The Pentagon’s Brain

Title:                      The Pentagon’s Brain

Author:                 Annie Jacobsen

Jacobsen, Annie (2016). The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company

LCCN:    2016429109

U394.A75 J33 2016


  • “In this penetrating history of the Defense Department’s most secret, most powerful, and most controversial military science R&D agency, Annie Jacobsen draws on inside sources, exclusive interviews, private documents, and declassified memos to paint a picture of “the Pentagon’s brain” from its Cold War inception in 1958 to the present. This is the essential book on DARPA–a compelling narrative about the clandestine intersection of science and the American military and the often jaw-dropping, futuristic, and frightening results”–Back cover.


  • The Cold War. The evil thing ; War games and computing machines ; Vast weapons systems of the future ; Emergency plans ; Sixteen hundred seconds until doomsday ; Psychological operations — The Vietnam War. Techniques and gadgets ; RAND and COIN ; Command and control ; Motivation and morale ; The Jasons enter Vietnam ; The electronic fence ; The end of Vietnam — Operations other than war. Rise of the machines ; Star Wars and tank wars ; The Gulf War and operations other than war ; Biological weapons ; Transforming humans for war — The War on Terror. Terror strikes ; Total information awareness ; IED war ; Combat zones that see ; Human terrain — Future war. Drone wars ; Brain wars ; The Pentagon’s brain.


Date Posted:      April 7, 2017

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) was created in January 1958 in response to the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957. It reported directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and was independent of the military services. In March 1972 it was redesignated the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).[2] Its mission is to sponsor research and development projects at and beyond the frontiers of technology so as to prevent technological surprise in the future and to surprise potential enemies if required.[3] The Pentagon’s Brain invents a more melodramatic, hyperbolic view of the DARPA mission: “to create revolutions in military science and to maintain technological dominance over the rest of the world.” (p. 1) Or in another formulation, “DARPA’s stated mission is to create weapons systems.” (Prologue)

The latter is, of course, not DARPA’s “stated mission” and the inaccuracy is emblematic of Jacobsen’s approach to her subject. While she acknowledges that “DARPA created the internet, the Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and stealth technology… and drones.” (Prologue) and while it is true that “DARPA makes the future happen… DARPA creates,” she does not make the case that “DARPA dominates, DARPA destroys.” (pp. 6-7)

In fact, DARPA creates only paperwork, as Jacobsen herself acknowledges: “DARPA does not conduct scientific research;” its relatively small staff oversees projects contracted to experts; all decisions on what will become operational are made by the Secretary of Defense. (p. 1) DARPA is a facilitator not an implementer. So from the outset, readers should take care as Jacobsen “shines light on DARPA’s secret history.” (p. 6)

What, then, does The Pentagon’s Brain have to offer? With two exceptions, its 26 chapters tell interesting stories about the organization’s work, and Jacobsen includes detailed vignettes of the principal players involved. The central theme, however, is the DARPA-sponsored research. Some projects, like computer research applications, occur in ever more complex forms throughout the book. Others, as for example “Human-Robotic Interaction (HI)” clearly worry her, as they could escape control. A sampling of other projects includes: Vietnam War studies ¬counter-insurgency and Agent Orange, the Motivation and Morale Project, and the electronic fence. On the technical side, she discusses the DARPA role with the CIA in the CORONA satellite program, stealth aircraft, electronic command and control issues, internet applications, and biological warfare issues. During the Iraq War, DARPA worked with NGA to develop three-dimensional maps as part of its Heterogeneous Urban Reconnaissance Surveillance and Target Acquisition (HURT) program.

Two exceptions curiously speak to stories of events that predate the agency. The first chapter describes the first H-bomb test in 1954. It makes no explicit reference to ARPA, which should not be surprising since ARPA was created four years later. The second case is even more puzzling since it deals at length with the story of Allen Macy Dulles—Allen W. Dulles’s son—who in Korea in 1952 received a “catastrophic traumatic brain injury,” (p. 101) which resulted in permanent short-term memory loss. Jacobsen reports the results of lengthy interviews with Dulles and his sister but does not provide a direct link to DARPA beyond observing that DARPA has long sponsored research “around trying to restore mind and memories of brain-wounded warriors.” (p. 421)

The Pentagon’s Brain concludes noting that some have said DARPA must forever sponsor— she says conduct—“pre-requirement research.” But, she adds, “One might also look at DARPA’s history and its future, and say that it is possible at some point that the technology may itself outstrip DARPA as it is unleashed into the world. This is a grave concern of many esteemed scientists and engineers.” (p. 451) None are identified. Jacobsen’s own portrayal of DAR.PA’s track record doesn’t support her admonition.

[1] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp.  131-132).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[2] NB: In 1993 DARPA once again became ARPA, only to revert to DARPA, its current name, in 1996.

[3] DARPA Report, “Bridging The Gap Powered By Ideas,” February 2005, p. 1

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