, and top-secret agencies that make up what insiders call


Welcome to a top-level clearance world that doesn't exist...Now with updated material for the paperback edition.

This is the adventurous, insightful, and often chilling story of a road trip through a shadow nation of state secrets, clandestine military bases, black sites, hidden laboratories, and top-secret agencies that make up what insiders call the "black world."

Here, geographer and provocateur Trevor Paglen knocks on the doors of CIA prisons, stakes out a covert air base in Nevada from a mountaintop 30 miles away, dissects the Defense Department's multibillion dollar "black" budget, and interviews those who live on the edges of these blank spots.

Whether Paglen reports from a hotel room in Vegas, a secret prison in Kabul, or a trailer in Shoshone Indian territory, he is impassioned, rigorous, relentless-and delivers eye-opening details.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

As in his previous books, artist and geographer Paglen (Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights) explores the clandestine activities of the U.S. military and the CIA, giving readers a thorough and provocative tour of places that officially do not exist. Paglen has a brisk reporting style and is an engaging storyteller. His journey into what he calls the "black world" of classified locations-from research facilities to secret prisons-this time takes him across the country and around the world. The classified region he describes is shockingly vast, well funded, and not accountable for its activities. At times, Paglen has a subtle touch, allowing the facts he describes gradually to convince the reader of how essentially undemocratic all this secrecy is. Unfortunately, his approach at other times seems unnecessarily theatrical. For example, his description of camping out in a hotel room in Las Vegas to watch planes come and go comes off as a bit gimmicky. Such narrative is likely meant to make the book more readable, but the story Paglen is telling is gripping enough without any stunts. Highly recommended.
—Rachel Bridgewater

Kirkus Reviews
Cerebral, unconventional tour of sites deemed top secret by the U.S. government. Paglen (I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me, 2008, etc.), the son of an Air Force physician, became fascinated by military secrecy while growing up around the world. Working on his doctorate in geography at Berkeley, he fed his fascination by studying government maps, some of which redacted locations on the ground. Believing such secrecy to be anathema to American democracy, and in some instances a violation of the Constitution, he set out to visit those sites, sometimes openly, sometimes through subterfuge. His tour included Air Force bases in California and Georgia; a weapons laboratory in New Mexico; staging areas in Honduras and Afghanistan; a remote section of the Mojave Desert; government agency buildings in the D.C. area; even downtown Las Vegas, where from an 18th-floor hotel room he used a telescope and other instruments to chart comings and goings between the airport and classified installations elsewhere in Nevada. Although Paglen is angry about the countless billions of dollars spent to establish and maintain such sites, he is rarely shrill. Instead, he hitches his anger to a scholar's analytical mind, demonstrating that even the most determined government cannot keep sites completely secret, given their physical manifestations on the ground. "Just as a Band-Aid announces the fact that it conceals a wound," he writes, "blank spots on maps and blacked-out documents announce the fact that there's something hidden. Secrets, in other words, often inevitably announce their own existence." Although the text mainly follows Paglen's investigative trail, it sometimes cuts away toother individuals fighting for government disclosure by litigating, charting objects in space or whistle-blowing. Educational and engaging. Agent: Ted Weinstein/Ted Weinstein Literary Management

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Page


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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Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


First printing, February 2009


Copyright © 2009 by Trevor Paglen

All rights reserved

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.





Paglen, Trevor.
Blank spots on the map: the dark geography of the Pentagon’s secret world / Trevor Paglen.
p. cm.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01149-2

1. Military bases—United States. 2. Intelligence service—United States. 3. Defense information,
Classified—United States. 4. Military bases, American. I. Title.
UA26.A2P2716 2009
355.3’4320973—dc22 2008042862



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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 Alcatraz, located prominently in the public view as a haunting visual reminder not to break the law, California’s new industrial prisons were built far away from urban centers in the poorest and remotest regions of the state, out of sight and, to most of California’s population, out of mind. From time to time, stories of torture and extreme violence make their way into the news. At Pelican Bay, California’s premier “super-max” prison in the forest near the Oregon border, guards boiled a man named Vaughn Dortch alive. In a 1995 ruling stemming from abuse at the prison, federal judge Thelton Henderson wrote that “dry words on paper cannot adequately capture the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery that Pelican Bay State Prison’s unconstitutional practices leave in their wake.”

At Corcoran State Prison in California’s Central Valley, guards staged “gladiator days,” sending prisoners who were known enemies into a small yard and betting on which prisoner might prevail in the ensuing mayhem. When fights got out of control, guards trained their weapons on the prisoners. Gunfire was a daily occurrence. In the eight years after Corcoran opened, eight prisoners had been shot dead and fifty wounded. The guards nicknamed Warden George Smith “Mushroom George” because “mushrooms like being kept in the dark and fed shit.”

I hypothesized that the prison’s physical distance from urban centers translated into a kind of cultural distance: Their geography translated into secrecy. Few outsiders regularly visited the prisons in California’s hinterlands. Volunteer-led programming was at a minimum. Visits by family members, journalists, and academics were few and far between. It seemed to me that there was a strong connection between geography, secrecy, and extralegal violence at the prisons.

To understand these prison geographies, I started collecting aerial and satellite images of these “next generation” prisons from all over the Southwest: California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. I wanted to see what these places looked like from the God’s-eye view that aerial images uniquely afforded. How close were they to other institutions? How did they change over time? How was the land being used before the prisons came? As I continued exploring Berkeley’s image archive, my focus started to wander. I took to pursuing images for their own sake, indulging myself in the spindly landscape aesthetics of fluvial fans, the circular shapes of desert agriculture, and the fading footprints of abandoned settlements and ghost towns.

As I worked my way through the archive, I noticed that vast swaths of land, particularly in the Nevada desert, were missing from the imagery collections. I assumed that my own ineptitude with the image archive’s antiquated filing system was to blame. I expanded my search to the entire USGS archive, plugging 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 archives. I was startled to find blank spots on the official map, an image that hearkened back to an earlier age.

Blank spots on maps were a hallmark of Renaissance cartography. Early modern geographers like Henricus Martellus, having rediscovered works of ancient Greek geography such as Ptolemy’s Geography, used ancient Greek cartographic projections to depict the earth’s known surface. Martellus’s maps from 1489 updated the ancient Greek projections to include data from Marco Polo’s journeys and Portuguese voyages down Africa’s coast. His maps portray Africa as a long, distorted, and featureless swath of land, and Southeast Asia as a contiguous landmass extending far into the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is missing entirely. After Columbus and Portuguese explorers began charting the New World, vast new blank spots appeared on contemporary maps. 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.

It was hard for me to believe that here, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, there could be such a thing as an unmapped space. Our world has maps for just about everything imaginable: With GPS-enabled navigation systems, it is impossible for modern ship captains to get lost at sea. Real-time weather satellites transmit up-to-the-minute atmospheric conditions to anyone connected to the Internet or with access to a shortwave radio. Google Earth provides detailed, scalable satellite images of nearly every inch of the world’s surface. Maps from the United States Geological Survey contain precise topographic and elevation data for the world’s landforms. There are maps for the ocean’s deepest trenches and maps of the outer planets; cosmological maps describe the large-scale structures of the universe itself, while maps of the human genome chart human life’s most basic building blocks. The world, in short, has been elaborately and meticulously mapped. The images I was looking for were missing, not because the desert hadn’t been mapped, but because what they showed was secret.

As it turns out, this also had a historical precedent. During the age of exploration there were two kinds of maps: Some were intended for general consumption, others were tightly held state secrets. The maps Magellan used to circumnavigate the globe, for example, were of the latter sort. Although Magellan’s maps were rife with blank spots showing the limits of Spanish exploration, they contained far more detail than the public maps. The Portuguese and Spanish empires’ secret maps revealed landforms and trade routes the rival empires sought to hide from one another. Other, deliberately inaccurate, maps were produced and “leaked” from one empire to another in elaborate disinformation and deception campaigns. The “real” maps were the empires’ greatest secrets, documents so sensitive that an unauthorized person caught with them could be put to death. The maps themselves, and control over the information they depicted, were instruments of imperial power. As author Miles Harvey put it, “The Portuguese controlled the Indies because the Portuguese controlled the maps.”

I didn’t tell my fellow geographers about my growing fascination with places that had been erased from the public record, although I did locate an old Soviet reconnaissance photo of the black site near Groom Lake, which I posted on my office door as an inside joke to myself. In my free time, I started consuming everything I could on the topic of secret places. Sifting through stories of secret aircraft and black military operations, I realized that I already knew something about this world. As the son of an Air Force doctor, I’d grown up on military bases all over the world, and like so many other people who grow up in the military, I had always assumed that I’d end up in the service as well, hopefully as a fighter pilot. It was the only world I knew. I was fascinated by aircraft like the SR-71, whose engines seemed to split open the sky itself when its black cobra-like airframe swooped down over annual base air shows. I knew that its performance characteristics were highly classified—almost no one really knew how fast or how high it could fly. When my father fixed up some of the pilots, he was invited to Beale Air Force Base to see the aircraft up close. I remember him arriving home that evening and saying that the plane could go a lot faster than what it said in The Guinness Book of World Records. Later on, as a teenager, I’d drink tequila with guys returning from Special Forces missions, who could never say where they’d been or what they’d been doing after returning home. My high school friends and I agreed that the SF guys all had a few screws loose but we were happy to take advantage of their alcohol ration cards.

As I started to research black sites in earnest, I was surprised by the lack of serious literature about them. To be sure, I could find plenty of soft documentaries about places like Groom Lake; the UFO literature abounded with references to “secret bases” like Area 51 and Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. There were a handful of articles in more legitimate magazines like Popular Science. References to the black sites near Groom Lake and Tonopah showed up from time to time in defense industry publications like Aviation Week & Space Technology, mostly in articles speculating about new, still classified, warplanes. A few notable books had taken up the subject of secret airplanes or the psychology of UFOs, but the more I looked, the more I discovered another blank spot of sorts: There was very little scholarship on black sites. In other words, there was a blank spot in the literature.

There aren’t a lot of things that someone, somewhere in the halls of academia, hasn’t dedicated their life to exploring. The halls of universities play home to people studying some of the most obscure phenomena imaginable, from the life cycles of Siberian slime molds to the geologic makeup of Pluto’s moons, and from the question of whether there’s something objectively good about eating chocolate to the historical lineage of a particular line in a James Joyce novel. No doubt, at this very moment a handful of scholars are engaged in passionate, even vicious debates on those very topics at conferences and in the pages of peer-reviewed journals. That’s one of the wonderful things about academia: Someone, somewhere, is studying just about anything and sharing their theories and findings with a cast of international colleagues. With this in mind, the fact that I couldn’t find a serious body of literature on black sites puzzled me. But it wasn’t entirely surprising, either: Tales of hidden air bases and secret weapons tend to be so entwined with conspiracy theories and other sorts of fringe vernacular myths that the average academic would have a hard time acknowledging that sort of research to their colleagues, much less get funding to support the work.

At the same time, however, black sites were taking on a different cultural meaning. Not only were they real, they were deadly serious. In an October 12, 2001, memo, Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed all federal agencies and departments to err on the side of secrecy when processing Freedom of Information Act requests, ending the Clinton era’s “presumption of disclosure.” A few months later, the CIA was interrogating terror suspect Abu Zubaida at an “undisclosed location” after his early 2002 capture in Pakistan. In the Office of Legal Counsel, my colleague John Yoo was writing legal briefs authorizing the creation of “ghost prisoners” and other opinions that would become collectively known as the “torture memos.” By 2003, classified military spending equaled the Cold War highs of the Reagan era. Vice President Dick Cheney’s frequent jaunts to “undisclosed” or “secure” locations became the stuff of comedy. His comments about having to work on the “dark side” in the war on terror would become emblematic of what Alberto Gonzales called the “new paradigm.” Blank spots on maps were coming to define the twenty-first-century United States, just as they have defined empires of the past.


Most social scientists who’ve studied secrecy have done so by developing Max Weber’s pithy comments on the subject from his posthumously published Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society). These oft-quoted lines are from his chapter on bureaucracy:


Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of “secret sessions”: in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism . . . The concept of the “official secret” is the specific invention of bureaucracy.


The Weberian thesis applies to bureaucracies in general: The DMV, or your Parent-Teacher Association, or your Rotary Club, or your local softball league is just as unlikely to disclose its mistakes as the CIA. In the Weberian scheme secrecy is little more than an unintended effect of modern bureaucratic organization.

But the CIA isn’t your softball league, and this is where the Weberian thesis falls short. State secrecy is a form of executive power. It is the power to unilaterally and legitimately conceal events, actions, budgets, programs, and plans from the legislature and public at large—the people who are paying for it. State secrecy is a form of monarchical power that contemporary states have inherited from the kingdoms of yesteryear. In our American system, state secrecy is the provenance of the executive branch; it has little statutory basis. It is a tool of kings.

And so, while this book is about state secrecy, it is, more importantly, a book about democracy; it is about how the United States has become dependent on spaces created through secrecy, spaces that lie outside the rule of law, outside the Constitution, outside the democratic ideals of equal rights, transparent government, and informed consent.

It seems to me that when we think about secrecy, it’s helpful to think about it in terms of geography, to think about the spaces, landscapes, and practices of secrecy. We live in a world that can often seem supremely abstract, ungrounded, and confusing, especially when it comes to matters of politics and notions of democracy. I think that trying to understand secrecy through geography helps make the subject more real. Thinking about secrecy in terms of concrete spaces and practices helps us to see how secrecy happens and helps to explain how secrecy grows and expands.

State secrecy is an amalgam of logics and practices with a common intent: to conceal “facts on the ground,” to make things disappear, and to plausibly deny their existence. To accomplish this, military and intelligence officials create “secure” facilities in military bases and in research institutions, clandestine outposts in the corners of vast deserts, and develop elaborate cover stories and false identities to disguise surreptitious programs. State secrecy means pulling satellite photographs out of public archives, instituting security clearances, compartmentalizing information, and forbidding workers to speak about what it is that they do. But geography theory tells us that it really isn’t possible to make things disappear, to render things nonexistent. Geography tells us that secrecy, in other words, is always bound to fail, and because secrecy is always bound to fail, perhaps counterintuitively, it tends to grow ever stronger.

Geography tells us that it’s impossible to take something that exists and make it nonexistent at the same time. “Geography,” my friend and colleague Allan Pred used to say before he passed away, is “an inescapable existential reality. Everybody has a body, nobody can escape from their body, and consequently all human activity—every form of individual and collective practice—is a situated practice and thereby geographical.” What this means is that secrecy can only work as a Band-Aid, a way to cover something up. But just as a Band-Aid announces the fact that it conceals a wound, blank spots on maps and blacked-out documents announce the fact that there’s something hidden. Secrets, in other words, often inevitably announce their own existence. For example, when the government takes satellite photos out of public archives, it practically broadcasts the locations of classified facilities. Blank spots on maps outline the things they seek to conceal. To truly keep something secret, then, those outlines also have to be made secret. And then those outlines, and so on. In this way, secrecy’s geographic contradictions (the fact that you can’t make something disappear completely) quickly give rise to political contradictions between the secret state and the “normal” state. In order to contain those political contradictions, new ways of practicing secrecy are created and deployed. This is one of the reasons why secrecy reproduces itself, why it tends to sculpt the world around it in its own image.

Since the Second World War the secret world has grown dramatically. Covert operations and classified programs have placed new forms of sovereign power in the hands of the executive branch, institutionalized dishonesty and disinformation, and thoroughly militarized the national economy. Secret programs, and the social, cultural, legal, and economic blank spots that they represent, have transformed and continue to transform the United States in their own image.

More often than not, their outlines are in plain view.


It was the weekend, and campus was relatively quiet. No throngs of students meandering to morning classes, no activists handing out flyers for one thing or another, no overtaxed professors rushing around from meeting to meeting, quietly hoping not to bump into their graduate students en route. As I stepped into McCone Hall and turned down the corridor to face my office, I noticed someone standing outside my door. The well-groomed man, who must have been in his late thirties, sported casual J. Crew-style clothes and held himself with the disciplined poise of a military officer. From his appearance, I knew a few things about him: He was too old to be an undergraduate, too well-dressed to be a professor, and his posture was too good for him to be a graduate student. I hung back watching, trying to figure out what he was doing outside my office.

After a few moments, he crouched down to stare at the photograph I’d put in a plastic frame outside my door, the Soviet satellite photo of the base at Groom Lake that was the redacted image from the archive. The man stared long and hard at the image, which intrigued me because it depicted something rather esoteric. As I continued standing at the end of the hallway watching, the man started opening the frame to take my photograph out. It was time for an intervention. I ran up and asked him why the hell he was trying to steal my picture.

The stunned man apologized, stammering that he was only interested in the photo because he’d never seen such a clear picture of the site. He just wanted a closer look.

“Do you know what that place is?” I asked.

“Yes; do you know what that place is?” came the reply.


After a long pause, he said, “I used to be a fighter pilot.”

Back when he flew F-15s, he explained, they’d have big war games out in the Nevada desert, learning how to dogfight and fly combat missions in the Air Force’s version of Top Gun, called Red Flag. They had a huge amount of airspace for these war games, he explained, but there was one place, in the middle of the range, they weren’t supposed to fly into—the place in the photo. He said it was called “the Box.” You weren’t allowed to fly anywhere near the Box, he explained. Even if you were running out of gas and needed an emergency landing strip, you were supposed to bail out rather than land on the runway in the Box.

Eventually, the man let out that one of his buddies from the fighter squadron had actually landed there. Running out of fuel over the Nevada desert, the man’s friend had decided to spare the taxpayers the $30 million cost of the warplane, and perhaps his own life, by declining to pull the F-15’s ejection seat. Instead, he landed in the Box. When the wayward pilot returned to his squadron more than a week later, his fellow pilots laid into him: He’d flown into the Box; he wasn’t supposed to do that under any circumstances; what happened? The pilot just shrugged his shoulders; he couldn’t say.

Pointing to the satellite photo outside my door, the pilot said, “That place is part of the black world.”


A Guy in the Classified World

An Air Force Base in California

What People are saying about this

Derek Gregory
"A chillingly literal tour de force. Paglen doesn't so much fill in the blanks as trace their outlines and give their shifting shapes a density that says as much about the future of democracy as it does about the dismal confines of the black world."--(Derek Gregory, Professor of Geography, University of British Columbia)
John Perkins
"Blank Spots is an important, well-researched, and insightful expose that opens a window into the black world of secret operations. Paglen's conclusion that 'our own history, in large part, has become a state secret' is both a warning and a call to arms. It is time to heed the warning and take up arms."--(John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman)
Robert Baer
"Trevor Paglen gets into the black heart of America's black sites. There is no better guide to this great American mystery. What goes on inside these bases will determine the future of warfare--and who we are--for the rest of the century."--(Robert Baer, former case officer at the CIA and author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism)
Andrew J. Bacevich
"Trevor Paglen set out to map the darkest corners of the U. S. national security apparatus. He's done that and more. The result is a fascinating, deeply troubling, and absolutely essential book."--(Andrew J. Bacevich, professor in international relations at Boston University, retired colonel in the US Army, and author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism)
Laurence Smith
"Living among us is an entire shadow industry of secret careers, unmarked flights, and razor-wired compounds evoking stereotyped images of the Cold-War Soviet Union. In what is still the world's most open society, Paglen adroitly exposes this dark geography. His book is fascinating and necessary."--(Laurence Smith, Professor of Geography, University of California Los Angeles)

Meet the Author

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.

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Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
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COL-Hogan More than 1 year ago
No news. A lefty Berkley Professor is amazed to discover secret places that are secret! And there are lots of them.way more than any other western democratic republic super-power needs. Worth a good chuckle and every penny of the 5 bucks it cost me on the "Last Chance Book" table. When I cut out the center it will make a good book safe.