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The Joy of Snooping

Posted on Aug 30, 2007
Top Secret Tourism

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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Helms: I think the most fascinating place was the Plum Island research facility, which is in the Long Island Sound between Long Island and Connecticut.  It’s where the government conducts experiments into all sorts of animal diseases such as mad cow and also anthrax.  It’s also less than 100 miles away from New York, and it’s in the middle of the populated New England coastal areas.  And it does make one pause to think what could happen if there was, say, an accidental release of some of those organisms.

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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By Phyllis L. Reed, September 28, 2007 at 6:15 pm Link to this comment
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For a truly worthwhile and eye-opening report on Plum Island, Lyme and other concerns, see Michael Carroll’s paperback, LAB 257!

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By lodipete, September 27, 2007 at 8:33 am Link to this comment

Gee, I’m disappointed that there’s no mention of my old hangouts,Dugway Proving Ground in Utah or Ft.Greely,Alaska. Oh well, I think Google has websites for both of them.

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By livia, September 13, 2007 at 8:05 am Link to this comment
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Very interesting interview. Thanks to truthdig’s Josh Scheer and James Harris for giving coverage to these sorts of books that are rarely covered in the mass media.

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By PatrickHenry, September 7, 2007 at 6:14 pm Link to this comment

The playgrounds of the military industrial complex.

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By marlowex, September 6, 2007 at 12:39 pm Link to this comment

anyone with half a brain can recognise that if we went into Afghanistan, and turned it into a garden (wherein the crops were not white poppies)and left Iraq alone, the entire Arab world would look upon us as friends, Sophrosine….I suggest you look up and take their test. If you do, and your answers lie in the lower left quadrant, you will know who to vote for. Actually, wherever your answers fall, you will at least see which politician thinks like you. I live in Florida, a red state, and yet 90% of the people who have taken the test here are in the lower left….It seems to me that the people are totally disconnected from our “leadership”

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By sophrosyne, September 5, 2007 at 4:30 pm Link to this comment
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With all of the secrecy, expense, likely waste, incompetence and fraud, does anyone really feel safer?  Since 9-11, I feel much less safe.  In addition, we have an incompetent President and Congress which defines “national security” so narrowly that it is rather pathetic.  America is slipping in virtually all of its indicators of well being including health and education.  Now that the treasury has been drained in a needless war of choice which has greatly helped Islamic extremists, we have little to look forward to no matter who is elected.

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By Jack Barron, September 5, 2007 at 10:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A book has been written about Plumb Island. The name of it is: Lab 257. it has a great deal of info in it. You can use a search engine and find the publisher and auther, who if memory serves me correctly was an attorny.

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By Wendy, September 5, 2007 at 6:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Michael Carroll published a fascinating history of Plum Island in 2004.

I recommend…

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By marlowex, September 4, 2007 at 12:15 pm Link to this comment

Yes, It was identified in europe in the thirties, but was being used experimentally on Plum Island, and based on an article that I read on the web, many years ago (when the web was in it’s infancy) by a scientist who had worked on Plum, and was very unhappy with the security there, I am fairly well convinced that it did escape. I have since been unable to find the article. My interest stemmed from the fact that I, too, contracted Lymes disease, but did not know for several years….

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By Dr. Richard Blackmoor, September 4, 2007 at 6:03 am Link to this comment
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Marlowex says Lyme disease could have come from plum Island.  Lyme was first recognized and written about in the 1930s so I don’t think so.  The destruction of habitat and predators which increased the deer population in the east plus the natural mutation process of bacteria has more to do with Lyme spreading.
  I have had it a few times…get tested if you walk in the woods a lot or find a red round rash. It is bad if left to its devices.

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By Johnny Doughey, September 2, 2007 at 8:36 pm Link to this comment

It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall when and if the UN decides to check the origin of the recent chemical finds ib New York.  I’ve heard there are tracers in those chemicals and I have little doubt that before they were found in Iraq in 1996, their origination was somewhere in the USA.  Remember, we were supplying Hussein with weapons against Iran before this time….

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By marlowex, September 1, 2007 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

Plum Island could use a closer look…..It seems very likely that Lyme disease escaped from Plum Island…Lyme Connecticut is apparently the closest town to the Plum Island Ferry. Lyme disease is so named because it was first identified in that area.

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By rowdy, August 31, 2007 at 11:07 am Link to this comment

i can’t wait to read this book. it would be a good companion book to go along with,“imaginary weapons” by sharon weinberger. this book details how our taxes are pissed away on absurd and idiotic research.

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By Jeb Brooks, August 31, 2007 at 9:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for a very interesting interview.
The missing $4 billion dollars from the National Reconnaissance Office budget brings to mind the
$12 or $14 billion dollars in cash that went missing
in the Iraq debacle. It seems obvious that someone
knows where it went.
  I speculate that it was a convenient way for
some group in our own Government to get a huge pay
day so they can operate a black program without
the accountability.  Think what a group could do with that much cash, and no one looking over their shoulder. Shouldn’t someone be looking into this?
They could start by asking the last person that saw
those stacks of $100 dollar bills.
  If you remember Ollie North illegally selling
war hardware to Iraq and Iran then using the profits to fund the Contras.

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