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The Joy of Snooping
Posted on Aug 30, 2007
Truthdig’s James Harris and Josh Scheer speak with Harry Helms, author of “Top Secret Tourism: Your Travel Guide to Germ Warfare Laboratories, Clandestine Aircraft Bases and Other Places in the United States You’re Not Supposed to Know About,” which his critics have called a handbook for terrorists. Helms explains why his work doesn’t threaten national security and what it’s like to visit some of the most secret sites in America.
Click here to listen to this interview.
James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris and Josh Scheer. We’re here with Harry Helms, author of the new book: “Top Secret Tourism: Your Travel Guide to Germ Warfare Laboratories, Clandestine Aircraft Bases, and Other Places in the United States You’re Not Supposed to Know About.” Harry, some of your critics have called this book a handbook for terrorists. Are they right?
Harry Helms: If I could find this stuff out, which is all on the public record if you’re willing to do the digging, then the Russians, Chinese, terrorist or whatever particular group that currently terrifies you found out about this a long time ago.
Josh Scheer: What was the most interesting place visited? It’s pretty exciting.
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Scheer: It does make you think. I think that’s also the place in “Silence of the Lambs” that they try to get Hannibal Lecter to go to take walks on the beach. That’s the only other time I’ve heard about it, so I’m glad you’re writing about Plum Island. Where do you find these places? We know about Area 51, or the bigger places. But how do you find a Plum Island?
Helms: Well, it started out when I lived in Southern California and I would spend many weekends visiting the deserts in search of ghost towns, mining sites and Native American rock art sites. I would use a lot of U.S. Geological Survey maps. And there was a vacation where I was trained to find a rock art site near the China Lake Naval [Air] Weapons Station and I inadvertently turned off on the wrong road. I remember thinking, “Whoa, this is a very well graded road for the middle of the desert.” I had gone about 10 miles and suddenly I came to an electrified fence with security cameras and in the distance I could see a jeep full of security people rolling up towards me. And that just got me very curious to what was going on in these places in the middle of nowhere. I did a lot of research using FAA aeronautical maps. These maps indicated, for example, that all over-flights, military and civilian, were prohibited on a 24/7 basis. It was a very good clue that something terribly interesting was going on down there. In addition, I used things like environmental impact statements, transcripts and depositions given in lawsuits by people claiming they had been injured by working at these places. It was assembling an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, and I’m still looking for a lot of pieces, I’d have to say.
Scheer: I want to ask you a question. Looking your name up online, you write about a lot of topics. Travel is not just your only beat. You write about education, you write about government. Do you consider yourself a travel writer? Are you considering writing other books about travel?
Helms: I still consider myself more of an explorer in a broader sense to explore the land, explorer of ideas, or explorer of possibilities. This is just part of my general exploration: to know what’s going on over that hill, or behind that door that they don’t want me to know about.
Harris: Why do you think that this is a good book for others to read? What’s the most important chronicle you think you wrote here?
Helms: I think the whole purpose of this book was not really so much the purpose of a travel guide, but to make some of these sites transparent. We pay for this top-secret government, sometimes with our taxes, sometimes with curtailment of our liberties. And for people who purchase this thing, and who are really the owners of it, we have the right to know just exactly what is being done in our name and for what purposes. I’m not one of these Pollyannas who thinks you can conduct an entirely open government in a dangerous world. No. Obviously there are some military secrets that have to be kept secret. But [what] I’ve discovered doing this book is that most of these secrets relate to things like mismanagement, failed projects, ineptitude, waste and in some cases possible dishonesty. That’s what I want to explore, and that’s one reason that I find that a lot of these claims about national security are less about the nation’s security and more about the security of some of the people conducting these projects and wasting our money.
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