As a national security reporter, I write about war, weapons, security, and secrets. The question most commonly asked of me is, "How do you get sources to talk to you?"
The Pentagon's Brain is my third book in a series about seemingly impenetrable subjects. The first one, Area 51, is about the highly classified military facility in Nevada. My second book, Operation Paperclip, is about the formerly classified intelligence program that brought Nazi scientists to America. The Pentagon's Brain, which publishes this month, is about DARPA — the most powerful, most productive, and most secret military science agency in the world. For each book, I interviewed approximately 75 insiders — men (and a few women) with direct knowledge of the subject matter at hand, most of whom are scientists, soldiers, and former spies. So, why do these sources talk to me?
The answer is pretty simple: I ask. I also follow an edict: when stymied, look up, not down.
This excellent concept of looking up was conveyed to me by an Area 51 source, Ed Lovick, the physicist who led the Lockheed Skunk Works team to invent stealth technology for the CIA. There are a million metaphors in looking up. That's where the birds and the bats are, Lovick said, the moon, the sky, and the cosmos, which is where physicists often find the answers to questions they have. But on a practical level, Lovick was also saying look higher up, not lower down, as in the source chain. He advised me to always seek out the most knowledgeable people involved in any given subject. These individuals, Lovick said, generally want to share knowledge, not hoard it — at least as far as unclassified information is concerned.
In my early research for The Pentagon's Brain I wanted to learn about the early science behind DARPA's laser beam weapons, which are also called directed-energy weapons (DEW). These futuristic weapon systems are, for the most part, highly classified (and come in other forms, including electromagnetic radiation, microwave, and laser weapons). To report my book, I sought answers to basic questions about how laser weapons work. During a visit to the Pentagon, I initially had trouble getting anyone to talk to me. I asked why. One lieutenant colonel told me, "Laser weapons are too difficult for the general public to understand." This indicated that it was time to heed Lovick's edict: look higher up.
I sought out the scientist who invented the laser, Charles H. Townes. When it comes to knowledge in laser physics, there is no higher up. For his work on the laser, Charles Townes was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964. He worked on various DARPA weapons programs over the years. When I spoke to him in the spring of 2014, Professor Townes was still taking calls at his office, where he was a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He was about to turn 99 years old.
Speaking with Charles Townes confirmed two ideas. It pays to ask; and the most brilliant people in the world like to share knowledge, not hoard it, just as Ed Lovick had said. The lieutenant colonel at the Pentagon told me that laser weapons were too complicated for the general public to understand; Charles Townes told me the exact opposite. In the most basic sense, a laser is a device that emits light. But unlike with other light sources (think about a light bulb, which emits light that dissipates), in a laser the photons all move in the same direction in a kind of lockstep, exactly parallel to one another, with no deviation. Even more remarkable, Townes said he had been inspired to create the laser when he was a boy, after he'd read the 1926 science fiction novel The Garin Death Ray by Alexei Tolstoi. "This idea of a flashing death ray also has a mystique that catches human attention," said Townes, "and so we have Jove's bolts of lightning and the death rays of science fiction" serving as the inspiration to invent things that shape and modernize the world. Charles Townes's laser is considered one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century, used widely in both defense and civilian work.
From Charles Townes, I also learned details about one of the first sets of experiments involving lasers, mirrors, and the moon. It took place in 1969 and has been largely lost to the history books. The experiment began on July 21 of that year, during Apollo 11, when, for the first time in history, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The two astronauts set up a series of small reflectors on the moon and faced them toward the Earth. Back here on earth — which is 240,000 miles from the moon — two teams of astrophysicists, one team working at the University of California's Lick Observatory and the other at the University of Texas's McDonald Observatory, took notes regarding where, exactly, the astronauts were when they set down the mirrors. "About 10 days later, the Lick team pointed the telescope at that precise location and sent a small pulse of power into the tiny piece of hardware they had added to the telescope," Townes explained. Inside the telescope, a beam of "extraordinarily pure red light" emerged from a crystal of synthetic ruby, pierced the sky, and entered the near vacuum of space. A laser beam.
Traveling at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, this laser beam took less than two seconds to hit the mirrors left behind on the moon by the astronauts, and then the same amount of time to travel back to earth, where the Lick team "detected the faint reflection of its beam," said Townes. As a result of the laser beam experiment, for the first time in history scientists were able to measure the exact distance from the earth to the moon.
From this story, the following can be deduced about laser beam weapons: no conventional projectile weapon — from a bullet to a missile — can compete in terms of speed and accuracy with a laser beam weapon. If a laser beam on earth can accurately hit a target on the moon in less than two seconds, the possibilities in directed-energy weapons, from the Pentagon's point of view, are potentially limitless. These are the weapons of the future, and Townes's story explains why laser weapons are highly classified.
The job of the reporter is to inform the public. The job of the public, President Eisenhower once said, is to stay informed, because it keeps the Pentagon in check and it keeps a democracy alive.
Charles Townes died in January 2015, age 99. Ed Lovick, age 96, is still asking and answering questions, and still looking up.