The Joy of Snooping
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.
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.
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.Scheer: Do you think any of these claims that you have outed some of the secrets, the most private secrets, of America … do you think they have any credence?
Helms: Absolutely not. The Russian and Chinese satellites, they know what’s going on. I would not be surprised, if for example, that in places in Russia and China they know more about what’s going on in these sites than members of the Congress or even in the president’s office. I haven’t exposed anything that’s a secret to our enemies, either real or imagined. But sometimes the operators of these sites, the executives, if you will, of the top-secret governments, act as if the real enemy is in the American people. And I want to put a stop to that.
Harris: Did you ever run into any guards who wanted to accost you, or arrest you? Tell me about the most dangerous event you had while writing this book.
Helms: Well, that was easy. It was actually one where I didn’t even run into a security guard. Back in 1999 I was driving near the Nevada Test Site, and I noticed an open gate and a gravel road leading out in the distance. And I turned off onto that gate, down the road, and drove about a mile inside the Nevada Test Site before I soon realized where I was. It turns out the gate had been inadvertently left open, and I found myself subject to arrest and imprisonment. And you mention Area 51, and this is the case with most of these sites. You drive up to this boundary, which is marked by numerous signs. Some of them say “No Photography Allowed,” and of course I always take a photograph of that sign. You also see signs that say “Use of Deadly Force Authorized,” and that’s not a joke. You see security cameras. In the distance, parked on the hillside, you’re in a place where they can see you. There are security guards in a jeep or pickup truck. You look at them through your binoculars and you find out they’re looking at you through binoculars. Sometimes you wave at them; they wave back. The real surreal thing is to find yourself right up against this border; take one foot over, you could be subject to arrest and imprisonment, and yet this area supposedly does not exist at all. Does not even exist. That’s the crazy thing.
Scheer: It seems like — . Are you recommending this for me? So, say, I want to go to Plum Island or the Nevada Test Site; we should handle this with care, right?
Helms: As I said in the book, visiting these sites is like visiting an art museum. You can look all you want, but you can’t touch. You can go up to the border, you can drive by the border, you can sit and look over the border, but don’t put a foot over. These are very highly guarded sites. You will be nailed, and chances are you will be fined and perhaps subject to imprisonment.
Scheer: Well, not just imprisonment, but what you were saying just a second ago about … deadly force [being] authorized; I’d be kind of nervous about getting shot.
Helms: There are things you have to realize is when you step over the border in some of these areas, it’s almost like you’ve entered a foreign country. Local police cannot enter these sites. The local civil law enforcement authorities have no power or authorization whatsoever on these sites. It’s really almost akin to the fact that since the end of World War II, large sections of the U.S., particularly in the West, have been controlled by this occupying power. What I call the top-secret government, the one that directs these classified activities. The normal rules and regulations, etc., the rest of us have to live by, those are totally gone.
Scheer: … Were there other sites like that [the open gate at the Nevada test site] …?
Helms: Security on most of these places have been greatly increased since the 9/11 attacks. My inadvertent entry into the Nevada test grounds took place in 1999. I doubt that could be repeated. However, there are several sites that are remarkably open. Particularly those sites in Colorado and Nevada of former nuclear tests. These sites are on public land, they are unguarded, and it would be a very easy matter for someone interested in collecting radiological material for use in a dirty bomb to go there and take several handfuls of the dirt or gas, and use it for some nefarious purposes. So there are some alarming security lapses at some of these sites.
Scheer: Are you considering a follow-up to this book? Were there any places that you didn’t go, that you couldn’t see, or places where you want to follow up that you visited in 1999 and you want to visit in 2007?
Helms: I can see a follow-up if I could confirm the location of some additional sites. There were some places that I’ve heard rumors about, there have been particularly some new construction sites in the Washington area since 9/11 up in the mountains of Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that I’d like to confirm. But I left out any site or any location that I could not definitely confirm existed and hopefully visit. So there’s still plenty of places out there that are rumors, but, if I can peg them down perhaps we could have a second volume to this book.Scheer: And maybe the third volume could be about secret sites around the world?
Helms: That would be interesting as well, as I’ve told some other people. I think that could be better done by people who are more local to the sites and could know the lay of the land better than I can.
Scheer: Did you ever check out the NSA building in Maryland …? … I’m always interested, but I don’t dare park or try to go in. Did you ever try to go into the NSA and take a picture?
Helms: I never tried to go into it, and if you park near it, pretty soon you will find some security guards by there wanting to know what you’re up to — and if you’re having car trouble. And if not, maybe you want to move along. That’s been my most frequent encounter in these places — have not been an actual threat or guns pointed at me, but simply, “Are you having difficulty with your car, sir? And if not, why don’t you move along.” That’s been the sort of encouragement you get. Now the interesting thing about the NSA building is, you remember a few years ago, a certain toy called a Furby. It looked like an owl and it had a speech chip in there that could memorize things it heard and repeat them back. The NSA banned the Furby from the building because they worried it might overhear and repeat classified conversations.
Scheer: Makes sense. … It seems like you’re talking about 10-12 years that you’ve been studying this stuff, following this stuff. How hard was it to write this?
Helms: It was actually easy to write — once I got a critical mass to research it started taking a coherent form. The thing is when I thought I had it finished I would come across one other site that I had to investigate. So eventually last year I got to the point I was discussing with my publisher and we said, I think we finally got a book here that we can go to press with. Otherwise I will be writing this thing ad infinitum because there’s always something more to find out.
Scheer: Definitely. Do you think that, with the exposing of the secrecies, are you going to go and continue doing that? Are you going to look in at how much we are spending and look at … failed experiments that are costing the taxpayers lots of money? Do you think you’re going to continue working on that, and try to find out more not just about the top-secret tourism but about how much more we’re spending secretly?
Helms: That’s a really difficult task, because so much of this spending is headed in all-purposed category, miscellaneous, and you’d be surprised at how many government agencies like FEMA and the Department of the Air Force, miscellaneous is the largest single budget item. It’s also hidden under code names; tracking this flow of funds is very, very difficult; in fact in my book when the Budget Office, the National Reconnaissance Office, finally came out of the cold and people knew that there was such a thing, it turns out there was billions of dollars missing from these [inaudible] budget. It wasn’t so much that the budget had been redirected, because it was over $4 billion inside [inaudible] National Reconnaissance Office budget. Well, it turns out the General Accounting Office says that money was not stolen or anything else. Instead, it actually had been redirected to even more covert, more classified activities. So trying to unravel the budget, I doubt if there’s really any single one person when you could put together the entire budget that we’re spending on classified and covert activities. Simply because it’s so fragmented, so compartmentalized, and so hidden under various headings and code names, that I don’t think anyone could put that together. It’d be quite a useful project if possible, but I don’t think I’m up to that task right now.
Scheer: I’m glad for the honesty, though, and I think you should spearhead the project.
Harris: Oh yeah, and I was going to say, I think if anybody is capable it’s you, Harry. And it’s certainly refreshing. Amid all the talk about war and all the negative talk, it’s good to see someone out there doing good old-fashioned Sherlock Holmes work.
Helms: Thank you very much. And like I said, it’s a book that I really want people to take a look at what’s being done in your name, and take ownership of the government. The government is yours, not theirs.
Harris: Be sure to pick up a copy 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.” For Josh Scheer, for Harry Helms, this is James Harris and this has been Truthdig.