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Stranger Than Fiction

Written by mayborn


Annie Jacobsen by Kristy Blackmon

Here’s the pitch: A 36-year-old Princeton graduate who studied with Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks has spent the last 20 years as a wholly unsuccessful fiction writer. On a domestic flight less than three years after 9/11, she observes some bizarre and frightening behavior from a group of Syrian men onboard. She writes a 3,000-word story about the incident for an obscure online finance journal that lights the blogosphere on fire. Within weeks, the writer is catapulted into a highly successful career as a bestselling conspiracy theorist. Success, of course, has its downside.

ONE.

Annie Jacobsen’s stubborn, independent 4-year-old son was determined to wheel his own carry-on bag down the jetway to Northwest Airlines Flight 327 at Detroit International Airport. A long line of passengers waited behind them. Knowing how quickly the parents of small children can become the most unpopular people on an airplane, Annie guided Jet to the side and turned a rueful smile to a young Middle Eastern man with a goatee behind her. She and her husband, Kevin, had noticed the man — part of a group of six Middle Eastern men — in the terminal. “You go ahead,” she said. “This could be a while.”

The man smiled at her and extended his arm, urging her to stay the course. “No, you go ahead.”

As she buckled Jet in and Kevin loaded their carry-ons into the overhead bins, Annie glanced around the cabin. The man with the goatee sat a few rows back, alone. The rest of his party was spread throughout the cabin.

It had been a long day. She and Kevin had spent the weekend in Connecticut celebrating Annie’s parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. That morning, they’d taken a flight out of Providence, Rhode Island, connecting in Detroit on their way home to Los Angeles. As they waited for Northwest 327 to carry them home, they made small talk and watched other passengers board. When another group of Middle Eastern men stepped into the cabin, she and Kevin watched, at first absentmindedly, as the eight men made eye contact with the group already onboard and nodded familiar greetings. Like the group before them, the men dispersed throughout the cabin.

Later, Kevin said he fought down an enormous sense of dread — his gut telling him something was off. His instincts screamed to get off of the plane, but social conditioning proved more powerful. He didn’t want to cause a scene, and so Northwest 327 took off with the Jacobsens onboard, along with 14 Middle Eastern men whose bizarre behavior during the next four hours would convince the Jacobsens and other passengers that they were witnessing an orchestrated terrorist attack.

Once onboard the plane, the men started giving each other signals — a nod, a thumbs-up, catching each other’s eyes in long, significant glances. One of them wore an orthopedic shoe and demanded to change seats before the plane took off. Another carried a McDonald’s bag to and from the lava- tory. They congregated in the aisles, stretching and talking in low voices, and took turns visiting the bathrooms in succession. Looking for reassurance, Annie locked eyes with the friendly man with the goatee. He returned her smile with an ice-cold stare.

The Jacobsens and their fellow passengers watched, in confusion and rising terror, as the men ignored crew instructions to remain in their seats. Kevin pulled a flight attendant aside to whisper his concerns; she later assured him that federal air marshals were sit- ting around them. Unconvinced, he clenched a pen in his fist for the rest of the flight in case he needed a weapon. Annie held her son and prayed. With minutes left in the flight, one of the men drew his finger across his throat. The mission was apparently a no-go.

The plane landed safely and was met by
a swarm of FBI agents, a Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team, the Federal Air Marshal Service, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and officials with the Transportation Security Administration. The men were detained and questioned, but ultimately released. They claimed to be part of a Syrian band performing at a casino. Annie had her doubts.

The airline wouldn’t give her a straight answer. Government officials cast doubt or flat-out denied the sworn statements she and Kevin gave. Colleagues at work insinuated she was overreacting.

Thus began Annie’s yearlong search for the real story of Northwest Flight 327. It was no mystery where her son got his stubborn streak. If no one would help her, Annie would have to find the truth herself.

Annie Jacobsen had been searching for the right story to tell for a long time. She’d been an aspiring fiction writer for more than 20 years, but had never sold a single piece. The story of Flight 327 contained all the elements intrinsic to the bestselling fiction she had yearned
to create. There were villains, heroes and a plotline brimming with conspiracy, terrorism, half-truths and surprise twists. Annie came off the flight with the one thing a budding investigative journalist requires: a burning need to know the truth. Two weeks later, she published a long-form account of her experience on WomensWallStreet.com.

Within 48 hours, more than half a million people visited the site to read “Terror in the Skies, Again?” People emailed the link to her story to their friends, family, and colleagues. In one weekend, more than 2 million people read the article. Dozens of bloggers fueled the de- bate, as did government officials who attempted to discredit Annie in the name of national security. In stories leaked to the press, quoting anonymous sources, they called her hysterical, questioned her motives, implied that she and her husband were the actual security risks on Flight 327, and ultimately went on MSNBC to lie to the American people, she says.

Annie thought she and her family were going to die on Northwest 327. “My husband and I looked at each other and absolutely believed that was it for us.” Afterwards, she came under attack from everyone from Internet trolls to the FBI’s publicity machine. Northwest 327 toughened her, hardening her vulnerable fiction-writer’s underbelly into the shell of a stubborn reporter. She emerged with a new resilience, confident in her instincts and in people’s right to the truth, no matter where it was hidden. She became obsessed with patterns and finding clues hidden in the official narrative that would lead her to the real story. Had it not been for Northwest 327, she might never have realized that she was a journalist at heart.

Annie Jacobsen, aspiring fiction writer, had finally found her niche — telling the truth. The original article became the first installment in a 14-part series. She did more than 600 radio interviews. She and her husband went on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, and their story was covered in media outlets ranging from The New York Times and The Washington Times to Time magazine. Within months, the fiction writer who couldn’t write had a book contract for a true story that was stranger than fiction. After 20 years of failure, millions of people wanted to read Annie’s story. “I felt suddenly like I had meaning and purpose within the con- text of writing,” she says. “I felt so ... in the river of writing.”

But in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, outrage is fleeting. By 2007 when the U.S. Department of Transportation released a report detailing the results of their investigation into Northwest 327, the furor had largely died down. Despite the report’s validation of several of Annie’s more disputed claims, people were tired of talking about terrorism. Annie Jacobsen was pushed to the edge of the public’s attention, and then off it completely. Her book Terror in the Skies: Why 9/11 Could Happen Again sold less than 3,000 copies.

In the years following Terror in the Skies, Annie struggled not to backpedal into obscurity. She took any gig she could find — “anything
to pay the mortgage,” she tells me as we sip peppermint tea in her glass-walled home office in the Hollywood Hills. For a moment, she looks at me, another struggling wordsmith who would write just about anything if it paid. A kindred spirit. “I was a ghostwriter for someone,” she blurts out with a slight defiance. “I wrote someone else’s book.”

Eventually, she joined a colleague from WomensWallStreet.com at the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Magazine, where she regularly contributed long narratives on everything from Green Beret helicopter raids to Apollo 11 astronauts practicing their moon landing in the Mojave Desert. But she was still looking for her next big hit. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a bunt or to first base, you just need a hit.” Annie shakes her long hair over her shoulder and picks up her tea. It’s difficult to imagine her without the confidence she wears like an invisible mantle today. “Then you just wind up where you’re absolutely supposed to be. Where you know what you want.”

TWO.

Two weeks before Northwest Flight 327, Annie was on her first real magazine assignment, riding in a royal transport provided by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Her husband had been bugging her to come with him on a trip to India, so she decided to pitch a story to American Airlines inflight magazine. Incredibly, they said yes. “This is my first big story, and I’m writing it for American Airlines, and I thought this was the cat’s meow.”

The maharaja, Gaj Singh II, had convinced the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to invest in the renovation of one of his palaces, Ahhichatragarh: The Fort of the Hooded Cobras. Annie chuckles at the name alone. “This thing had been built in what seemed like the Middle Ages. It was like 1500s, let’s say.” She abruptly leans forward and waves her hands as though to erase what she’s said. “That’s not the Middle Ages, but it might as well be. I mean, it was old enough that it had stone elephant corrals.”

Annie’s body engages with the story she’s telling, leaning back and forward as her voice rises and falls with the dramatic flow of the story. She has an accent straight out of old Hollywood movies — a sort of “non-accent” accent that’s reminiscent of Lana Turner or Audrey Hepburn, but without the sweetness. Her voice is husky, almost raspy at times.

As it turned out, the Maharaja of Jodphur — or, as she says, the Mah-hah-rraajahh of Jod-poor — wasn’t at home. In an ironic twist of fate, he was attending a fundraiser in Annie’s home state of California. Even now, nearly 10 years later, she winces remembering how she thought her story was toast. Then she smiles like a co-conspirator and lowers her voice. “But the journalist must soldier on.”

Today, Annie is a New York Times bestselling nonfiction author twice over, with three books out and a new one due in the fall of 2014. She has a reputation as an indefatigable investigative journalist whose charm has enticed the children of Nazis, top-secret nuclear scientists, members of the CIA and former black-ops agents into opening up and telling her their stories. For Area 51: The Uncensored Story of America’s Top Secret Military Base, she traveled from the Pentagon to the Nevada desert pestering and pissing off top military brass in her search for the truth — a skill she learned by trial and error while investigating North- west Flight 327. Annie’s self-taught school of journalism.

Her follow-up book, published in February, grew out of her research into the top-secret development of weapons during the Cold
War at Area 51. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America details how the U.S. government offered asylum to convicted war criminals who served in the Third Reich in exchange for access to the secrets developed in Hitler’s military technology machine.

Book by book, she is making herself into an expert on Cold War military technology and national security, a hard-hitting investigative journalist who tells stories like a fiction writer. By her account, she’s been in training as a storyteller since age 14 when she arrived at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire with an old typewriter and a vague dream of being a writer. She devoted her free time to penning poetry and engaging in long after-dinner conversations about literature with professors and classmates. For college, she went off to study creative writing with writers such as Paul Oster, Jerome Charyn and Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton University.

Oates was accepting applications for a competitive writing seminar, and Annie wanted in. But there was a problem: No freshmen were allowed to apply. So, of course, Annie did. “She liked that, I think,” Annie muses. Oates challenged her and gave Annie the kind of honest criticism she needed. “She once told me, and I’ll never forget it, that reading my writing was like driving along in a car with static on the radio. Every now and then, for a second, the radio would tune in.”

When Joan Didion visited Princeton, Annie’s professor assigned her the job of taking Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, out to lunch. Annie was just about to graduate and eager for advice as she embarked on what she imagined would be a long and illustrious career as a fiction writer. Dunne had simple words of wisdom for her: Go out and live. “It was the best experience for a writer.”

Annie took his advice. She left her family and her New England roots and moved out west to Hollywood, where storytelling is more than an art — it’s a way of life. She married, had two sons and built a home, all the while struggling to write something that someone other than her husband would read.

Though she had studied with some of the greatest American writers alive, she had never learned the most basic and critical mechanics of writing. Writing alone from home, she wandered through her fiction without direction. “I would just get stuck ... like an eddy in an ocean, just going around in circles.”

She thought that great prose pours out
of the writer and lands on the page already polished and brilliant. Only later did she realize her problem: lack of discipline. She rarely rewrote, had no editor and had trouble finishing things.

The constant rejection and criticism of her work took its toll. Twenty years of negative feedback made her question everything about her career as a writer. What purpose did it serve? Where was the meaning? “If you write with passion and desire, and no one’s reading, after 20 years it feels like a lonely echo chamber,” she says. She had to ask herself: Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?

On the advice of a friend, Annie decided to take one last shot at writing: She got a job as a reporter. WomensWallStreet.com wasn’t exactly The New Yorker, but they were paying her to write. She wrote a monthly personal finance column called “Ask Jane Dough.” She learned to take direction from an editor, how to regularly churn out 500 words on a deadline, and how critical it is to rewrite. Just as importantly, she gained the confidence that comes from writing for an audience.

It was small, but it was something.

THREE.

Christmas Eve, 2007. At a holiday dinner, Annie is sitting next to a distant relative by marriage, a pleasant aircraft engineer for Lockheed Martin whom she has known for years. Somewhere between the salad and main course, 88-year-old Ed Lovick leans in to Annie and says, “Have I got a story for you.”

“You can say it’s serendipity, you can say it’s fate and circumstance,” Annie says. Her expression tells me she doesn’t buy it. “As Ed Lovick told me, fortune favors the prepared mind.”

Starting in the 1950s, Lovick went to work every day in an unassuming building smack dab in one of the world’s most unexciting places: Burbank, California. Once inside, how- ever, he was no longer the mild-mannered engineer that most people knew him as. He was a top-secret physicist who would later come to be known as the Grandfather of Stealth. And while he did indeed work for Lockheed Mar- tin, his division wasn’t listed in the company directory. Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, nicknamed Skunk Works, was the source of collaboration for some of the most brilliant engineering and military minds in the world. Working in tandem with the CIA and the U.S. Air Force, they developed stealth technology, reverse engineered Soviet aircraft, and gave pilots the ability to cruise at speeds three times faster than the speed of sound.

It was in Burbank that Lovick and his fellow scientists developed the A-12 spy plane under the codename Operation Oxcart. But the CIA didn’t think that test piloting a weirdly shaped aircraft at Mach 3 speeds over the San Fernando Valley was the best way to maintain secrecy, so they transported the A-12 overland to a barren part of the Nevada desert, right across the fence from the Nevada Test Site, where the government tested atomic weapons and no one would be looking. The site was called Groom Lake. It was located in Area 51.

Annie was sitting next to a scientist who had worked at the government’s most secret site, a site they still officially deny exists. Project Oxcart had been declassified just a couple
of months earlier, and Ed was itching to tell his story. Listening to him, Annie knew she’d found her next big hit. She took Ed’s story to Austin-based literary agent Jim Hornfischer. He told her to think bigger. It was a good story, a hit story. But unlike Annie, Jim wasn’t in the business of bunting. He wanted a home run.

Annie talked to Ed, trying to get an idea of the larger picture. He didn’t have the answers to her questions, but he knew who did. He put her in touch with other former workers at Area 51, all of whom were in their twilight years, and most of whom were eager to contribute their stories to posterity.

Before she knew it, Annie, with her intense stare and genuine fascination with people, somehow managed to get 74 people to talk to her. Thirty-four of them had worked at Area 51. Many were speaking for the first time. She interviewed and researched for two years, delving deeper and deeper into the secrets that had been buried in the Nevada desert. She heard incredible stories about nuclear bombs, spy planes, stealth technology, and the ever-present worry that the Russians would make the next discovery first. Her research led her from Project Oxcart to the Manhattan Project, from Sputnik to the Vietnam War.

But as exhaustively researched and thorough as her book Area 51 is, it’s unlikely to be remembered for its accounting of reverse engineering of the Soviet MiG or its role in
the lunar landing. What Annie reported in the last seven pages of the book overshadowed all that came before. In those last pages, she broke from the objective, third-person journalistic voice and recounted what one source, on the condition of anonymity, told her was the truth behind the most infamous incident associated with Area 51: Roswell.

According to Annie’s source, the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, was an attempt by Stalin to induce a “War of the Worlds” type panic among Americans in order to distract from the Soviet Union’s failure in atomic weapons development. The Nazi “scientist” Josef Mengele, whose experiments on children in concentration camps earned him the moniker “Angel of Death” and, surely, a place in hell, surgically altered Russian children to look like extraterrestrials. The altered youths were placed in a disc-like aircraft with hover technology and flown by remote control deep into the U.S.

The story may seem ludicrous, but her source claimed that the U.S. government continued similar physical experimentation on hapless citizens. “It was a shocking, ugly story. It upset people. It upset people,” says Annie.

Once again, she had made headlines. If Ed Lovick’s story was a bunt, Oxcart a double and Area 51 a home run, then what Annie’s source told her about the Roswell crash was a grand slam that once again ignited outrage, incited controversy, and lead her back to the spotlight she had learned to love.

All afternoon as she talked, she had been dancing around this question. Why on earth had she decided to put it in her book? It seemed calculated, a move designed to increase book sales. What about journalistic integrity?
How could she publish such a story in good conscience? She doesn’t claim that she knows it’s 100 percent the truth. It’s a version of truth that someone she trusts told her. It’s a version she stands behind. And though she’s defended it to everyone from NPR’s Terri Gross to Fox’s Alan Colmes and late-night host Jon Stewart, she still stumbles when pressed on why she included it. “It never occurred to me not to,” she says.

In the end, it all came down to the story. For most of her life, all Annie has wanted to do was tell people good stories. “When you love your storytelling, you want to get to the end of the story that’s really interesting.”

FOUR.

Annie sits in front of a computer, surrounded by her publicist, her editor and other people from her publishing “family.” Annie is opening herself up on the Internet to one of the most public Q&A sessions ever devised. She puts her fingers on the keyboard, takes a breath, and types: I am Annie Jacobsen, journalist and author of Operation Paperclip, a book about the secret intelligence program that brought Nazi scientists to America. AMA!

She is on Reddit, doing one of the website’s infamous “Ask Me Anything” sessions to pro- mote her new book about Operation Paper- clip, in which scientists who had worked for Hitler and the Third Reich came to America to develop weapons against the Soviets after World War II. Few of the online questions and comments, however, have anything to do with the new book.

How can we take the information in your new book seriously, when you make outrageous claims about Area 51 and Syrian musicians testing terror attacks? How is one expected to believe you have any journalistic integrity left at this point?

Operation: BULLSHIT

I guess we still consider yellow journalism, journalism.

Humanity on a whole becomes stupider every- time a person reads her book.

If the vitriol fazed her at all, she’s certainly learned not to let it show. If there’s one thing Annie is comfortable talking about, it’s controversy. She claims not to regret including the Roswell story; in fact, when she talks about the waves she’s made, she exudes a slight rebelliousness. “Built into a decision like that has to be an acceptance of detachment from what others think about it. Otherwise you make a decision not to do it. I’m not the kind of person to say I’m not going to do that because I don’t want people to be mad at me,” she says.

Between Terror in the Skies and Area 51, Annie had become a pro at handling criticism. She’d come to expect a firestorm when writing about government conspiracies and national security. So when she published Operation Paperclip, the general lack of outcry offline was unsettling. The book rose to No. 18 on The New York Times bestseller list, but there was a weird feeling that something wasn’t there that maybe should have been.

“My first son was born with colic. He came out crying.” Annie loses a little of her shiny, made-for-TV facade when she talks about her family. Talking about her children produces a glow that her bestsellers don’t. “When our second son was born, he came out and he was just silent. And both my husband and I were like, is he OK? Is he OK?” She shakes her hands in the air in front of her as if she’s back in the delivery room in a panic over her quiet newborn, then just as quickly relaxes back into her chair with a laugh. “Kevin and I knew what we were talking about because we only knew screaming. That’s what Paperclip felt like.”

Her detractors range from the highest levels of government to conspiracy theorist chat rooms in the darkest corners of the Internet, but she has a confidence now that she didn’t have when researching her first two books. Both Area 51 and Operation Paperclip won praise for her in-depth reporting, and both books are attracting Hollywood interest. AMC network is reportedly working with The X-Files creator Chris Carter and Gale Anne Hurd, the producer of The Walking Dead, to bring Area 51 to TV. Operation Paperclip is under option with Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production house.

For her new book, her research on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has led her to interview “Nobel laureates, presidential science advisors, the man who invented the laser, the inventor of the video game. Astrophysicists, DARPA scientists, Pentagon strategists, U.S. intelligence officers, Ebola virus hunters, Soviet defectors, Special Forces operators, the whiz kid who caught the KGB’s first computer hacker in 1986 and a theoretical neuroscientist at Los Alamos working to build the world’s first artificial brain,” she says, ticking off the list.

On a recent trip to Los Alamos, she found herself with her face pressed up against a window looking at the IBM Roadrunner. When it was built in 2008, it was the fastest computer in the world. Most Americans simply know it as the computer that holds all of the secrets of the U.S. government. Annie is many things, but a computer genius is not one of them. “So,” she asks the brilliant scientist standing next
to her. “Is that thing basically just a big giant adding machine?” It’s the kind of basic question her sons ask. “Funny you should say that,” the scientist replied. “It’s actually a hundred- million-dollar abacus.”

In her Hollywood office, Annie stands and walks to the wall next to her desk where about a dozen 11x17 pieces of paper hang. She holds up a page filled with color-coded scribbles titled The History of Technology. On it, she’s made a list: fire, stone tools, domesticated animals, bow, sundial, writing systems, bronze, iron, catapult, horseshoe, stirrup. “Now suddenly abacus has a place in here.” The other lists on the wall map out the larger narrative that she’s learning as she goes along. “I really believe that information gives way to more information.”

Nearby, she’s stacked about two dozen FOIAs with names such as The Battle of 73 Easting, a Janus Combat Simulation. “I write FOIAs like crazy,” she says. Her sons tease her about what the postman must think making his daily deliveries of envelopes from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency. Sometimes the envelopes are thin and she knows that whatever information she was hoping to get is being hidden from her behind the designation of classified. But occasionally, she gets what feels like a gift in the form of a thick manila envelope. “The $1.61 postage stamp that just changes everything,” she says.

FIVE.

One day, Annie wants to write a simple story about a “hero’s journey,” she explains, “and
not all the dark, complicated, huge, complex enigma of government.” During the past seven years of investigating the secret world of war and national security, she’s interviewed dozens of heroes who dedicated their lives to keeping America safe by pushing the boundaries of military science and technology. At the core, her stories are not about conspiracies, but about people she has come to respect and, in some cases, love.

To Annie, these people aren’t just sources. They have welcomed her into their homes, spent time with her family, played with her sons. They have become her heroes. “It doesn’t make war right or wrong, it just makes it personal. It’s always personal.”

She tells a story about Colonel Ken Collins, one of the test pilots for Project Oxcart. While flying a reconnaissance mission in enemy territory during the Korean War, Collins’ wingman, Chuck Parkerson, took a hit. It was clear the plane wasn’t going to make it. Collins told Parkerson to crash land in the sea. Collins would radio Parkerson’s coordinates back and send a rescue team. It was the best plan they had. At the last moment, Parkerson radioed to Collins that his bubble was stuck. He couldn’t get out. “Ken knew — they both knew — that he was going to drown when his plane landed.” With enemy fire echoing in the background, Collins promised his wingman that he would stay with him until the end. “And he did. He stayed with his friend and watched him sink just so that his wingman knew he wasn’t alone when he died.”

Collins committed many acts of bravery over the course of his career, many of them during his tenure at Area 51. He’d survived plane crashes and kept his vow of secrecy
for more than 60 years. But to Annie, this story is what makes Collins a hero. “I wonder sometimes if it’s only in reverse we’re able to see people who have these moments like that ... almost like plot points leading up to it.” Suddenly, it’s clear that to her it’s all the same thing. Fiction, journalism, life — it’s all about the story.

“I have the best job in the world. I get to interview people like that, who have meaningful stories to tell.” The ballsy, confident journalist is gone. In her place is a woman who tears up while recounting a story she has told countless times, a woman whose lifelong goal has been to be a great storyteller, who is now utterly humbled and slightly bemused by her success.

“So the critics?” She smiles and shakes her head. “Nah.”

 

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