Area 51, out in Nevada next door to the primary U.S. nuclear weapons test site at Yucca Flats, has long been a magnet for UFO obsessives. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and it’s top secret, two good reasons why the suspicious might be attracted to its operations. Throw in decades of classified CIA research and development on overhead reconnaissance technology, including the U-2 and A-12 spy planes and the earliest unmanned aerial vehicles, and its reputation as a place where strange technologies grow seems justified. The A-12, which became the SR-71 Blackbird, could fly three times the speed of sound back in the early 1960s. It was made of dark titanium, cobra-hooded and stealthy; no wonder airline pilots who saw it streaking past up at 70,000 feet thought they’d seen a UFO.

Annie Jacobsen, a Los Angeles-based independent journalist, does an adequate if error-ridden job of reporting on these black-budget projects and several others besides, using the classic investigative method of interviewing dozens and dozens of worker bees from engineers to security guards and piecing their stories together. Then, like a test pilot who pushes her plane too far, she crashes and burns on the grisly tales of an unnamed single source, supposedly an Area 51 engineer and Manhattan Project veteran who leads her on a wild goose chase of honking absurdity straight down the UFO vapor trail into the very heart of conspiratorial darkness. There Jacobsen is told that Auschwitz butcher Dr. Josef Mengele, the German aircraft-designing brothers Walter and Reimar Horten and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin conspired back in the late 1940s to scare America silly with a Nazi-Soviet flying saucer crowded with wobbly 13-year-olds with large, surgically altered heads. Except that the thing crashed. In a barren corner of New Mexico. Really.

Unfortunately for Jacobsen, who imagines these sensational claims to be revelations, they are mostly old news. You can find them with only a few minutes’ searching on various UFO Web sites, complete with fraudulent U.S. government documents typed on old typewriters and copied and recopied until they are nearly as illegible as real 60-year-old government documents tend to be. Usually, of course, the crashed UFO and its critters are assigned an extraterrestrial origin, but a link between Nazis and UFOs is one longstanding variant of the standard narrative, as is the idea that UFOs were devised by the Soviets to scare the bejesus out of Cold War America. More original is Jacobsen’s mysterious engineer’s backstory that Stalin assigned Mengele to produce bogus aliens by surgically altering normal children, borrowed a flying wing from the Horten brothers and dropped it on America in imitation of the Orson Welles 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio scare.

Jacobsen is artful in presenting this applesauce, which she told Terry Gross recently on Fresh Air was “obviously controversial and shocking at the same time.” Well, not exactly. Controversy is disputation on a matter of opinion. The presence or absence of Stalin-sponsored Mengelean aliens and Hortenian hovercraft among us isn’t a question of opinion. It’s a question of fact or fiction. Jacobsen refuses to name the old engineer who was supposedly her single source. In her presentation of his claims, she switches from the journalistic third person to the eyewitness first person as if she’s merely innocently passing along what he told her — Don’t blame her! — but in fact she vouches for his authority in every way she can. As she told Gross, “I absolutely believe in the veracity of my source.”

Yet she fails to discuss the welter of online and printed material that matches and elaborates on what her source supposedly told her. Are we to believe that so assiduous a researcher as Jacobsen somehow overlooked the massive documentation? I found it in five minutes. Why did she choose to believe a single source, however credible she judged him to be, without at least examining and acknowledging the extensive debunking by such journals as the Skeptical Inquirer? Does she not possess a computer and an Internet connection?

The saddest part of this sad business is Jacobsen’s conviction that she has finally solved the mystery of the Roswell crash by a deft application of Ockham’s Razor. “The . . . engineer’s explanation about the child pilots inside the flying disc,” she writes, “answers the riddle of the so-called Roswell aliens, certainly in a manner that would satisfy the fourteenth-century English friar and philosopher William of Ockham.” Ockham, she reminds us, thought that the answer to a riddle shouldn’t be more complicated than the riddle itself. Isaac Newton put it more plainly three centuries later: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things,” he wrote in “The Principia,” “than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” That is to say, an earthly explanation for the Roswell “child pilots” and “flying disc” is more likely to be true than one that invokes extraterrestrials — Jacobsen’s point.

But among competing earthly explanations, Newton’s rule points to fraud or gullibility as more likely explanations for the enduring UFO stories than a conspiracy of Nazi and Soviet revanchists wielding fantastic surgical skills and futuristic hovering technology never seen since. When Jacobsen, in one of her few attempts to question the stories the old engineer is concocting, asks him what became of the technology, he says quickly, “We figured it out. . . .We’ve had hover and fly technology all this time.”

Really? Then why aren’t we using it? Why do our reconnaissance aircraft and drones still fly around on antiquated wings? Why does the president still depart the White House in a helicopter? In truth, as Jacobsen notes but doesn’t seem to understand, the Horten brothers were picked up at the end of the war, interned in London and extensively interrogated by none other than the Hungarian-American aeronautical genius Theodore von Karman. Jacobsen writes that von Karman “decided the Horten brothers did not have much to offer the U.S. Army Air Forces by way of aircraft technology — at least not with their flying wing.” Poor deluded von Karman. If only he had known.

All of Jacobsen’s engineer’s claims appear in one or another of the various publicly available Roswell/UFO/Area 51 books and documents churned out by believers, charlatans and scholars over the past 60 years. In attributing the stories she reports to an unnamed engineer and Manhattan Project veteran while seemingly failing to conduct even minimal research into the man’s sources, Jacobsen shows herself at a minimum extraordinarily gullible or journalistically incompetent. I’m sorry to have to say that Ockham’s Razor — Newton’s First Rule of Reasoning in Philosophy — inclines me to suspect the latter.

Richard Rhodes ’s biography of the inventive Hedy Lamarr, “Hedy’s Folly,” will be published in November.


An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base

By Annie Jacobsen

Little, Brown. 521 pp. $27.99