Blank Spots on the Map, Trevor Paglen

Dutton, 2009, 324 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-525-95101-8

One of the bad mental habits I still carry over from my teenage years is the idea that secrets are cool.  Not your average run-of-the-mill who’s-sleeping-with-whom secrets: I mean the big stuff.  State secrets: Spying stories, classified planes and undocumented satellites, undisclosed locations and military plans the general population isn’t meant to know.  Call it a left-over from an overdose of military techno-thrillers in my formative years.

The problem, as Trevor Paglen keeps demonstrating in Blank Spots on the Map, is that secrets are not compatible with a well-working democratic state.  His book is an exploration of “the dark geography of the Pentagon’s secret world” or, in other words, an attempt to locate the secrets of the US government.  A geographer by trade, Paglen approaches this fuzzy subject with a cartographer’s metaphor.  If secrets are what the public can’t see, then it follows that official maps of the world have blank areas: Identify those areas, and you will be able to deduce much about the secret being kept.

The application of this principle can be as obvious as scouring satellite maps to look for unusual blanks, or evidence of photo manipulation.  In the first chapter, Paglen describes his uneasy relationship with a few colleagues in his own building, including famed “Torture memo” author John Yoo.  (It may be useful to recall how Paglen was, in co-authoring Torture Taxi, one of the first writers to tackle the topic of extraordinary rendition).  But he soon starts traveling in order to find more evidence of missing spots on the map.  He quickly ends up at Las Vegas’ McCarran airport, using binoculars from a hotel room in an attempt to identify airplanes that exist outside official flight plans.  Those planes, explains Paglen, are buses to the dark side: They carry federal workers from their official civilian existence to their secret bases of employment.  Study them, and you can gain clues as to the size of the secret world clustered around Las Vegas.

Other on-the-ground original reporting follows in succession.  In Chapter Five (“Classified Resumés”), Paglen peers at official personnel web pages to find evidence of secret airplane projects, inferring from the pilots’ skills the nature of the covert program that exists between the lines of their official employment.  He finds partial confirmation for his deductions in a 2004 “Out of the black… into the blue” event in which three secret planes were revealed to the world.  After considering the legacy of the Manhattan project, Paglen then heads over to Toronto, where we meets with an astronomer who has specialized in finding satellites that some countries don’t want to acknowledge.  (Some of those satellites may even be manoeuvring to avoid the gaze of amateur astronomers.)

But while secret planes and orbit-changing satellites may be great fun and games, the second half of Blank Spots on the Map brings home the book’s thesis.  It doesn’t take a long time for Paglen to identify the corrosive effect of secrecy on the rule of law: to protect secrets, it’s almost axiomatic that the government would turn to more secrets, up to and including denying evidence of wrongdoing behind these secrets.  As an example, Paglen uncovers evidence of workers being denied care because the facilities in which they were poisoned didn’t exist…

And that’s even without getting into the colossal torrent of money flowing into secret projects, evading public accountability as soon as the funding is earmarked as classified.  What happens behind closed doors?  How do we make sure the money is properly accounted for?  This lack of transparency, coupled with the increased privatization of the American classified community (in which expensive contractors routinely outnumber their federally-employed colleagues), makes it practically impossible to keep a true accounting of the government’s operations.  What if some operations go farther than the official intent?  A quick detour in Honduras reminds us that this has happened before; a further detour through Kabul reminds us that it is most likely still happening.

While not all of Blank Spots on the Map is gripping or even clear to follow (some passages are rushed; other feel as if they restate the obvious), the book as a whole offers a compelling mixture of original reporting and a sometimes-surprising look at the American secrets business.  If nothing else, it does manage to strip away much of the jejune charm of secrecy, and tilt the balance toward openness and transparency.

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