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Atlantic Unbound | September 5, 2002
Into the Black

Nick Cook, a respected military journalist, describes his foray into a hidden "black world" where powerful technologies of warfare are born


The Hunt for Zero Point
by Nick Cook
Broadway Books
256 pages, $26.00

o those who spend their time scanning reams of dry defense-spending documents, the black budget is a well-known bit of excitement. It is the discrepancy that's left when all the known weapons procurements, research programs, and technical developments are added up. It's also where groundbreaking technologies, such as stealth, are developed under code names like "Black Light," "Classic Wizard," and "Link Plumeria." These technologies are kept secret during their gestation because to even hint at the ideas behind them would be to reveal too much. This year, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the U.S. military's black budget will rise to levels not seen since the 1980s, from $16.2 billion last year to $20.3 billion.

There is no way to know exactly what that money is being spent on, but Nick Cook has some ideas. For fifteen years Cook has been a defense and aerospace reporter for Jane's Defence Weekly, which some consider the bible of the international defense community. During his career Cook has often brushed up against the "black world" and has even delved into it, both in reporting for Jane's on advances like the B-2 bomber, and in working on a documentary, Billion Dollar Secret, that probed the U.S. military's classified (or black) weapons programs.

This last project was something of a prelude to Cook's new book, The Hunt for Zero Point: Inside the Classified World of Antigravity Technology, which documents his ten-year search for a mythical technology that all the brightest minds in aerospace were gushing about in the early 1950s. Strangely, just a few years later the aerospace world was suddenly silent on the subject. After about 1956, anyone who mentioned antigravity, or the once-imminent "G-engines," was given a wide berth. It was an odd switch that left Cook with questions: Had there been anything to these rumors and reports? If not, why the hype? If so, what had happened? So he set out to look for answers, and what he found was surprising. Cook traced a long succession of both military and civilian scientists and engineers working to develop a branch of applied physics for which we still have no vocabulary, but which seems to involve manipulating the little-understood quantum-level "zero-point field" to achieve peculiar effects, like shielding objects from gravity. If this were developed and incorporated into flight vehicles, the implications could hardly be understated: antigravity would forever alter the world's economy, make global transport systems obsolete, and, of course, change the face of warfare. Some also felt that the zero-point field could be an enormous source of energy, if only people could learn how to tap it.

Against the advice of his colleagues and friends, and against his own better judgment and career interests, Cook felt he couldn't ignore the leads he uncovered, which drew him through the black labyrinth back to an unexpected place: Nazi territory around the end of World War II. That is where, Cook claims, some of these technologies were first developed and then acquired by American and Russian forces, who raced to pillage the underground facilities around Pilsen in the Czech Republic and around Breslau (now Wroclaw) in Poland. There an SS general named Hans Kammler operated the "wonder weapons" program, which the Nazis were convinced would propel them ahead of the Allies to win the war. At the war's end Kammler disappeared. Though he had been one of the main planners of the death camps, his name was never mentioned at the war-crimes trials in Nuremberg.

One conclusion Cook reaches in The Hunt for Zero Point is that some of the "Foo Fighters" that World War II pilots reported seeing over Axis territories may have been German prototypes of new flying machines that used antigravity technology. He also posits that somewhere in the black world, work has likely continued along these lines, and that much of the wackiness surrounding sightings of "UFOs" has been deliberately spun to ward off investigations of new technologies in development.

Since the book's publication in Britain, Cook has uncovered documents detailing Boeing's antigravity research program at the top-secret Phantom Works, where the company is striving to develop "propellantless propulsion" ahead of its competitors. Writing in Jane's Defence Weekly, Cook quoted the documents as saying that along with Boeing's own program, other "classified activities in gravity modification may exist"—suggesting that antigravity may, in fact, have been more than a 1950's fantasy.

For his work at Jane's, Nick Cook has received the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace Journalist of the Year Award four times, in the Defence, Business, Technology, and Propulsion categories. He also writes for The Financial Times, The London Times and often comments on defense and security for the BBC and CNN. I spoke to him at his home in London.

—Frank Bures

P.J. O'Rourke
Nick Cook   

Black projects? Nazi weapons programs? Antigravity? UFOs? A lot of people are going to read the dust jacket of your book and think you've fallen out of your tree. What's the reception been?

The response to the UK edition has been remarkably good. The really pleasing thing has been the reaction of people within the aerospace business. Everything in this book had to pass muster with me, through a set of criteria that I would apply to any Jane's story. I've read a lot of conspiracy-based books—UFO treatises and heaven knows what—none of which satisfied my professional curiosity. I realized that to go that extra mile, I was going to have to be rigorous in my research. And if what I found didn't match my own criteria, I wasn't going to put it down on the page. Consequently, there's reams of stuff I left out because it didn't match up to the professional standards that I, as a Jane's-trained journalist, had come to expect in other stories.

The subject has been kind of a poison pill in the past, hasn't it?

Yes, I guess so. People were begging me, urging me, not to get involved in this story. But in the end I couldn't ignore the evidence that I was uncovering and that was being presented to me. You can only stare at evidence so long before it starts to pull you in. I was really dragged reluctantly, kicking and screaming, into the story, as you can see from the book.

I found the evidence overwhelming that something—and I stress something—is going on. I don't reach any definitive, Holy Grail conclusions about antigravity beyond the fact that there are people out there who are regularly practicing it. People have asked me, "Well, do you know that the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. military have this squirreled away somewhere and are developing hardware?" No, I don't. And I don't dress up The Hunt for Zero Point in that way. Where I do have evidence I present it. For example, I think the evidence of what the Germans were doing during the Second World War is overwhelming. But I don't make any bold claims for what the U.S. is doing, simply because I don't have the evidence for it. Also, I think my experience in covering aerospace programs has been beneficial, in that I'm able to extrapolate a little. And where I do extrapolate in the book, I make it clear that it is my own extrapolation.

For instance, based on what we know of black program activity in the States, based on what we know the black budget is worth, and based on what I know the U.S. Air Force is capable of in terms of turning vision into reality, I extrapolate that it is not unreasonable to think that they have taken antigravity technology, which has been around for fifty years, and put it to some use.

Throughout the book, one of the themes seems to be how your world gradually splits into a white world, where everything is open and aboveboard and accessible—the one you report on for Jane's—and a black one that you can just make out the shape of, and that swallows billions of dollars developing experimental technologies, but that slips away whenever you get close. What can you tell us about this black world?

You're right in that most of my reporting for Jane's is on the white world. That's the visible and accessible side of the U.S. aerospace and defense industry. On the other hand, I have made extensive investigations into the black world as well—that world in which America develops systems it doesn't want anyone else to know about. What really got me into it was one of the most significant aerospace and defense technologies to come out of the black world in living memory—and that's stealth. Stealth is a technology that I was forced to investigate, along with many of my colleagues, because it became the most dominant military aerospace technology of the past two decades. And in investigating stealth I and, I stress, my colleagues became exposed to other black-world technologies, some of which are detailed in the book.

A very small proportion of the reporting was deep throat, cloak-and-dagger activity. Much of it was simply going to people who had worked on stealth programs and were now free to talk about them. Through that kind of exposure, you do get a very good idea of what goes on inside the black world and of its worth. It has a vast and sprawling architecture funded by tens of billions of classified dollars every year. The height of its powers was probably in the Reagan era. But it has not stopped since then. In fact, under the Bush Administration it is having something of a resurgence. So the black world is real, it's there.

In The Hunt for Zero Point you wrote that, "Like an unsinkable ship, the black world had been built up around multiple, layered compartments, each securely sealed. Some of these compartments, it is now clear, had been designed never to be opened again. Ever." Why ever?

There are some technologies, I think, that are so significant merely in the ideas behind them that to allow those ideas to percolate into the wider world would give other people those same ideas about developing real hardware. And part of the trick behind really advanced technology is sometimes to not even let your enemies know you've got the idea in the first place. Stealth technology is a primary example of that. But if you go back even further and think about the atomic bomb, that was another one.

During the Second World War, when it became clear that an atomic bomb was feasible, the U.S. scientific community voluntarily purged official documentation of all references to the potential of fission. Sometimes, born of radical science, you can get radical weapons systems that most people haven't even thought of.

In your experience, just how black are these programs? Don't they have to be reported to certain U.S. Congress members?

Well, the black world has opened up. There are reporting mechanisms designed to keep Congress, or certain very highly cleared members of Congress, aware of what is happening in the black world. However, having said that, there are degrees of black, and at the blackest, there are undoubtedly programs that are not cleared by Congress, again for the very reasons that I have just discussed.

For the TV program Billion Dollar Secret I interviewed a congressman called Dana Rohrabacher, who was the chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee and of the House Science Committee. Now, he was convinced that the U.S. military had developed an aircraft like the one referred to in the book as Aurora, which is a hypersonic, very fast spy-plane prototype. But he said that his efforts to get any information on that program, if indeed it exists, were constantly frustrated. And he's an influential member of the science panel in Congress.

You went from thinking the existence of antigravity technology was "sheer fantasy" to saying there is "clear evidence" of it. What changed your mind?

Well, it was a gradual transition. But it was a combination of things, really. The whole black world that we've discussed was the place where those sorts of technologies could come together, for a start. Secondly, the documented progress that was being made on certain physics problems in the antigravity field. In the book I go into the Podkletnov case, this Russian scientist who is able to generate a reduction in the weight of objects that he puts above rapidly rotating superconductors. Now, Podkletnov is undeniably generating a weight reduction. And he's doing it on a shoestring. So that was another nail in the coffin for me. And thirdly, by going back in history to a period where research was unfettered—seeing what the Nazis were doing in the science field when they had absolutely no restraints on them. The SS in particular had a pretty much unrestrained budget. They documented what they did, and uncovering that documentation allowed me to see that this research into antigravity technology was not a recent phenomenon, but had been going on for quite some time.

So it was a combination of those things. The history—the fact that it had been going on a long time ago—mirrored in a real sense by what people are doing on a shoestring today. Couple that with what is potentially achievable in the black world, and you start to see that the potential payoff for this research is enormous. For payoff, you go to people like Hal Puthoff, a very respected scientist in the field, and say, "All right Hal, gaze into your crystal ball and tell me what you think might be achievable." And the guy says, "There's enough energy in your coffee cup to evaporate the world's oceans many times over." Now, I'm a hard-bitten defense reporter, but that gets my attention.

So the other side of the antigravity coin seems to be "zero-point energy," this energy that exists in the quantum vacuum—a kind of subatomic froth that may even give electrons their charge. Some scientists say the amount of energy we're talking about here is a lot. Some say it's a little. Where do you come down on that?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Digital Culture: "Reimagining the Cosmos" (May 3, 2000)
Through the quest for a quantum computer—described in Julian Brown's new book, Minds, Machines, and the Multiverse—much is becoming clear about the strange, paradoxical world governed by quantum mechanics. Will it change the way we think about our universe (or multiverse)?
I'm not a scientist. I have to defer to people I respect in the field, and one of them is definitely Hal Puthoff, a very sober-minded individual who's conducting rigorous experiments into this field. He postulates that there is almost unlimited potential in the energy contained in the zero-point field. But even he doesn't know, and in all the experiments he's done on pieces of equipment that have been brought to him, he has uncovered nothing yet that outputs more energy than it takes in.

Puthoff's theories lead him to the belief that the zero-point field is not simply a vast sea of untapped energy, but that it is also responsible for some of the underpinnings of physics—things like gravity and inertia, for example. Certainly that seems to be borne out by more and more experimentation—and more and more people are coming round to that point of view.

Anybody recently who's come around to that?

NASA's breakthrough propulsion physics program is interesting, in that here is a mainstream body—you can't get much more mainstream or respectable than NASA—which is funding experiments into breakthrough propulsion physics, one of which is Podkletnov's claim that you can get an object to lose some of its weight by suspending it above rotating superconductors.

Going back to the weapons that are too dangerous to be let out, do you think that zero-point energy could possibly be one of those technologies? What kind of explosive could result from it? I'm just thinking of the Canadian researcher John Hutchison and the things he was doing.

Hutchison is interesting, He's not a trained scientist. He's not an academic. He's just one of these guys who has an intuitive feel for electricity in particular, and other aspects of physics. He puts bits of machinery together. He tunes them. He adapts them. And from those pieces of machinery he's able to transmute metals—steel into lead, or lead into steel. But he doesn't understand how he's doing it. He feels intuitively that he's pulling these effects from the zero-point field. Now, normally to transmute a metal, you need about the same amount of energy as you get out of a low-yield nuclear weapon. And Hutchison's doing that from his wall socket.

Those transmutations were documented by a Pentagon team. Now, I tend to sit up and listen when Pentagon evaluation experts are themselves paying attention to things like that. If somebody like Hutchison can do transmutations on a shoestring, that clearly is of concern—particularly as he doesn't fully understand how he's producing these very curious results. And I don't think anyone else does either. People are beginning to postulate that from the zero-point field—if we can call it a field—you could eventually get truly awesome weapons. People were saying similar kinds of things about fission in the late 1930s, and look where that got us.

One of the most gripping parts of your book is the description of "Operation Paperclip"—the dismantling and retrieval of all known German technology, science, and related expertise at the end of World War II. You write that this "state within a state had been transported four thousand miles to the west"—to the United States. When learning about today's black world, why is it important to go back and study Operation Paperclip?

Two things. First of all, we know the size and scope of Operation Paperclip, which was huge. And we know that the U.S. operates a very deeply secret defense architecture for secret-weapons programs that we know as the black world. It is a highly compartmentalized system and one of the things that's intrigued me over the years is, How did they develop that? What model did they base it on?

It is remarkably similar to the system that was operated by the Germans—specifically the SS—for their top-secret weapons programs during the Second World War. Now, did someone, Hans Kammler or anyone else, provide that model lock, stock, and barrel to the U.S. government at the end of the war? I don't know the answer to that, but given the massive recruitment that went on under Paperclip, and given what we see in the black world, it might not be unreasonable to ask those questions.

For those who haven't read the book, can you say briefly who Hans Kammler is?

He was an SS general who, by the end of the Second World War, was in charge of all of the Nazis' secret-weapons programs. He was an extremely powerful man. He was up to his neck in the Holocaust as well, and amongst his earlier responsibilities he had been one of the main architects of the death camps. Now, at the end of the Second World War, he disappeared. And from what little documentary history he left behind, we know that he was thinking of trading his war crimes for technology, which he wanted to give to the Americans in order to buy himself immunity. But his crimes were so heinous that immunity for someone like Kammler wouldn't be enough. He'd actually have to buy disappearance. So Kammler disappeared, and no one knows where he went.

What is remarkable about Kammler is that so few people know his name. And yet at the end of the Second World War, he was one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. He should have been tried in absentia at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. But his name didn't even surface there, even though others who couldn't be found were tried in absentia.

So it's very strange, but his hold over the high-technology weapons—the wonder weapons, the Germans called them, these weapons that they thought would win them the war right at the last minute—his hold over those weapons at the end of the war was absolute. And in the book, we glimpse some of those weapons. Who knows what else was in his Pandora's box of technologies?

When I started the book I thought all this stuff about the Germans was mythology peddled by cranks and weirdoes and conspiracy nuts. But one of the most satisfying aspects of the research for me was going into modern day Germany, Austria, and the former Czechoslovakia and finding that, contrary to all my expectations, there actually is real, tangible evidence that what the Germans were doing in this field was true. That's not to say it's all true. But in some cases there is real documented evidence, evidence that I was able to look at: diaries I was able to touch and see, plans I was able to look at—original plans—for these devices.

What devices?

Ones that A) generated an antigravity effect, and that B) were tapping into the zero-point field to produce energy. Even if you don't want to believe that that's what they were doing—generating an antigravity effect or a zero point energy effect—it's clear that the Germans themselves believed this stuff. And that they threw real money at these programs to get them to work.

That was the thing that really made me sit up and take note. The Germans, who aren't known as slouches in the engineering field, truly believed that by throwing money at these programs, they could get them to work. As an old skeptic, what I do is follow the money trail. And I followed the money trail in Nazi Germany just as I followed the money trail in the black world. At the end of that trail, you often come across a real program, a real piece of technology that, when you throw a brick at it, it goes clang. It's real.

The archivist at Modern Military Records in Maryland told you that Hans Kammler had been "redlined." Can you explain what that means?

I made a lot of inquiries through her, and she found it extraordinary, given what I told her about Kammler—I had to tell her about Kammler—that there was absolutely nothing on him in the National Archive, given that just about everything he was doing should have been documented in the files somewhere. The fact that there was nothing on him was therefore highly suspicious, and in her view tended to support the theory that he'd been redlined. In other words, somebody had gone in and cleared out any meaningful documents on him.

You also write that the black world in America is a "low-grade reflection" of the system Kammler built to protect Nazi weapons research.

I'm not for a second saying that there is direct linkage there. What I do mean is that if you follow the trail of Nazi scientists and engineers who were recruited by America at the end of the Second World War, the unfortunate corollary is that by taking on the science, you take on—unwittingly—some of the ideology. The science comes over tainted with something else. And that something else you have to be very careful of. It carries unpleasant side effects with it, in that if you're not careful, you lose sight of what it is you're protecting. What you're ultimately trying to protect is U.S. national interest and U.S. security. But not at any cost. I think that's the point that many people make who've brushed up against the black world and found their human rights violated by it. Not many have, but certainly some have. Those people question whether that unswerving loyalty to protecting high technology was worth it. What do you lose along the way? You lose some democracy, perhaps.

Another thing I found interesting was your point that the Nazis had developed an entirely different approach to science, because they thought Einsteinian physics was "Jewish science." What was different about the Nazi scientific culture?

I think a lot of things, but in simple terms, it was an extraordinary time. Basically, these people came to power in 1933 and by 1945 they were defeated. So there was this small window of time—twelve years—in which things were really turned on their heads in Germany. And during that period, science along with many other things developed in a kind of vacuum. They were certainly aware of things that were going on outside Germany. But inside Germany they often developed very different approaches to things. Certainly the approaches that they were using to develop the bomb were dissimilar to the techniques being used by the Americans. Whereas most of the rest of the world was absorbed by Einstein's views of relativity and a big-picture view of the universe, the Germans were very interested in quantum science, in quantum mechanics, and what was happening on a micro scale—on a subatomic scale. So you had two markedly different scientific cultures developing at the same time.

In the book you touch a bit on the sticky issue of UFOs. Do you think the UFOs people saw during and after the war are experimental military craft?

I'd hoped at the beginning of the book that I might be able to shed some light on what the UFO phenomenon is all about. But at the end of the book I say, Look, I don't have enough evidence to reach any firm conclusions on that subject. But all I can say is that, given that we know that the Germans—at least I know to my satisfaction, based on what I uncovered—were looking at disc-shaped aircraft during the Second World War and that there were various other programs looking into similar such fields, you can probably say that there are disk-shaped vehicles out there that have been developed in a prototype kind of sense, which may explain some sightings.

If the body of sightings is any kind of yardstick of whether UFOs are real, then some of those sightings, I think, could be explained by experimental military vehicles. But not all of them. At that point the trained skeptic in me says, enough, I'm not going to postulate on that. It's a swamp. It's a bottomless swamp, and I didn't want to get involved in it.

One of your conclusions was that the UFO obsession serves as kind of a cheap security measure to keep serious investigators from looking into black technologies. Is that right?

Yes, I think that's unquestionably true. Whether that's intentional or a neat bit of happenstance for the U.S. military, I don't know. There is certainly evidence that they have manipulated the phenomenon from time to time to obscure their very real developments. The CIA recently admitted that it had given UFO stories a spin from time to time in the fifties and sixties to hide what they were up to in the spy-plane field during that same time period.

Now, as a defense program, how do you think antigravity technology would change the face of warfare?

Well, in a number of basic ways. First of all, you don't need a propellant. It's a reactionless motor, so that would be immensely beneficial simply in terms of fuel consumption. But that's a very menial advantage, in a sense. I think the real potential is that if what you are doing is manipulating the forces of nature, you may get untold effects from that manipulation, effects that we can probably only guess at right now, but which would lead to ultra-fast flight, extraordinary maneuverability, and stealth—the ultimate stealth vehicle, if you like.

All the things that the military is really striving for may be possible through this technology, or though this field. And it is born of pure physics, which the military always loves. Pure physics gave rise to the bomb. Pure physics also gave rise to stealth. If you can crack the physics, a whole new world opens up to you. That is a very powerful and seductive idea. And the military loves those powerful and seductive ideas. But it's afraid of them as well, because if it can get a hold of them, other people can too.

In the epilogue you say there's been a change in the climate around issues like antigravity and zero-point energy. What has that change been?

I detect it in a lot of literature—newspapers, that sort of thing. But it's difficult to hang my hat on, really. I guess my experience that's come out of the writing of the book would bear this out as well, which is that at the beginning of this story, I go into it incredibly concerned about my reputation, worried that I, who am interested in solid aerospace and defense programs, should be drawn into this field, much against my will. But by the end of the story—and now—I can hardly believe I had all those concerns. It seems that in the ten years I've been researching the book, we have become much more willing to accept non-mainstream ideas, or ideas that a few years ago were considered taboo. People are asking the questions. That's the good thing. And as long as they keep asking the questions in this field, which is really what I'm trying to do, I think that's a positive development.

I think what is less than helpful is when people just dismiss these ideas out of hand, and by the same token accept them out of hand. At the moment, I'm trying to stick to a middle ground and ask the questions, because I think they deserve to be asked.

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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Frank Bures is a writer based in Thailand. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, Salon, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.