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Authors: Annie Jacobsen

The pentagon's brain

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For Kevin


The best way to predict the future is to create it.

—Erich Fromm


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA as it is known, is the most powerful and most productive military science agency in the world. It is also one of the most secretive and, until this book, the least investigated. Its mission is to create revolutions in military science and to maintain technological dominance over the rest of the world.

DARPA was created by Congress in 1958 and has functioned ever since as the central research and development organization of the Department of Defense. With an annual budget of roughly $3 billion, DARPA is unlike any other military research agency in the United States. DARPA as an agency does not conduct scientific research. Its program managers and directors hire defense contractors, academics, and other government organizations to do the work. DARPA then facilitates the transition of its successful results to the military for use. It acts swiftly and with agility, free from standard bureaucracy or red tape. DARPA maintains an extraordinarily small staff. For six decades now the agency has employed, on average, 120 program managers annually, each for roughly five years’ tenure. These entrepreneurial leaders, the majority of whom are accomplished scientists themselves, initiate and oversee hundreds of research projects—involving tens of thousands of scientists and engineers working inside national laboratories, militaryand defense contractor facilities, and university laboratories—all across America and overseas.

DARPA program managers maintain an unusual degree of authority in an otherwise rigid military chain of command. They can start, continue, or stop research projects with little outside intervention. Once ready for fielding, the resulting weapons and weapons-related systems are turned over to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, and to intelligence agencies including the CIA, NSA (National Security Agency), DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), NRO (National Reconnaissance Office), and others.

DARPA carefully controls its public persona. Stories about DARPA as America’s cutting-edge science agency appear regularly in the press, while the bulk of DARPA’s more consequential and sometimes Orwellian programs go largely unreported. “Tiny DARPA implants could give humans self-healing powers,” headlined CBS News in the fall of 2014. That same week,Business Insiderran the headline “DARPA’s Incredible Jumping Robot Shows How the US Military Is Pivoting to Disaster Relief.” These and other DARPA stories angle toward health and wellness, when in fact DARPA’s stated mission is to create weapons systems. This book reveals why. Many news stories remind readers that DARPA created the Internet, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and stealth technology. But to describe DARPA this way is to describe Apple as the computer company that built the Macintosh 512K. These DARPA milestones are forty-year-old inventions. Why has so much else about America’s most powerful and most productive military science agency been shrouded in mystery? This book shines a light on DARPA’s secret history.

Until 1972, DARPA was located inside the Pentagon. Today the agency maintains headquarters in an unmarked glass and steel building four miles from the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia. DARPA’s director reports to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In its fifty-seven years, DARPA has never allowed the United States to be taken by scientific surprise. Admirers call DARPA the Pentagon’s brain. Critics call it the heart of the military-industrial complex. Is DARPA to be admired or feared? Does DARPA safeguard democracy, or does it stimulate America’s seemingly endless call to war?

DARPA makes the future happen. Industry, public health, society, and culture all transform because of technology that DARPA pioneers. DARPA creates, DARPA dominates, and when sent to the battlefield, DARPA destroys. “We are faced with huge uncertainties and shifting threats,” DARPA director Arati Prabhakar stated in a press release in 2014, “but we also have unparalleled opportunities to advance technologies in a way that can provide the nation with dramatic new capabilities.” But what if some of these “dramatic new capabilities” are not such great ideas?

To research this book, I interviewed seventy-one individuals uniquely affiliated with DARPA, going back to the earliest days of the agency. The list includes presidential science advisors, DARPA program managers and scientists, members of the esoteric and highly secretive Jason scientists, captains, colonels, a Nobel laureate, and a four-star general. In interviewing these individuals, I heard stories about pushing known scientific boundaries in the name of national security, about weather warfare, social science experiments, and war games. I heard about brilliance and hubris, about revolutionary triumphs and shortsighted defeat. One concept stands out. DARPA, by its mandate, pioneers advanced military science in secret. A revolution is not a revolution unless it comes with an element of surprise. Once DARPA technology is revealed on the battlefield, other nations inevitably acquire the science that DARPA pioneered. For example, in the early 1960s, during the Vietnam War, DARPA began developing unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. It took three decades to arm the first drone, which then appeared on the battlefield in Afghanistan in October 2001. By the time the public knew about drone warfare, U.S. drone technologyhad advanced by multiple generations. Shortly thereafter, numerous enemy nations began engineering their own drones. By 2014, eighty-seven nations had military-grade drones.

In interviewing former DARPA scientists for this book, I learned that at any given time in history, what DARPA scientists are working on—most notably in the agency’s classified programs—is ten to twenty years ahead of the technology in the public domain. The world becomes the future because of DARPA. Is it wise to let DARPA determine what lies ahead?


One day in the winter of 1954, a group of American scientists found themselves entering into a time when a machine they had created could trigger the end of the world. It was March 1, 1954, 4:29 a.m. local time on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a small island chain in the vast Pacific Ocean, 2,650 miles west of Hawaii. Some of the scientists in the group had warned of this moment. Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi, both Manhattan Project scientists, called this machine an “evil thing,” and they told President Truman it should never be created. But it was built anyway, and now it was about to explode.

The machine was a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb, small enough to be loaded onto a U.S. Air Force bomber and dropped on an enemy city like Moscow. Because the bomb’s existence had been kept secret from the American public, the test that the scientists were about to witness had been given a code name. It was called Castle Bravo.

On one end of Bikini Atoll, ten men, each with a top secret Q clearance for access to nuclear secrets, waited inside a concrete bunker, facing an unknown fate. In a little more than two hours,the most powerful bomb in the history of the world to date was going to be detonated just nineteen miles away. No human being had ever before been this close to the kind of power this bomb was expected to deliver. With a predicted yield of 6 megatons, Castle Bravo would deliver twice as much power as all the bombs dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II together, including both atomic bombs.

Thanks to recent advancements in defense science, by 1954 machines were being miniaturized at an astonishing rate. Nuclear weapons in particular were getting smaller and more efficient in ways that scientists could not have imagined a decade before. The Castle Bravo bomb would likely explode with one thousand times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, and yet it weighed just a little more than twice as much.

The light had not yet come up on Bikini. An intense tropical rainfall the night before had left the fronds on the coconut palms and pandanus trees soaking wet. Salt-loving sea lavender plants covered the lowlands, and little penny-sized geckos scampered across wet white sands. The bunker, code-named Station 70, was an odd sight to behold, squat, rectangular, with blast-proof doors and three-foot concrete walls. Everything but the bunker’s entrance had now been buried under ten feet of sand. A freestanding concrete-block seawall stood between the bunker and the lagoon, engineered to help protect the men against a potentially massive tidal wave. A three-hundred-foot-tall radio tower built nearby made it possible for the men in the bunker to communicate directly with U.S. defense officials and scientists running this secret operation from aboard the Task Force Command ship USSEstes,sixty miles out at sea.

The men inside the bunker were members of the bomb’s firing party, a team of six engineers, three Army technicians, and one nuclear scientist. Miles of waterproof submarine cable connected the racks of electronic equipment inside the bunker to the CastleBravo bomb, which was located on a separate island, nineteen miles across Bikini’s lagoon.

“In the bunker we felt secure,” recalled Bernard O’Keefe, one of the nuclear weapons engineers who had advocated for this test. Like Fermi and Rabi, Barney O’Keefe had worked on the Manhattan Project. But unlike those two nuclear physicists, O’Keefe believed this hydrogen bomb was a good thing. That it would keep Americans safe. Defense science is, and likely always will be, a debate.

“At 4:30 a.m. we heard from the scientific director,” O’Keefe later remembered. Dr. William Ogle, Los Alamos scientific director, used a ship-to-shore radio link to relay messages from the USSEstes.Zero Hour grew near.

“Start the countdown,” Ogle said.

“The Time is H minus two hours,” O’Keefe announced. Beside him, another member of the firing party pushed the red button marked “TWO HOURS.” The machinery took hold.

Inside the bunker, time marched on, and as it did, the general tenor shifted from bearable to “agonizing,” O’Keefe recalled. The interior of Station 70 was rough and ugly, with the damp baldness of new concrete. Pool hall–style reflector lights gave off a harsh fluorescent glare. There was a laboratory table covered with tools of the engineering trade: radio tubes, bits and pieces of wire, a soldering iron. On one wall hung a blackboard. On it someone had written a mathematical equation then erased part of it so it no longer made sense. A clock ticked toward Zero Hour. For a long stretch no one said a word, and a heavy and foreboding silence filled the room. Just sixteen minutes before detonation, someone finally spoke. One of the Army’s radio technicians wondered aloud how tonight’s steak dinner, stored in a meat locker at the back of the bunker, was going to taste after the bomb finally went off.

“H minus fifteen minutes,” said O’Keefe, his voice sounding out across dozens of loudspeakers now broadcasting the information to more than ten thousand scientists, soldiers, sailors, airmen,and government officials spread out across fourteen seagoing vessels, forty-six aircraft, and two weather stations. There was no turning back now. Zero Hour was just fifteen minutes away.

Out at sea, aboard another vessel, the men on the USNSAinsworthheard Barney O’Keefe’s voice “loud and clear,” recalls Ralph “Jim” Freedman, a twenty-four-year-old nuclear weapons engineer. Standing beside Freedman on deck was a group of scientists from Los Alamos. These were the physicists who had designed and built this bomb. They were here now to witness the results of their engineered creation—the machine that Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi had warned President Truman was an “evil thing.” The sun had not yet risen. Outside, all around, it was dark.

“All observers having high-density goggles put them on,” O’Keefe’s voice boomed. Freedman was feeling anxious and uneasy. He had not slept well the night before. “I was in the same bunkroom as the Los Alamos scientists, some who were up all night, drinking Chivas Regal and discussing the bomb test,” Freedman recalls. “They were discussing things they were not supposed to be discussing but did anyway, because who could sleep the night before the test?” Castle Bravo had been built according to the “Teller-Ulam” scheme—named for its co-designers, Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam—which meant, unlike with the far less powerful atomic bomb, this hydrogen bomb had been designed to hold itself together for an extra hundred-millionth of a second, thereby allowing its hydrogen isotopes to fuse and create a chain reaction of nuclear energy, called fusion, producing a potentially infinite amount of power, or yield. “What this meant,” Freedman explains, was that there was “a one-in-one-million chance that, given how much hydrogen [is] in the earth’s atmosphere, when Castle Bravo exploded, it could catch the earth’s atmosphere on fire. Some scientists were extremely nervous. Some made bets about the end of the world.”

This was not Freedman’s first atmospheric nuclear bomb test. By 1954 he had worked on more than a dozen nuclear tests at thecontinental atomic test site located in Nevada, seventy miles north of Las Vegas. Freedman had witnessed atomic explosions before, through dark welder’s glasses. He had seen mushroom clouds form. But Castle Bravo was different. It was going to be colossal. Titanic. A history-making bomb test. With his goggles in place over his eyes, Freedman turned to face the bomb. There was less than two minutes to go when a Los Alamos scientist standing beside him let out a frustrated cry.

“He’d left his goggles down below deck,” Freedman explains. “And there wasn’t enough time for him to go get them and make it back up.”

Freedman took off his goggles and handed them to the man. “I was young,” he says, “not so important to the test.” Without eye protection, Jim Freedman had to turn his back to the bomb. So instead of watching Castle Bravo explode, Freedman watched the scientists watch the bomb.

The prerecorded voice of Barney O’Keefe came over the loudspeaker, counting down the last seconds. Everyone fell silent. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One.” Zero Hour. A flash of thermonuclear light, called the Teller light, sprang to life as a flood of gamma radiation filled the air. The presence of x-rays made the unseen visible. In the flash of Teller light, Freedman—who was watching the scientists for their reactions—could see their facial bones.

“In front of me… they were skeletons,” Freedman recalls. Their faces no longer appeared to be human faces. Just “jawbones and eye sockets. Rows of teeth. Skulls.”

Out at sea and in the distance, the world’s largest-ever nuclear fireball—nearly four-and-a-half miles in diameter and nine miles tall—lit up the sky. So intense was that fireball that Navy personnel manning a weather station 155 miles to the east watched, awestruck, as the dark sky remained alight for sixty agonizing seconds. Next, the mushroom cloud started to form. Freedman’s eyes remained on the Los Alamos scientists, his own perspective nowreturned to normal in the absence of the Teller light. “I was watching their faces,” he recalls, “to see their reaction. Most had their mouths open, with the eyeballs darting back and forth. I remember the eyes. The eyeballs kept moving. There was fear and terror, I think. The mushroom cloud just kept getting bigger.” The scientists knew something was wrong.

One scientist held two fingers up in front of his eye, trade craft among nuclear weapons engineers to roughly measure the rate of expansion of a mushroom cloud. What was predicted to be a 6-megaton explosion had gone out of control. Castle Bravo was a 15-megaton explosion. No one had any idea the explosion could be this big.

“The mushroom cloud should have been fifteen [or] twenty miles wide at this point. Instead it was forty,” Freedman explains. “As the cloud kept growing behind me, I could see in the faces that [some] of the scientists thought the atmosphere was catching on fire. The look said, ‘This is the end of the world.’”

Time passed. Freedman stared at the horrified scientists. Then, finally, the rapid expansion of the mushroom cloud began to slow. To Freedman’s eye, the scientists’ expression of intense terror and despair suddenly lifted and was gone. “The look on their faces went from fear to satisfaction,” Freedman recalls. “The world didn’t end and they were triumphant. Self-satisfied with what they had accomplished. With what they had done.”

Within sixty seconds, the top of the mushroom cloud reached fifty thousand feet, roughly twice as high as commercial airplanes flew back then. Its cap would eventually grow to an astounding seventy miles across. The cloud’s colossal stem was sucking millions of tons of pulverized coral up from the ocean and into the atmosphere, where it would be dispersed into the jet stream as radioactive dust. The remains would leave a footprint of fallout on every corner of the earth.

An unexpected ninety-degree shift in wind direction meantthat weather forecasters had been wrong about which way the wind would blow. Intense fallout was now heading in an easterly direction, where it would pass over several of the Task Force vessels and the inhabited atolls of Rongelap and Rongerik. And it was headed directly for Station 70, on Enyu Island.

Back inside the bunker, the firing party was silent. They could not feel or see the fireball. They’d missed the Teller light. All the ten men had to go by, to gauge what might be going on outside, was the violent electronic chatter on the equipment racks.

“The explosion had to have been a big one to cause that much electrical commotion,” O’Keefe later recalled. O’Keefe had also calculated that it would take another forty-five seconds for the shock wave to travel the nineteen miles from ground zero across the lagoon and hit the bunker head-on. And so when, after only ten seconds, the bunker began to shudder and sway, O’Keefe knew instantly something unexpected had happened.

“The whole building was moving,” O’Keefe recalled, “not shaking or shuddering as it would from the shock wave that had not arrived yet, but with a slow, perceptible, rolling motion, like a ship’s roll.”

O’Keefe felt nauseated. He wanted to throw up. “I was completely unable to get it through my head that the building was moving,” he said, trying to push away the sickening feeling that the bunker might be sinking into the sea. “The walls are three feet thick,” he told himself. “It’s anchored like a rock on this island.” But things were most definitely moving outside. Objects on the surfaces and walls began to rattle, slide, and crash to the floor. O’Keefe looked at the clock. He knew how long it was supposed to take for the shock wave to travel from ground zero to the bunker. “It was impossible for the shock wave to have reached Enyu Island yet,” he recalled thinking. “But the bunker was moving. The motion was unmistakable as it built up.”

Lights flickered. The walls appeared to bulge. Then there was a loud and frightening crash, like a thunderclap, as the giant steeldoor beat like a drumhead. A “slow, sickening whoosh” sounded through the bunker “as the air found its way out after the shock wave had passed.” One of the men was thrown to the ground, and O’Keefe watched him stagger as he struggled to his knees. Sparks were flying. There was the sputter of electronic batteries. A vapor cloud began to fill the room. Then the worst possible element in this catastrophic mix appeared.

“Water!” someone yelled. “There’s water coming in!”

O’Keefe’s legs went rubbery. It was too early for a tidal wave, he told himself, and began to think that perhaps the whole ocean had erupted around them. That soon he and his colleagues would be jettisoned to the bottom of the lagoon, their concrete bunker a watery tomb. The scientist in charge, Dr. John Clark, dispatched one of the Army technicians to investigate. The technician walked to the single round porthole built into the blast-proof steel doors and looked outside. Station 70 was not underwater. It was still anchored to the land. The water in the bunker was coming from burst water pipes. O’Keefe volunteered to take a Geiger counter and venture outside. Several others followed along, Geiger counters in hand.

The situation outside looked far worse than anyone had anticipated. Palm trees were on fire. Dead birds littered the land. There was no visible life, and they sensed that there might not be life anywhere. The sun was blotted out behind the nuclear mushroom cloud. “The air was filled with a whitish chaff,” O’Keefe recalled. “I stuck out my hand, which was soon covered with a substance like talcum powder.” When O’Keefe turned on his Geiger counter to check for radiation, the needle spiked. Someone else shouted out a dangerous radiation level. If a human were exposed to this level of radiation for twenty-five minutes, he would be dead.

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